THE COLD WAR MINDSET that The Beatles chastised in this song reached its climax in the Afghanistan war of the 1980s, where a secret struggle for control of Central Asian opium helped bring down the Soviet Empire. But there was blowback for the US as well…
The Central Asian opium wars played a critical and little recognized role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now, a generation later, the US has replaced the USSR as the occupying military power in Afghanistan, and the opium wars continue. The Cold War hasn’t really gone away, its just been downsized.
Afghanistan, for centuries known as the Graveyard of Empires, became the last great battleground of the Cold War in April 1978 when a bloody Communist-backed coup d’état brought the theretofore non-aligned country decisively into the Soviet sphere. But resistance immediately emerged, with Islamist militants launching the Mujahedeen guerilla movement. Army massacres and brutal repression in the countryside failed to quell the insurgency.
The following year ended with massive Soviet military intervention to put down the Mujahedeen and prop up the regime. Covert CIA aid to the Mujahedeen promptly began. The war rapidly escalated and the Soviets were soon mired in counterinsurgency quagmire. Afghanistan hasn’t known a minute of peace since.
Working through Pakistan’s secret police, the CIA provided some $2 billion in military aid to Mujahedeen, including $750 million in congressionally approved aid over the ‘80s. But the Mujahedeen—with the CIA’s connivance—also turned to the heroin trade to fund their war. The Afghanistan-Pakistan Golden Crescent became the top global heroin source (overtaking the Southeast Asian Golden Triangle in a clear case of the dope trade following the tides of war) as Mujahedeen warlords established vast opium plantations in their zones of control. Hashish was also a profitable sideline.
There was a massive guns-for-opium trade through the Khyber Pass leading to Pakistan where the insurgency was stage-managed by the CIA. The crop was processed in heroin labs at Peshawar, the northwest Pakistan city where Mujahedeen resupply was coordinated. Pakistan’s secret police agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISID), established smuggling networks to deliver heroin to global markets.
In 1985, President Reagan’s National Security Decision Directive 166 called for efforts to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan “by all means available.” That those means included the heroin trade is no mere conspiracy theory.
In a 1988 series for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “The CIA’s Leaking Pipeline,” journalist Tim Weiner found that weapons for the Afghan resistance were being diverted to the armies of opium lords. The CIA admitted one of every $5 in war materials bound for the Mujahedeen “disappeared.”
In 1987, the Afghan war actually began to spread north into Soviet Central Asia, an ominous harbinger of the coming collapse of the empire. Mujahedeen warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar sent troops across the border into the Soviet republic of Tajikistan to launch the first attacks on the actual territory of the USSR.
US support for the Mujahedeen led directly to the emergence of al-Qaeda. In 1984, Osama bin Laden arrived in Peshawar. It was there he established his Maktab al-Khidmat (“services center”) or MAK, a clearinghouse for Mujahedeen volunteers from the Arab world where they were armed, indoctrinated and dispatched to the front.
CIA money flowed into the MAK through the ISID. In 1989, when the Soviets finally pulled out of Afghanistan under UN-mediated accords, Osama quickly transformed the MAK into his al-Qaeda network of trained terrorists.
The war continued despite the Russian pullout. The Moscow-backed Afghan regime finally fell to the Mujahedeen in 1992, the year after the USSR itself collapsed, overextended and weakened by the long Afghan war. But this merely precipitated a civil war between rival Mujahedeen factions, allowing the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban to take power in 1996, pledging to restore order.
In power, the puritanical Taliban banned opium cultivation and had hashish smokers publically flogged. Former Mujahedeen warlords in the north who refused to accept Taliban rule formed the rebel Northern Alliance and, of course, turned to the opium trade to fund their insurgency.
With just a small patch of territory in the north of the country, the Northern Alliance established smuggling networks through the post-Soviet republics of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to get their product to European and global markets. With the Russians backing the Northern Alliance (ironically made up of former anti-Soviet resistance fighters) to keep the Taliban at bay, a new dope-for-guns operation was allowed to flourish, this time under Moscow’s auspices.
By then, civil war had engulfed Tajikistan, as Islamist rebels took up arms against the Moscow-backed government there. Uzbekistan also saw a sporadic Islamist insurgency. What Soviet planners had feared when they intervened in Afghanistan a generation earlier was coming to pass. The war was coming back to the (now former) USSR.
This was a classic case of the empire creating what it feared, as Moscow’s brutal war only enflamed Islamist militancy. But US support for the Mujahedeen would also result in “blowback,” as became dramatically clear on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda, at large under Taliban protection, had scored a terrible blow against their erstwhile anti-Soviet allies.
After 9-11, the US started backing the Northern Alliance too and with the help of Pentagon air power, the northern warlords ousted the Taliban and took the capital, Kabul. The old Northern Alliance warlords still form the backbone of the US-backed regime in Afghanistan today, especially its military.
Not surprisingly, the Taliban, now again reduced to insurgency, quickly overcame their squeamishness about opium and turned to the traffic to fund their guerilla war. The former Northern Alliance warlords also continue to have a hand in the trade.
Heroin is now being exported both south through the old Pakistani route and north through post-Soviet Central Asia. “Liberated” Afghanistan remains the world’s top heroin producer, supplying an estimated 90 percent of the global market. Opium cultivation has skyrocketed since the Taliban’s fall.
The US and NATO, working with the Afghan government, try to eradicate the crop, but growers have repeatedly opened fire on eradication teams. With desperate peasants depending on opium to survive, the eradication campaign is doubtless driving villagers into the hands of the Taliban (just as similar efforts against Andean coca leaf drive peasants into the hands of the FARC in Colombia or Sendero Luminoso in Peru). And of course it is opium’s illicit status that inflates its price and makes it an irresistible lure for peasants who can’t make ends meet growing legal crops.
In 1997, peace accords brought an end to the war in Tajikistan and former insurgent leaders took positions in the official armed forces and border patrol, affording them the opportunity to skim a cut of the cross-border heroin trade from Afghanistan.
In the summer of 2012, one former rebel who had become a border guard commander, Tolib Ayombekov, took up arms again, leading to clashes that left some 50 dead. He remains at large, portending a re-escalation of the war. A conflict over control of the opium traffic is said to be behind the fighting.
Finally, opium production is also spreading north into ex-Soviet territory. Also over the summer, government forces destroyed opium and cannabis plantations in Uzbekistan’s fertile Fergana Valley–once the center of Soviet cotton production–claiming an estimated 1,650 kilograms of “narcotics” destroyed.
Authorities were alerted to the plantations by local human rights activists who had been monitoring the colonization of valley lands by criminal mafias, but two local residents who were suspected of having tipped off the activists had their homes torched in retaliation.
In the 19th century, the British in India (which then included Pakistan) and the Russians in Central Asia each tried to establish the kingdom of Afghanistan as a buffer state to guard against the other in what Rudyard Kipling called the “Great Game.” After World War II, the US just stepped into the shoes of British imperialism in the region.
The Great Game continues today with the oil resources of post-Soviet Central Asia the new goad. A pipeline is now being built through Afghanistan to carry hydrocarbons from post-Soviet Turkmenistan to the Indian Ocean and global markets, while Moscow is angling for a route through Russian territory and Beijing for a route through Chinese territory. But while Great Powers fight over oil, their local proxy forces fight over opium. And, inevitably, the local people pay with their lives.
This article was originally published in SKUNK Volume 8, Issue 5