The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

All Issues
FEB 2010 Issue


Discussed in this essay:

Gretchen Peters, The Seeds of Terror (Thomas Dunne Books, 2009)
Alfred W McCoy, The Politics of Heroin (revised edition, 2003)


Poppy is responsible for an astounding 30-50% of Afghanistan’s GDP, a fact rarely discussed in media coverage of the war there. Last autumn, however, allegations about Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s brother, threw the war-ravaged Central Asian nation’s drug problem into the limelight. In October 2009, the New York Times reported that Wali Karzai was a suspected player in Afghanistan’s burgeoning illegal opium trade, and that Karzai was also on the CIA payroll. As a CIA operative, the president’s brother has helped the intelligence agency communicate with Afghans loyal to the Taliban. These revelations weren’t news to Gretchen Peters, a journalist who has worked for ABC and is the author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin in Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda. As its title suggests, this timely work of reportage documents how opium trafficking has fueled the Taliban’s ever-expanding presence in Afghanistan.

An addict in Kabul. Photo by Anuj Chopra, Courtesy ISN Security Watch,
An addict in Kabul. Photo by Anuj Chopra, Courtesy ISN Security Watch,

The Taliban receives approximately 70% of its funding from opium, and the proliferation of Afghanistan’s heroin trade can certainly be linked to the corruption-ridden Hamid Karzai government, which has made few genuine efforts to combat narcotics. But Peters’ book casts a spotlight on misguided international development efforts and failed Bush administration policies that facilitated the growth of the Afghan drug trade. After its hasty 2001 invasion of the country, the U.S. was quick to divert its troops and resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, giving the country the “lowest troop-to-population ratio and one of the lowest international aid-to-population ratios of any major conflict zone in the past ten years.” The Bush Pentagon, despite warnings that poppy production was mushrooming, was unwilling to utilize its remaining resources in Afghanistan for counter-narcotics purposes. Instead, the Pentagon’s sole mission in the country was to hunt down terrorists.

Peters’ analysis of this disastrous single-mindedness is powerful because it is underpinned by the actual testimony of frustrated government officials. She is most provocative, however, when revealing how the lines that separate various political factions—the Taliban, the U.S.-backed Afghan government, the U.S. government itself—are in fact very blurry in present-day Afghanistan. Her detailed take on Wali Karzai is a good case in point. Karzai, she discovers, has not only worked as a U.S. operative, but he also has links to Haji Juma Khan, the notorious Afghan drug kingpin with Taliban and Al Qaeda connections. According to the British intelligence agency MI6, Khan had allegedly used Karzai “as a conduit to bribe” two Afghan governors so that they would “allow narcotics to be processed and transported through their provinces without impediment.” Notably, Peters’ findings were published six months before the Times ran its Karzai story. 

The author’s portrait of today’s Taliban is equally revelatory. The most recent incarnation of the Taliban comes across as a convoluted, splintered group. According to the author, it has stopped acting like a political force and is behaving more like a criminal syndicate. “In some areas,” Peters writes:

gangland-style fighters who call themselves Taliban (or who are referred to locally as Taliban) have little contact with or allegiance to Mullah Omar’s core group. In fact, they probably interact more frequently with corrupt local officials, and may even fight with local rivals who also call themselves Taliban.

As this new, vague Taliban becomes progressively more dependent on drug trafficking, it seems to be shedding some of its stringent ideological restrictiveness. “The big change is that now we can play music and have weddings,” reports an Afghan national from Helmund province. “Even the Taliban love music, dancing, and television. Most of them keep young boys as their companions.”

These revelations about the Taliban and Wali Karzai raise important questions for U.S. military strategists: Will the U.S. be able to distinguish between friend and foe as it fights its war in Afghanistan, and, if it can’t, how can it possibly win a ground war against the Taliban? Moreover, Peters’ findings intimate an incisive, bitter truth: In present-day Afghanistan, Afghan government officials, CIA clients, warlords, Taliban and Al Qaeda forces form a socio-economic nexus that transgresses the confines of politics and ideology.

Despite conveying the inherent complexity of the situation in Afghanistan, Peters also makes some reductive assertions about the country’s drug problem. She concludes, for example, that “if you want to go after terrorists, you have to go after drugs and the smugglers’ ability to profit from them.” Yes, it is sound to think that, in the short term, curbing the drug trade will reduce funding to the Taliban and international terrorist organizations. But the only way the U.S. can truly inhibit the production and sale of drugs on a long-term basis—and cut off funds to those it deems terrorists—is not merely by going after drug smugglers, but by discontinuing the practice of allying itself with groups that traffic drugs. Peters fails to acknowledge the U.S.’s long history of coupling itself with narcotics traffickers to achieve its foreign policy goals, and this omission weakens her significant, well-researched book.


Throughout the 20th century, the United States government—the CIA in particular—has forged clandestine relationships with governments and criminal organizations that traffic drugs in order to achieve its foreign policy goals. In his controversial but authoritative book The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, historian Alfred W. McCoy elucidates the history of such covert alliances. This sweeping, riveting tome, which was first published in 1972 but revised and re-published in 2003, traces the modern opium trade from its roots in European colonialism—every European colonial power made significant financial gains from either producing or trafficking opium—to present-day Afghanistan. McCoy argues that the prohibition of opium and other narcotics makes drugs lucrative and causes their trafficking and usage to proliferate. Moreover, he believes it is the U.S. government’s support and protection of drug lords and criminal syndicates that has provided “a significant, albeit unquantifiable, contribution to the expansion of narcotics trafficking in key source regions.”

The CIA’s close proximity to narco-traffickers during the Cold War is well-known. But as McCoy points out, the U.S. government got into bed with criminal syndicates to propagate its foreign policy goals as early as World War II. To prevent the Axis powers from infiltrating U.S. waters, for example, government officials reached out to Lucky Luciano, a notorious., jailed Italian-American gangster. Luciano was freed from jail and allowed to take refuge in Sicily as a reward for his services. Simultaneously, U.S. military forces in Italy installed known mafia officials into key positions to help fight the country’s rising tide of Communism. Subsequently, the Italian underworld and Luciano, given a “new lease on life” by the U.S. government, went on to create one of the world’s largest heroin syndicates known to date.

The U.S. repeated this pattern in France during the aftermath of World War II. Worried that striking French workers would inhibit the execution of the Marshall Plan and fearful that a Communist takeover of the country was imminent, U.S. intelligence agencies began to pump cash into the French Socialist Party. (Surprisingly, they funneled this cash through the AFL.) The Socialists, in turn, empowered Marseille’s leading Corsican gangsters to use violence to quell dissent. This unlikely alliance was then bolstered in 1950, when French dock workers in Marseilles began boycotting ships transporting supplies for France’s Indochina War. The U.S., heavily subsidizing the conflict to combat the specter of Communism, broke up the Marseilles strike by once again collaborating with the AFL, the French Socialist Party, and the Corsican underworld. According to McCoy, the CIA’s tacit support of the Corsicans put them “in a powerful enough position to establish Marseilles as the postwar heroin capital of the western world.” Ironically, the Corsicans went on to run the “French Connection,” which provided the U.S. with the majority of its illegal heroin during the 1960s and 1970s.

The Cold War saw the creation of countless similar associations between the CIA and warlords or political leaders who engaged in criminal activities. To thwart the Red Scare in Asia, the CIA provided money and supplies to the Thai government and the Chinese Nationalist Party, and both of these entities helped make the Golden Triangle one of the world’s largest opium producing regions. In Vietnam, the brother of U.S.-installed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem, Ngo Dinh Nhu, used the funds he attained from trafficking narcotics to help repress political dissent. After the Viet Minh nearly seized Saigon in 1964, the U.S. decided to turn to Premier Nguyen Cao Ky—a man with known affiliations to gangsters—to provide tighter security in the region. While Ky ruled with a strong hand and provided the security the Americans desired, he did so by allowing systematic corruption—the sale of government jobs and opium traffic—to flourish. 

For the most part, the CIA—unlike its French colonial predecessors—would never directly involve itself with the trafficking of drugs. Rather, it would simply offer its tacit support to organizations and regimes that directly profited from the narcotics trade. The CIA required these foreign clients to fight its war against Communism without drawing too much attention to itself or draining U.S. coffers of too much cash. And these iron-fisted allies—whether in Southeast Asia or Latin America—needed drugs to become fiscally strong and independent.

However, according to McCoy, the CIA became more directly involved with opium trafficking in the case of Laos. During the 1960s, the agency organized Lao’s scattered Hmong tribes into a powerful anti-leftist militia commanded by General Vang Pao, who funded his guerilla army by exporting Hmong poppy. When McCoy was a graduate student doing research for The Politics of Heroin in the 1970s, he interviewed Laotian officials and countless Laotian villagers who testified to the fact that their opium was flown out of their villages on actual CIA aircraft. The CIA tried to suppress McCoy’s investigation by strong-arming his publisher and threatening him and his sources. But his publisher, Harper & Row, believed his conclusions were well-founded and went ahead and published the first edition of his book.  

While the CIA was sponsoring Hmong opium cultivation and backing Vietnamese leaders who trafficked drugs, opium production mushroomed in the Golden Triangle region of Southeast Asia. By 1971, the area was producing 70% of the world’s illicit opium. During that same year, at least 10-15% of low ranking U.S. soldiers in Vietnam were found to be heroin users, and Vietnamese high-grade number four heroin was hitting the streets of America. By 1974, Saigon was home to 150,000 indigenous heroin addicts.

Publicly, however, the CIA denied its complicity with Southeast Asia’s drug trade. This denial, coupled with Congress’ unwillingness to seriously question the CIA, would have cataclysmic effects. “By effectively denying its complicity and thus blocking reform,” asserts McCoy, “the CIA ensured that policies that had promoted heroin production in Burma and Laos during the 1960s would with some variation be repeated in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”


During the U.S.’s covert war with the Soviets in Afghanistan, the CIA provided funds and arms to religious-minded Afghan warlords who went on to become powerful drug lords and, in some cases, powerful Taliban leaders. Gretchen Peters suggests that the U.S. began funding these military groups in response to the Soviet Union’s December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. This widely held view, however, has long since been proven false. In fact, it was President Carter’s National Security Adviser himself, Zbigniew Brzezinski, who admitted in 1998 that the U.S. began supporting the Mujahideen in the summer of 1979, several months prior to the Soviet invasion. Brzezinski claimed that the U.S. wanted to prompt a Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and give the USSR “its Vietnam War.” Peters seems to have an awareness of these facts but avoids explicitly stating them, and her omissions and elusiveness here are jarring. McCoy’s take on the U.S. covert war with the Soviets is more comprehensive and incisive.

In May of 1979, seven months before the Soviet invasion, the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, arranged a meeting between a CIA envoy and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, an Afghan resistance leader who led the Hezb-I Islami guerrilla group, a group that was “a creature of the Pakistan military.” Hekmatyar was a major human rights abuser, a fact ignored by the U.S. press for the duration of this Cold War conflict, and would later ally himself with the Taliban. The CIA agreed to back Hekmatyar and ended up delivering half of its covert aid to his warriors. This aid was always delivered by Pakistan and its ISI, which acted as middlemen between the CIA and the Afghan resistance. Under the stewardship of U.S.-backed warlords like Hekmatyar, the way in which Afghan opium production skyrocketed is astonishing. McCoy reports that “Afghanistan’s harvest increased from an estimated 100 tons in 1971 to 2,000 tons in 1991—and then kept rising to 4,600 tons in the war’s aftermath.”

Meanwhile, the Pakistani government, which managed the U.S.’s $2 billion aid package to Afghan freedom fighters and would receive its own $3 billion aid package from the Reagan administration, allowed the production and smuggling of heroin to flourish within its own borders. Pakistani army trucks would leave Karachi carrying CIA arms, and they’d return to Pakistan “loaded with heroin—protected by ISI papers from police search.” Pakistan’s President Zia even allowed drug traffickers to deposit their drug profits in the shady international Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Paradoxically, during much of the 1980s, the majority of heroin hitting U.S. streets was arriving from Pakistan, a country that received billions of dollars in U.S. aid.

The U.S. and Pakistani governments made perfunctory attempts to curb this drug trade. But for the most part, as in the case of the Contras in Nicaragua, CIA clients who seized wealth and power through the drug trade operated with impunity. Important factions in the U.S. government were unwilling to prosecute these drug producers and smugglers. The State Department itself claimed that the Pakistani leader General Zia, who had documented ties to drug traffickers, was “a strong supporter of anti-narcotics activities in Pakistan.”

When it comes to documenting how U.S. officials involved with the Afghan resistance ignored or suppressed evidence that American allies were trafficking heroin, Peters’ book is especially enlightening. Reflecting on her conversations with various CIA and government officials, she remarks, “It wasn’t that the agents didn’t know it was happening, but probing it too closely would have interfered with their central mission.” It was this myopic Cold War thinking that Peters alludes to, coupled with the massive global demand for heroin, that enabled the U.S.-backed Mujahideen to form formidable drug syndicates and maintain and accrue power in Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s.

After a decade of fighting between U.S.-backed Afghan Mujahideen and Soviet forces, both the Soviets and the United States abandoned Afghanistan, and they failed to offer the war-torn country any reparations. In this bleak landscape, which was blighted by lawlessness and a lack of infrastructure, it was inevitable that criminality and drug trafficking would continue to flourish. Such an environment made it easy for the Taliban to seize power. Although the Taliban banned opium at one point during their initial rule, they also profited from poppy and could not have maintained power without engaging in the drug trade, whose evolution the U.S. had tacitly supported. The Taliban, in turn, sheltered the al Qaeda terrorists who would launch terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.


History would repeat itself in the wake of the U.S.’s 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. After the quick fall of the Taliban, the CIA once again empowered warlords who were known drug traffickers. Once again, opium production skyrocketed, from 185 tons in 2001 to 3,400 tons in 2002. “As in the mujahideen era,” notes Peters, “when counternarcotics was considered secondary to fighting the Soviets, in post 9/11 Afghanistan the fight against drugs was deprioritized to hunt for terrorists.” But before long the U.S. lost interest in fighting terrorists in Afghanistan. It diverted its attention away from the plundered Central Asian nation and focused on Iraq, and the Taliban, in turn, was again able to gain power. Opium syndicates—which the U.S. had helped fortify two decades earlier—once again fueled its resurgence.

Today, Afghanistan is one of the world’s largest poppy producers—in 2006 it yielded the largest illegal narcotics crop a modern nation ever cultivated in a single harvest—and Afghan opium continues to flood the streets of western nations. Both Peters and McCoy claim that the trafficking of Afghan opium has provided resources to ethnic separatist movements that span from Central Asia to Europe. Peters worries that another Al Qaeda terrorist attack is imminent—although she provides no evidence to support this—and she believes Afghan opium will play no small role in funding such an attack.

If Afghan opium has such calamitous effects on global prosperity, stability, and security, it is essential that policymakers think about how to curb the cultivation and trafficking of this drug. The Bush administration favored crop spraying to combat narco-trafficking in both Latin America and Central Asia. But attempts to counter narcotics proliferation through crop spraying are ineffective and counter-productive—both Peters and McCoy agree on this point. Crop spraying ends up impoverishing already struggling farmers. Furthermore, it creates a greater global demand for drugs, which ends up enriching drug traffickers in the long run.

The Obama administration and its special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, recognize the significant role of the opium trade in Afghanistan and reversed some of the Bush administration’s short-sighted counter-narcotics policies. But it’s unclear how they plan on weaning Afghanistan off of opium. Notably, in Obama’s December 2009 West Point speech, during which he announced the U.S. would be sending 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, he didn’t mention the words “opium,” “poppy,” or “heroin” once.

Peters presents a thoughtful, practical plan as to how to begin to curb Central Asian opium production, defeat the Taliban, and stabilize Afghanistan. She believes the U.S. should “support regional peace,” isolate and obstruct drug money, and provide Afghan farms with alternative livelihoods before eradicating their crops. She argues that military action will be essential in combating high-level traffickers. But the goal, she states, “should be to cut or eliminate profits for smugglers and financiers at the topic of the narcotics trade and stem the flow of drug money to Taliban insurgents and terrorist groups who are in their pay.”

Despite the comprehensiveness and complexity of Peters’ solutions, she often resorts to simplistic rhetoric that undermines the sophistication and usefulness of her ideas. She writes, for example, that a fundamental aspect of U.S. counter-narcotics policy must be to target “the bad guys.” Similarly, she claims that the “the union of narco-traffickers, terrorist groups, and the international criminal underworld is the new axis of evil.”

Such perspectives partition the world into unrealistic moralistic compartments and ignore the U.S.’s pivotal and continuous role in fomenting the international drug trade. For a counter-narcotics strategy to be truly effective, it must be bold enough to highlight the U.S.’s tacit support of drug trafficking. It must recommend that the U.S. government—its military forces and intelligence agencies—cease to forge alliances with and provide support for warlords who traffic drugs. Otherwise, based on the historical record, it is likely that the CIA will continue to support criminal political organizations, and, in turn, crime syndicates and terrorist organizations will continue to flourish.

Some rightfully assert that it is an impossibility for the U.S. government to engage with less corrupt forces in Afghanistan and other places. Writing about Afghanistan in Time Magazine, the former CIA officer Robert Baer claims that in Afghanistan, “you survive by renting clans, tribes, and narcotics dealers, which comes with their unsavory business whether you like it or not.” He concludes that in countries such as Afghanistan, there are often “no alternatives” to organizations that profit from smuggling and racketeering. If Baer is right, and engaging with criminals is an inevitable aspect of military engagement with foreign countries, then perhaps it is time for the U.S. to rethink more elemental aspects of its foreign policy. If we genuinely wish to combat both narcotics and terrorism, perhaps we must cease to wage wars in distant lands.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2010

All Issues