Murphy's Law: Fatal Addictions


November 8, 2021: What is happening in Afghanistan is that a lucrative illegal drug enterprise based on heroin became a source of financial support for a faction (the Taliban) in a civil war supported by a neighbor (Pakistan) has been going on for decades. What got this forever war going was a 1979 communist insurrection that failed and was revived by Soviet (Russian) military intervention that failed and the Russians withdrew by 1988. The communists overthrew the two-century old monarchy, which had kept Afghanistan united and at peace until Russian decided to get involved. The monarchy existed to deal with outsiders and help settle tribal conflicts. There was no royal army, only an agreement among the many tribes and ethnic groups that comprised the region known as Afghanistan. In effect, Afghanistan got itself united at a time when India (then including Pakistan) was a collection of independent feudal entities that Britain was starting to unite by negotiation and force. By the mid-1800s Britain had united south Asia into a colony. A century later the British left, with India becoming independent as India, Pakistan, Burma and Sri Lanka. Most of the Afghan border was inherited by Pakistan, which allowed the northwestern tribes to keep their tribal laws the British had agreed to. That agreement also recognized the usefulness of the Afghan monarchy and Pakistan went along with that. All these arrangements were destroyed by the failed communist coup and Soviet intervention. While the Russian troops left, financial support for the communist government, which controlled Kabul and not much else, continued. Various factions that had fought the Russians were now fighting each other for control of Kabul. The Soviet Union dissolved in 1991 and so did all financial and other assistance to the communist government of Afghanistan, which was soon gone. Pakistan responded by creating the Taliban to take control of most of Afghanistan. The American intervened in 2001 because of the September 11, 2001 attacks and helped put the old Afghan coalition back in power as a corrupt democracy. Pakistan provided sanctuary for the Taliban and cooperation with the heroin cartels that were established in the 1980s until the Americans left and the Taliban/drug cartels coalition was back in power, under Pakistani supervision. The fighting continues in Afghanistan. Afghans are divided by the presence of Pakistani influence and Pakistani support for the heron cartels.

There is a similar conflict going on in the South American nation of Colombia where cocaine cartels survive because of a 70-year Colombian civil war referred to as "La Violencia" (The Violence) that left over half a million dead, and millions injured or displaced. Millions more simply fled the country, either into neighboring states, or distant destinations like the U.S. or Europe. La Violencia had many causes but was basically a bloody struggle between leftists and conservatives. There was a lull in the late 1950s and early 60s, when moderate leftists and conservatives worked out a compromise. But the worldwide upsurge in leftist activism in the 1960s reignited La Violencia. The leftist FARC and ELN rebels got another boost in the 1970s when cocaine became a big business, and the leftists used their muscle to protect the drug gangs from the government. Half a century after the peacemaking compromises that ended the first round of La Violencia, the conservative government defeated the rebels militarily and negotiated a peace deal with the leftist rebels. FARC and the smaller ELN delayed reaching an agreement by trying to negotiate a deal that allowed them to keep much of what they had stolen, including rural land. FARC and ELN always said they were fighting to get justice for farmers while at the same time being a major source of the injustices farmers demanded be put right. The Colombian government made their big comeback after 2000 by concentrating on protecting the population, which made it possible to revive the economy. FARC's guns and slogans could not compete with this.

FARC gave up in 2016 and agreed to a peace deal. The ELN continued fighting until most of the remnants were forced to seek sanctuary in neighboring Venezuela, which became a leftist dictatorship after 1999. The leftist Venezuelan “Bolivarian Republic” ruined the economy, which had long been one of the wealthiest in South America because Venezuela had the largest oil reserves in the world and had avoided unrest for decades with efforts to spread the wealth. That effort was not fast enough or thorough enough to prevent the election of a leftist president in 1999. The leftists survived for over a decade until the economy collapsed due to mismanagement. The leftist government remains in power and the economy is still in ruins. One source of income was the cocaine trade, which needed a safe transit point to get its drugs to foreign markets in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. Venezuela provided that, for a fee.

As La Violencia diminished after the 2016 peace deals, Venezuela provided sanctuary for about a thousand FARC and ELN fighters who refused to accept the peace deal and found they could no longer operate in Colombia.

Colombia and Afghanistan are similar because of a lucrative criminal enterprise based on drugs like cocaine or heroin. These drugs survive because the drug cartels face local governments that are not strong enough to defeat them, plus the presence of neighboring countries where the drug cartels can move temporarily or permanently if the local government becomes too effective against them. Colombia had broken the power of the cocaine cartels as part of their effort to force FARC and ELN to accept a peace deal. Venezuela became a lifeline for the Colombian cocaine cartels while Pakistan provided even greater support for the Afghan heroin cartels.

Valuable modern illegal drugs like heroin are a rather recent development that became a major problem first for China and then for Pakistan and then Afghanistan. Opium, produced from the sap of the poppy plant, has been used by humans for thousands of years and grew wild throughout Eurasia. But the expense of producing opium from individual poppy plants limited its use to medicinal purposes, and as a narcotic for the very few wealthy enough to afford it. That changed with the industrial revolution, which created more efficient production methods (making the drug cheaper) and more money (and more customers).

But the industrial revolution reached China, there was a sustained Chinese effort to stamp out the opium trade. China was the wealthiest pre-industrial nation in the 18th century, and local opium production found a growing market among wealthy Chinese. Soon, the government realized that drug addiction was disabling a growing number of the most productive people in the empire. By the early 18th century, China began outlawing opium as a recreational drug. Then, a century later, Britain forced China (via the two "Opium Wars") to allow opium imports from British poppy plantations in India. Britain pleaded economic necessity, because China encouraged exports, but restricted imports, and Britain needed something to even the trade balance. When opium is available, there is always a market. Opium is highly addictive, and many Chinese were willing to spend most of their income just to stay high.

In 1900 China was still a nation full of opium addicts, and about 41,000 tons of opium a year was produced, five times current production, with 95 percent going to China and, at that point, largely produced there instead of in India. The Chinese Communists outlawed opium when they came to power in 1949, a popular move, even among many of the addicts.

Throughout the industrialized nations, opium had already been outlawed. It was legal until the 19th century, but addiction became a major social problem as more people could afford to get high. The historical experience is quite clear; legalizing opium, and its more potent derivatives morphine, heroin, codeine, and so on, does not work. The problem was made worse in the 19th century, as Western chemists developed ways to concentrate the narcotic effect of opium by refining it into powerful sedatives like heroin, morphine, and codeine. These were used as painkillers, and their availability was at first restricted to medicinal uses. That loophole allowed heroin, and a similar South American drug, cocaine, derived from coca plants, to become legal additives to a growing number of products. In the late 1800s the growing chemicals industry was ready to provide what was needed at lower cost. A ton of heroin is made by refining 7.5 tons of opium using 260 tons of acetic anhydride, an industrial chemical. Heroin is a much stronger and addictive drug than opium, and sells for 30-40 times as much as the same weight of opium.

In the early 1980s 2,000 tons of opium were produced a year, nearly all of it for legitimate medicinal products. But illegal production continued in the Asian Golden Triangle. This was the ancient poppy growing area where the borders of China, Burma and Thailand meet. When the communists shut down opium production in the late 1940s, the Chinese producers moved to Burma and Thailand. The Thais soon shut it down, but Burma, run by a military dictatorship, needed the money, and didn't crack down until the 1990s, partly to destroy the military power of Chinese drug warlords who grew strong off their heroin profits. It then showed up in the tribal territories of northwest Pakistan, where it was soon driven across the border to Afghanistan after the Russian invasion. The Taliban heavily taxed drug production, and even halted production in 2000 because of oversupply and falling prices. The Taliban told Western nations that they were suppressing the opium production in return for foreign aid, but they allowed opium production to resume in 2001 when the foreign aid was not forthcoming. Opium has always been all about money.

Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan are suffering a growing opium addiction problem. There is some heroin addiction as well, but only among the wealthy. Opium is cheap (10-20 cents a gram) enough so that even the poor can get hooked if they can hustle and steal enough money to feed their habit. Because of religious prohibitions, alcohol is difficult to come by.

Opium is not explicitly forbidden to Moslems, is easier to conceal, and provides a better high. Even Taliban members use opium. This addiction problem is why most government officials in the region are down on opium, unless they are getting large bribes from the drug gangs. This is the case in Afghanistan, but many officials oppose the drug trade anyway. It's a disease that their own children are vulnerable to. In a way, the drug trade is inherently self-destructive. Despite all the cash it brings to those running it, the drugs eventually devastate the families of those involved in the business. It is, literally, a deal with the devil. The Islamic clergy are particularly down on the opium trade. Even many pro-Taliban clerics, who realize that drug money supports efforts to spread and enforce their conservative religious beliefs, oppose drug use. During the 1990s, the Taliban taxed the drug trade, even as they condemned using the drugs. There was quite a bit of tension within the Taliban leadership over the organization's relationship with the drug gangs. That tension never disappeared. The compromise solution was to allow production within Afghanistan, if it was all exported to infidel (non-Moslem) nations. But it doesn't work that way, and the Afghan drug production has created over ten million addicts in Afghanistan and neighboring nations.

Cocaine and heroin continue to sustain violence and widespread poverty in areas where the drug cartels can operate, like Venezuela, Mexico, and Afghanistan. China maintains the ban in the Golden Triangle and Pakistan pushed the heroin operations across the border into Afghanistan during the 1980s and refuses to allow it back into Pakistan. Pakistan kept the heroin production in Afghanistan by providing the heroin cartels with access to the needed chemicals for refining as well as access to Pakistani ports so the heroin could be exported.

Efforts to deal with these illegal drugs by legalizing them have been tried, and failed since the late 19th century. The problem is that if widely available legally these highly addictive drugs cause major social problems. No one has yet found a solution for that. The debilitating effects of alcohol are minor compared to what modern drugs can do when freely available.

Alcohol became a public health problem because the industrial revolution largely eliminated the health benefits of alcohol, which was a natural water purifier and was only available in low-alcohol beverages like beer and wine which for thousands of years were perishable and could not be stored for long periods. High-content alcoholic beverages like whiskey and brandy came along with the Industrial Revolution when they became cheap enough to be purchased and consumed in harmful quantities. The Industrial Revolution brought with it modern sanitation and widespread availability of clean water. Alcohol had one virtue, it was not as addictive as modern drugs like cocaine and heroin and that’s why long wars are still fought over control of heroin and cocaine production but not alcohol, nicotine, or caffeine. Currently Afghanistan is the most visible victim of their highly addictive and largely illegal drugs. While cocaine production is spread among several countries, over 80 percent of the illegal heroin comes out of Afghanistan. For corrupt politicians and religious zealots, the money is too good to pass up.




Help Keep Us From Drying Up

We need your help! Our subscription base has slowly been dwindling.

Each month we count on your contribute. You can support us in the following ways:

  1. Make sure you spread the word about us. Two ways to do that are to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.
  2. Subscribe to our daily newsletter. We’ll send the news to your email box, and you don’t have to come to the site unless you want to read columns or see photos.
  3. You can contribute to the health of StrategyPage.
Subscribe   contribute   Close