Exit Strategies

Heroin and U.S. Empire

The managers of U.S. interventions abroad tout quantitative measurements as "metrics of success" in pacifying the natives. So here's a metric the counterinsurgency crowd might find interesting: the number of U.S. soldiers seeking treatment for opiate dependency rose 50% in conjunction with Washington's recent "surge" into Afghanistan.

The rise in opiate addictions among U.S. servicemen is no mere coincidence with the surge in the Hindu Kush. Afghanistan produces over 90% of the world's supply of heroin. Over the course of five years, the Army's figure has "skyrocketed" over 500%, from 89 in 2004 to 529 in 2009. And these are only the reported instances, which usually compose a minority of actual cases of drug abuse. It's becoming increasingly hard to ignore the nexus between narcotics trafficking in Eurasia and U.S. foreign policy.

The growing problem with narcotics in the U.S. armed forces calls to mind unmistakable parallels with the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. The Red Army was undermined and demoralized by an epidemic of drug use, which only compounded the problems of occupation. A readily available supply of drugs from opium and heroin to hashish was employed as a weapon by the mujahideen against the Russians.

Before the 1979 invasion, opium cultivation in Afghanistan's river valleys was insignificant. It swelled throughout the 1980s as the various tribal warlords fighting the Soviets found narcotics production and distribution especially profitable. Afghan heroin would then begin its penetration of western markets. To move its shipments, the resistance had plenty of help in logistics and security from ISI, Pakistani intelligence. As the CIA was the guiding force behind the covert war in Afghanistan, at a minimum this enterprise was undertaken with Washington's studied ignorance.

States have been known to form alliances with narcotics syndicates out of both geopolitical considerations and profit motives.  Besides the rather obvious example of Victorian Britain prosecuting the Opium Wars for commercial advantage, there are other more recent cases worth mentioning. France's external intelligence service, the SDECE (now the DGSE), organized post-World War II opium trafficking in Indochina and was intimately connected with Corsican heroin smugglers well into the 1970s. The Syrian government is alleged to facilitate and profit from Hezbollah's narcotics business centered in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

The United States also has a record of partnerships with sub-state forces engaged in the drug trade. The Cold War saw the U.S. arranging alliances throughout Asia to contain Soviet and Chinese Communism. In Indochina, Langley would have to pick up where the French left off. To finance resistance to Communist power, groups from Chiang-Kai Shek's Kuomintang to Laotian General Vang Pao's army grew opium in Southeast Asia's highlands- a phenomenon that would come to be known as the Golden Triangle. They simultaneously received Washington's covert paramilitary and intelligence support, which created a more secure and efficient supply chain.

Cooperation with the warlords of the Golden Triangle produced disastrous results for U.S. troops in Vietnam and American society.  Up to a third of Army personnel in Vietnam in 1973 were using heroin. While U.S. forces in Afghanistan aren't yet grappling with drug abuse on the scale of the Vietnam campaign, these two cases bear more than a passing resemblance. A common geopolitical dynamic is at work: the United States has effectively empowered narcotics traffickers to advance its strategic agenda for Eurasia.

There is little doubt that America's allies in Kabul are far and away the world's foremost purveyors of heroin. Ahmed Wali Karzai, Afghan President Hamid Karzai's brother and not-so-secret CIA asset, is one of the country's top drug lords. Whatever revenue the Taliban generates from narcotics constitutes only a small fraction of the cash from the opium industry in Afghanistan. Taliban fighters are able to devote around $125 million yearly in drug money (also stemming from cultivation and sales in Pakistan) to their cause, but the total profits accrued to Afghan traffickers reach an annual $3 billion. If the insurgency receives around 4 % of this income, then who gets the remainder?

Through its continuing presence in Afghanistan, the United States is running first-class protection for the world's most prolific narcostate. Evidence suggests that both Washington and Wall Street benefit from this arrangement. The international market for Afghan opiates is estimated at $65 billion per annum. According to UN Office of Drugs and Crime director Antonio Maria Costa, much of this is "injected into the world's formal economies every year through the spread of money laundering and the criminalization of legal assets." Costa then asserts that the liquidity generated from drug trafficking has helped keep Western financial institutions solvent during the financial crisis.

Afghanistan's opium poppy bonanza carries serious geopolitical implications, as well. The narcotics traffic itself corrupts entire governments across the space of Eurasia, while heroin use devastates the socio-economic and demographic fabric of its nations. 

As the foremost consumer of heroin, Russia stands at the top of this list with over 2 million addicts. 30-40,000 Russians die annually from the drug's effects, including HIV/AIDS. For youth mortality, such a situation is akin to a major regional war.  Given the challenges the country already faces with a shrinking population base, the flood of opiates from Central Asia presents a grave threat to the Russian state's long-term viability.  The Kremlin is likely to enact a harsher security policy on its southern frontiers given these actual dangers.

Other countries confront similar challenges as their markets for Afghan opiates expand. Iran's drug problem shows no signs of abating, and there has been a rapid increase in addictions with the introduction of "crack", a form of heroin that is smoked. As a major transit nation lying astride the ancient Silk Road to Europe, Persians are swamped with relatively cheap narcotics from Afghanistan. China, too, is seeing a substantial boost in the amount of heroin shipped across its western borders into Xinjiang. The bounty of Afghanistan's opium harvest acts as a weapon that inflicts grievous damage upon societies and increases their vulnerability to destabilization.

Even if turning a blind eye to the traffic is more a matter of expediency than long-term design by those who formulate U.S. policy, it works to undermine America's major-power competitors in Eurasia. Conversely, Washington's allies benefit at several links in the supply chain for Afghan heroin. In Mikheil Saakashvili's Georgia, for example, there has been a noticeable uptick in narcotics smuggling into Europe. Georgian forces are now serving in Helmand province, Afghanistan's most productive opium-growing region.  The infamous Balkan route, however, provides the strongest evidence of U.S. clients' illicit ventures.

With over 3 million addicts, Europe collectively consumes the lion's share of heroin from Afghanistan. Of all the shipments of the drug bound for Europe, 80% traverses the Balkan route. From the Afghan border, the product passes through Iran into Turkey and the Balkans, where delivery into the EU takes place. Officials in Kabul and the warlords of Kandahar and Herat are far from the only parties to reap a handsome profit from pushing heroin. Elements of the Turkish military and intelligence apparatus are pivotal to maintaining the smuggling conduit into southeastern Europe, which serves as a covert means of financing. Albanian gangs, which specialize in the distribution of shipments to Europe's major cities, have particularly close connections with the government of NATO-protectorate Kosovo.

The heroin pipeline from Central Asia to the Balkans geographically mirrors the blueprint for another pipeline: Nabucco, the U.S.-sponsored initiative to bring Caspian natural gas to Europe. Washington aims to funnel former Soviet Central Asia's most lucrative resource away from Russian influence and into the U.S. orbit

While the Balkan route presents us the dark reality of the New Silk Road, Nabucco is the public component of the vision for an East-West Corridor. Under the aegis of U.S. missile defense architecture, gas would transit through Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania on its way westward. The logistical requirements of the drug trade and energy transport projects in Eurasia are quite different, but they share common geopolitical contours.

In its "War on Terrorism", the United States embarked on a grand social engineering experiment to transform Afghanistan its own image. The result has been a massive expansion of that country's narcotics industry and its global horizons. While the White House is not coordinating weekly heroin shipments through Istanbul, it will never take meaningful action against traffickers who are useful allies. Too many parties benefit: the smuggling operations within national governments, the Western banks that receive proceeds for laundering, and the U.S. policy elites who seek to attain dominance in the heart of Eurasia.

In some ways Afghanistan's top export embodies the most insidious aspects of the postmodern Pax Americana. It erases borders, eviscerates cultures and destroys families to meet an insatiable desire.  Heroin (as well as its synthetic equivalents) not only corrupts public life, but leads to the spiritual impoverishment of its individual victims. Enslavement to the product derives from the autonomous choice so glorified by contemporary civilization. Every euphoric moment from the opiate's consumption marks a further descent along a spiral of alienation and despair into nothingness. It's the Open Society's perfect drug.