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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Afghan Opium

Air Date: Week of

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The opium poppy has traditionally been Afghanistan? main cash crop and chief employer, in a land ravaged by war, drought and poverty. With the fall of the Taliban, some say poppy production may experience a renaissance under the new interim government. Host Diane Toomey talks with Alfred McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, about the state of the poppy in the new Afghanistan.


TOOMEY: This is Living on Earth. I'm Diane Toomey, sitting in for Steve Curwood. In the war in Afghanistan, the soldiers, tanks and headquarters of the Taliban and Al Qaeda forces have been the primary targets of American bombs. But U.S. pilots were also given secondary targets--laboratories suspected of processing opium. For decades, Afghanistan's number one cash crop has been the opium generating poppy, and that nation is the world's largest source of opium and heroin. Now that Afghanistan is under new leadership, its drug trade is under new scrutiny.

Alfred McCoy is a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert in the worldwide heroin trade. Professor McCoy, welcome to Living on Earth.

McCOY: Thank you, Diane.

TOOMEY: Throughout its regime, the Taliban has wavered back and forth on its approval of opium production. Tell us about the history of the Taliban and opium.

McCOY: Sure. By 1990, after ten years of the covert war against the Soviet Union, Afghanistan's opium production had gone from about 250 tons in 1980 to 2,500 tons by 1990 and 1991. That's a tenfold increase, very substantial. And then, the crop bounced up and down until the Taliban took power in 1996. In their three years in power they doubled the country's opium crop to a record harvest of 4,600 tons in 1999. That was enough to account for 75% of the world's heroin supply.

And what the Taliban did was they engaged in this kind of oblique dialogue with the United Nations, and basically what they would do is say, "Give us international recognition; give us this seat in the United Nations. Take it away from the Northern Alliance and we will ban opium." And in July of 2000, the head of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, made, what looks like, a calculated gamble. He issued an edict which banned all opium production, so that the country's opium production crashed from 4,600 tons in 1999 to only 180 tons in this year. That was a phenomenal decline. And then, a few weeks after Mullah Omar issued this ban in July 2000, he sent a top level delegation of his diplomats to the United Nations in New York and they attacked the Northern Alliance as a bunch of drug dealers--which, by the way, they are--and they asked for the seat. Well, of course, the whole of the United Nations and all of its complexities, has had problems with the Taliban, like women for example, and they didn't get the seat, and they went back disgruntled.

And so, in September of this year, just nine days before the World Trade Tower bombing, the Voice of Shariat, the Taliban's radio station, announced to farmers that they could replant. So, between the Taliban revoking the ban or rescinding the ban and then their total collapse, their loss of control by November, farmers have been free to replant, just in time for the spring harvest.

TOOMEY: Professor, should I read anything more into that timing of the rescinding of the ban than simply they felt rebuffed and decided that they weren't going to get recognition and why not start replanting?

McCOY: If you read The New York Times, for example, R.W. Apple, Jr., wrote a column a couple of weeks ago speculating why did the Taliban fall apart so quickly? This was a mystery that military analysts can't explain. They expected these were tough fighters that beat the Soviet Red Army; why did they just collapse? And one explanation was, "Oh, we hit their communications," or "Our bombs were more effective." Well, that's a military explanation, and that's part of it. But I suspect that when we look back on the fall of the Taliban, it won't be October 7th, 2001, the start of U.S. bombing, that was critical. I think what we may see is that July 28th, 2000, Mullah Omar's edict banning opium, may turn out to have been more critical.

Here's a whole society that had dedicated its prime land, much of its water, most of its labor, all of its merchant capital to the production of one crop, and the whole society, such as it was surviving, was surviving from that crop: opium. And then they destroyed it, they really destroyed it, and they plunged the society into poverty, in the midst of a horrible, devastating drought, the worst drought in the past century. And so the society collapsed, leaving a hollow shell with a military shield around it. And when our bombs fell, that shield shattered and the whole thing fell apart.

TOOMEY: Now that the Northern Alliance is in power, are farmers now free to plant poppies?

McCOY: I think they're free to plant poppy, but I think commanders who were pushed out of power by the Taliban are now coming back into power, and they're the ones that controlled the traffic beyond the farm gate. And so they're going to be ordering peasants to plant; they're going to be imposing a tax on the drugs. After the Taliban issued their opium ban in July of last year, the Northern Alliance regions, particularly Badakshan province, was the source of 83 percent of Afghanistan's opium production. And the Northern Alliance have long been major protectors of heroin smuggling.

Many of the local commanders whom we're now working with rounding up the Taliban and are pursuing the caves in Tora Bora, many of those figures are major drug lords. And, particularly around Tora Bora, they're the ones that control the heroin labs.

TOOMEY: In your opinion, Professor McCoy, what is the U.S. government going to do about Afghanistan's opium production, and what have they said publicly, at this point?

McCOY: I expect that the international agencies and the United States are going to be inadequate in dealing with the problem. Look, when we talk about rebuilding agriculture around the globe, what we talk about is really rebuilding annual field crops. We're willing to stick around for a year or two to get farmers back on their feet, to help them get in one, two, maybe three crops. But putting back field crops is not the question. It's really rebuilding the flocks and, most importantly, replanting the orchards. It's a ten year rebuilding effort, and I just don't think the United States or the international community has the staying power. But, the drug lords are there, and they'll be there tomorrow.

TOOMEY: Where does this leave the poverty-stricken people of Afghanistan?

McCOY: Well, actually, the studies we have, and they're quite extensive, by the United Nations during the 1990s, showed that the Afghan opium industry operated within the context of Afghani civil society with almost no violence. That's to say, farmers put their crops in the field. They got crop loans from merchants. They delivered their crops. They kept their contracts. The merchants then traded with each other, exported it across the border. Merchants traveled about the country carrying substantial amounts of money in a society that was incredibly violent and riven with civil war, and there was no violence.

TOOMEY: Why is the drug trade in Afghanistan carried out in such a gentlemanly fashion?

McCOY: Because it's rational. It's carried out apart from the politics. It's run by the merchants and the farmers. It does not involve the commanders and the clan leaders, the warlords. They collect the tax from the merchants. They collect a tax, sometimes, from the farmers. But they don't involve themselves in the actual production. So, this is one part of the society that's separated from the country's tremendously problematic politics. This is one of the things that Afghan society does well. For the ordinary people of Afghanistan opium is, for the time being, an effective solution. Look, it takes lots of labor, okay? The country is short of employment. It takes much less water than conventional field crops, and water is in scarce supply. Landless laborers can get jobs. It solves all of the country's problems, for the time being. It's perverse in its genius, but nonetheless, it's a genius.

TOOMEY: Alfred McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, and author of the book "The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade." Professor, thanks for joining me today.

McCOY: Diane, thank you very much.

TOOMEY: A U.S. State Department spokeswoman denied Professor McCoy's allegation that the U.S. is turning a blind eye to opium production in Afghanistan. She told Living on Earth that one of the U.S. government's key priorities in the wake of the Taliban collapse is to put an end to the production and trafficking of opium in Afghanistan. She says the U.S. hopes to work with the interim government there to establish alternative cash crops and other economic development programs.




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