Logistics: Chasing The Dragon From Afghanistan

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April 26, 2013: Tribal rebels in Burma are becoming more active, and this is largely because they have resumed producing heroin (along with methamphetamines, otherwise known as “speed” or “meth”). As a result of the 2010 elections (and fears that this would mean more attacks in the tribal north), six tribal armies from among the Karen, Chin, Kachin, Mon, and Shan people in the north formed a defensive union. The tribes believe they would be attacked once the voting was over, and they were sort of correct. The tribesmen believed that the new "democracy" was a sham and just the same old military dictatorship in new clothes. That’s not entirely true but the tribes never really trusted the southerners. The tribes need cash, lots of it, to revive their rebellion, and heroin has long been the solution to that problem.

In fact, the tribes in this area have been cultivating poppies and producing opium for centuries. But this was a luxury item, mostly for dealing with pain. But in the 18th century a growing number of affluent Chinese began using opium for pleasure (“chasing the dragon”) and the Chinese government banned opium and made war on the tribes to try and cut off the supply. The tribes scaled back production but after World War II noted a growing interest in opium and heroin in the West. So the “fruit of the poppy” continues to survive in northern Burma.

In Burma the new anti-government tribal alliance has become a real threat to the Burmese government by attacking the heroin operations of pro-government tribes. The growing (or returning) heroin trade was also a source of income for the old corrupt military government (who heavily taxed tribes it allowed to produce opium). The new government is unhappy with these revenue losses. To make matters worse, some of the heroin gangs are now paying the tribal rebels, instead of the government, for protection. Meanwhile, the government destroys poppy fields belonging to hostile tribes.

Currently most heroin is produced in Afghanistan. It wasn’t always that way. After a major military campaign against heroin producing tribes, Burmese opium and heroin production declined nearly 90 percent in the decade after 1996, but has been making a comeback the last few years. The government has encouraged some tribes to switch sides, and oppose the rebel tribes, by giving them permission to grow poppies (which produces opium and, with a chemical transformation, heroin). In the last three years Burmese heroin went from five percent of the world's supply to nearly 20 percent. That’s big money, and even the farmers who grow the poppies do very well, earning seven times more (about $3,500 a year) growing poppies instead of legal crops. Even after paying 10-20 percent of that for protection (bribes or a fee to the local rebels) poppies are far more profitable than food.

The government has sent troops to cope with, or defeat, all these new tribal insurrections. The army always had the advantage in that they can hurt the tribes (by attacking villages, crops, and families), while the tribal rebels have never been able to get an equivalent terror campaign going in the more densely populated (and heavily policed) south. But the army operations are expensive. The fuel, ammo, and additional supplies of all kinds are costly. Then there is the medical care for soldiers who are killed or injured (or become sick). Operating in that rough country is dangerous and expensive.

Decades of fighting has created a lot of misery for those who live up north. Frequent use of landmines by the rebels has kept about half a million tribal people from using their ancestral lands. Those mines won’t be cleared until there is a permanent (or at least long-term) peace deal. Many tribes have found the drug money more attractive than being able to farm and hunt in peace, and that’s become a hard habit to break. All that drug income allows the tribes to buy more weapons and political allies. If the heroin trade in Afghanistan is badly hurt, the tribes of northern Burma are ready to take up the slack.

 


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