Opium in Afghanistan: causes, effects and its relation with American interventionism

In 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and, after 10 years of resistance from Mujahedin rebels, backed by the US, was defeated. The CIA’s actions against the Soviet occupation helped turn borders into a heroin trade platform. After September 11, 2001, the United States joined several allies in overthrowing the Taliban. Since then, opium production has also skyrocketed. On the one hand, the Taliban used the industry as a source of funds and a way to gain people loyalty, contributing to the rise of opium. On the other hand, the continued interventions of the Americans also helped in this drug problem escalation and its devastating effects. This article aims to explore the relation between American interventions and the rise of opium in Afghanistan, potential causes and social impacts.

Alfred McCoy establishes a chronological order, beginning in the late 1970s and early 1990s. In the 10 years following the Soviet invasion, the ClA provided the mujahideen with millions of dollars in weapons. These funds and the expanding opium would sustain Afghan resistance in the fight for Soviet withdrawal. Thus, the CIA’s secret war against the Soviet occupation contributed to establishing a network of heroin laboratories on the Afghan border with Pakistan.  John Glaze also refers to the dissemination of laboratories in “Opium and Afghanistan: Reassessing U.S. Counternarcotic Strategy”, indicating that heroin processing generally took place outside the country but, in the late 1990s, internal laboratories increased, especially in the south. Afghanistan’s communist regime fell in 1992, sparking a civil war between the Mujahedin groups. From 1992 to 1994, weapons and opium were combined in a struggle for the power of the country. Later, in 1996, a Pashtun force, the Taliban, took over Kabul, taking control of the majority of the country in 1998. An article by the Geopolitical Monitor reports that thousands of Islamist militants were trained in Pakistan between 1986 and 1992, in camps overseen by the CIA and British MI6. It states that in 1995 the Pakistani ISI helped the Taliban in the Afghan civil war and that, as in the war against the USSR, it sought out saudi intelligence for funding. He argues that the Taliban’s rise in Afghanistan was supported by the CIA, which worked with the ISI. The article quotes a former member of the Indian Government saying that the failure of the fight against heroin is due to the fact that the CIA encouraged drug lords during the Afghan war in order to spread heroin among the Soviets, as it did in the search for al-Qaeda. McCoy (2009) emphasizes the fact that the Taliban regime encouraged the cultivation of opium, offering protection to the export trade and collecting taxes while in power. Until, following a devastating drought in 2000, they banned cultivation. So, it’s clear that the US was present at the beginning of the opium spread (as shown in Figure 1), with the possibility of its economic and material support, or its weak and reduced counter-narcotics action, had helped the Taliban turning traffic in one of their tools. In fact, the rise of opium was not a priority for the US, as illustrated by a former director of the Afghan CIA operation, quoted by McCoy (2009): “We didn’t have the resources or the time to devote ourselves to a drug trafficking investigation. I don’t think we need to apologize for this. There was precipitation in terms of drugs, yes. But the main goal has been achieved. The Soviets left Afghanistan.”

Figure 1 – Cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan between 1986 and 2006. Source: “Opium and Afghanistan: Reassessing U.S. Counternarcotic Strategy”.

Alfred McCoy (2009) also says that opium culture increased after 2001, the year of the American invasion as a result of 9/11. The author explains how the Taliban regime quickly collapsed and the ban on opium may have contributed to this. He explains that to capture Kabul and other key cities, the CIA had the support of the Northern Alliance and a Pashtun group. When they got it, the ClA ceded control to the allied military forces. In the following years, drug suppression programs gave place to heroin profits. In 2004, the CIA linked the rise of drug trafficking to a resurgence of the Taliban. Following that, Secretary of State Colin Powell urged a strategy against narcotics (including the same type of aggressive aerial defoliation that is then used in Colombia), but the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan resisted it. The UN also said that the Taliban “began extracting from the drug funds for weapons, logistics and militias.” In 2008, Washington sent more troops to Afghanistan as well as in 2016. In 2017, planes were sent to destroy heroin labs. The morality of these interventions is questionable, as they have often ignored the severity of the devastating consequences on populations.

Political issues may remain ambiguous, but it is certain that, in addition to these, other factors were decisive for the opium boom. The World Bank argues that it has been spurred by a supply reduction in the world market from other sources, the demand for new markets, Afghanistan’s comparative advantage and war-swell situations such as the collapse of governance and rural poverty. On this issue, Glaze (2007) points out that the high rate of return from poppy cultivation has encouraged a change from traditional crops to opium, remembering that agriculture is the sustenance of 70% of Afghans and the country’s main source of income. The spread of opium has numerous consequences, of which the World Bank highlights those related to social and government impacts. Noting that opium yields are concentrated in the most powerful actors involved in trade, transformation and trafficking, it indicates that many poor depend on opium, because it is an activity lacking in highly intensive labor, partly satisfied by domestic work. Thus, the reduction in opium prices (without other means of subsistence) aggravate rural poverty.

The increase in consumption may be related to high unemployment, the social unrest caused by the war and the return of refugees from Iran and Pakistan, who became addicted there and who have addicted family members, including children. UN studies indicates that about 3% of women were drug addicts in 2009, a number that may be considered low because addiction can be hidden out of shame, recalling the religious context that prohibits the use of these substances. In 2015 it rose to 9.5%. In the same year, the UN points out that 9.2% of children up to the age of 14 were positive for at least one type of drug. Fortunately, there are treatment centers all over Afghanistan, but most are small, poorly equipped and underfunded. In the documentary Afghanistan’s Child Drug Addicts, the issue of child dependence and its causes is scrutinized. The main causes are mental instability caused by war; the millions of wounded and disabled (from the loss of limbs to post-traumatic stress disorder, which lead to the use drugs as a way to deal with suffering among the most disadvantaged families, who cannot buy medication); the fact that opium is cheaper than medicine and also takes a smaller amount to make effect. In addition, some families even use opium to reduce appetite because they don’t have enough food, which is more expensive than the drug. The documented experiences clarify the political and social consequences, as well as the vicious cycle that the whole situation is.

In conclusion, it is difficult to define the extent of the US role in Afghanistan’s opium increasing, but it can be said that its presence actually coexists with the timeline in which the boom of this substance took place. Aggressive interventions are not the best counternarcotic strategy, as they end up not considering the possibility of side effects that, in turn, can enhance drug use, as we have seen from the examples given. Since Afghanistan is mostly Islamic, culture has a lot of weight in the early identification of dependents and their treatment, because the religion condemns drug use and that can lead to the idea that the centers allow addictive behaviors, which feeds their discredit and the lack of government support. By investing in rehabilitation and treatment centers, there is the possibility that the rehabilitated population can contribute in a positive way and shake this vicious cycle, in which solutions (interventions) end up causing situations that make individuals more likely to be dependent on opium. It is also necessary to invest in agriculture, even if it is a small part of military funding, in order to produce more options for farmers who depend on opium cultivation. As McCoy (2009) suggests, “orchards could be rebuilt, herds repopulated, seed stocks and irrigation systems repaired.”


  • Chelala, C., 2013. Afghanistan’s legacy of child opium addiction. [online] The Japan Times. Available at: <https://www.japantimes.co.jp/opinion/2013/03/01/commentary/world-commentary/afghanistans-legacy-of-child-opium-addiction/> [Accessed 9 February 2021].
  • Glaze, J., 2007. Opium and Afghanistan: Reassessing U.S. Counternarcotics Strategy. [online] Available at: <https://www.files.ethz.ch/isn/46869/1007_OpiumAfghan.pdf> [Accessed 9 February 2021].
  • Hadid, D. and Ghani, K., 2019. Women and Children Are The Emerging Face Of Drug Addiction In Afghanistan. [online] NPR. Available at: <https://www.npr.org/sections/goatsandsoda/2019/10/29/771374889/women-and-children-are-the-emerging-face-of-drug-addiction-in-afghanistan> [Accessed 9 February 2021].
  • Marshall, A., 2008. Afghan Heroin & the CIA. [online] Geopolitical Monitor. Available at: <https://www.geopoliticalmonitor.com/afghan-heroin-the-cia-519/> [Accessed 9 February 2021].
  • McCoy, A., 2009. How the heroin trade explains the US-UK failure in Afghanistan. [online] The Guardian. Available at: <https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jan/09/how-the-heroin-trade-explains-the-us-uk-failure-in-afghanistan> [Accessed 9 February 2021].
  • Unreported World: Afghanistan’s Child Drug Addicts. 2010. [film] Presented by R. Navai. UK: Channel 4.
  • Ward, C. and Byrd, W., 2004. Afghanistan’s Opium Drug Economy. [ebook] Washington D.C.: World Bank. Available at: <http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/158651468767124612/pdf/311490PAPER0AF100SASPR0no051Dec0171.pdf> [Accessed 9 February 2021].

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