Opium, Afghanistan, and the War on Terror

Part 1. The Taliban: From Ally to Enemy in the War on Drugs

Several months before 9/11

The following excerpt from an article by Robert Sheer describes the complex relationship between the Bush administration and the Taliban regime in Afghanistan early in 2001. In May of that year, the U.S. government demonstrated its support for a crack-down on opium production by granting the Taliban $43 million dollars in "emergency aid" for drought relief. The Taliban, by threatening farmers with prison terms and other harsh measures, did succeed in cutting production of opium sharply from 2000 to 2001. As Sheer observes in his commentary on this development, the "War on Drugs" clearly took precedence over the "War on Terror" (as well as human rights issues) in U.S. policy toward Afghanistan prior to 9/11.

Bush's Faustian Deal With the Taliban

By Robert Scheer
Published May 22, 2001 in the Los Angeles Times

Enslave your girls and women, harbor anti-U.S. terrorists, destroy every vestige of civilization in your homeland, and the Bush administration will embrace you. All that matters is that you line up as an ally in the drug war, the only international cause that this nation still takes seriously.

That's the message sent with the recent gift of $43 million to the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, the most virulent anti-American violators of human rights in the world today. The gift, announced last Thursday by Secretary of State Colin Powell, in addition to other recent aid, makes the U.S. the main sponsor of the Taliban and rewards that "rogue regime" for declaring that opium growing is against the will of God. So, too, by the Taliban's estimation, are most human activities, but it's the ban on drugs that catches this administration's attention.

Never mind that Osama bin Laden still operates the leading anti-American terror operation from his base in Afghanistan, from which, among other crimes, he launched two bloody attacks on American embassies in Africa in 1998.

Sadly, the Bush administration is cozying up to the Taliban regime at a time when the United Nations, at U.S. insistence, imposes sanctions on Afghanistan because the Kabul government will not turn over Bin Laden.

The war on drugs has become our own fanatics' obsession and easily trumps all other concerns. How else could we come to reward the Taliban, who has subjected the female half of the Afghan population to a continual reign of terror in a country once considered enlightened in its treatment of women?...

The Taliban may suddenly be the dream regime of our own war drug war zealots, but in the end this alliance will prove a costly failure. Our long sad history of signing up dictators in the war on drugs demonstrates the futility of building a foreign policy on a domestic obsession.

A few weeks after 9/11

As exemplified by the testimony of the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration to a congressional subcommittee, the stance of the Bush administration toward the Taliban regime changed dramatically in the weeks after 9/11. This former ally in the "War on Drugs" is now portrayed as a central agent in both international drug trafficking and global terrorism despite the sharp cut-back in opium production within Afghanistan. A few days after this testimony in early October, U.S. and British troops invaded Afghanistan and loosened the Taliban's grip on the opium market.

DEA Congressional Testimony

Statement by: Asa Hutchinson, Administrator, Drug Enforcement Administration

Before the: House Government Reform Committee, Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources

Date: October 3, 2001

Opium poppy flower.


Opium pod being scored.
photo: UNDCP
Photo: UNDCP

DEA employs a global approach to attacking drug organizations that fuel the terror network. In 2000, Afghanistan produced 70 percent of the world’s opium supply and 80 percent of the opiate products destined for Europe. Unlike their counterparts in Colombia, the terrorists in Afghanistan enjoy the benefits of a trafficker-driven economy that lacks even a recognized national government.

DEA intelligence confirms the presence of a linkage between Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban and international terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Although DEA has no direct evidence to confirm that Bin Laden is involved in the drug trade, the sanctuary enjoyed by Bin Laden is based on the Taliban’s support for the drug trade, which is a primary source of income in Afghanistan. Credible DEA source information indicates ties between the Taliban and the drug trade. The Taliban directly taxes and derives financial benefits from the opium trade. They even provide receipts for their collected drug revenues.

In 2001, Afghanistan produced approximately 74 metric tons of opium, a substantial reduction from the 3,656 metric tons produced in 2000. Despite this significant decrease and the Taliban’s claims of lab destructions, DEA has seen no decrease in availability, and no increase in the price of Southwest Asian Heroin in the United States and European consumer countries. This indicates that significant amounts of opiates still remain available. According to the United Nations, up to 60% of Afghanistan’s opium crop is stored for future sales. Since the Taliban’s opium ban of July 2000, the kilogram price of opium has skyrocketed from US $44 to over US $400. This price increase, which was limited to the immediate region and did not resonate to international markets, appeared to be a means for the Taliban to capitalize on a rise in the price of a commodity over which they exercise nearly total control.

DEA will continue to aggressively identify and build cases against drug trafficking organizations contributing to global terrorism. In doing so, we will limit the ability of drug traffickers to use their destructive goods as a commodity to fund malicious assaults on humanity and the rule of law.

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