Opium War.

Opium was a familiar plague in Asia before the 20th Century. Chinese efforts to ban the import of opium from British India led to the Opium Wars, which China lost. Conquering opium became associated with conquering sovereignty for the Chinese. When the Chinese Communists won the civil war in 1949, they launched a campaign against drug use and against opium production within China. Chinese producers fled to Laos and Burma (today’s Myanmar). Anti-drug campaigns in other Middle Eastern and Asian countries pushed the heart of production into increasingly remote areas: Burma, Laos, and most of all, Afghanistan. Once the long war against the Soviet Union and its Afghan puppets (1979-1989) wrecked traditional wheat and grape farming, Afghan peasants moved into growing opium poppies

Since the Iranian Revolution (1979) the government has tried to end drug abuse, production, and role as a transit corridor for Afghan production. Afghan producers shifted their routes to the successor states created by the collapse of the Soviet Union (1990). The hall-marks of these successor states were poverty, corruption, and badly secured nuclear stockpiles left over from the Soviet Union. For criminals—or for Islamists—conditions were perfect. (There’s a movie in this, if only Hollywood will listen.)

The Taliban, like the Iranian regime, tried hard to suppress the opium trade and opium use in Afghanistan after they came to power. In 2000 the Taliban ordered an end to poppy farming and to the opium trade. Partly, they wanted to end a social evil; partly they wanted to destroy the financial base of the regional warlords who opposed them. Whatever their motive, opium production came to a near halt. The American invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban, freed the warlords to pursue their traditional actions, and caused the Taliban itself to turn to opium dealing as a way of financing its war to return to power. Within a few years of the American invasion, almost 90 percent of the world’s opium again came from Afghanistan. Myanmar and Laos came in distant second and third places.

Afghanistan is hardly the only weak state that is caught up in the international narcotics trade. In 1998 the Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il launched his government into the opium trade, producing it on collective farms and transporting the product through North Korea’s embassies. Nigerian drug dealers have set up business in Bangkok to buy Pakistani and Iranian heroin for re-sale everywhere there is a part of the Nigerian diaspora. (There’s a movie in this, if only Hollywood will listen.) The cocaine cartels fighting against the Columbian government broadened their own product-line to include opium poppies and then heroin.

In the eyes of American officials, putting a stop once again to the opium trade appeared to be essential to building a viable Afghan state by taming both the warlords and the Taliban. A viable state, in turn, formed a prerequisite to an American escape from Afghanistan. In early 2005 the Americans and the Afghan government launched “Plan Afghanistan,” which was modeled on the “Plan Columbia” anti-cocaine campaign begun in 1999.[1] The plan combined assistance to farmers to help them shift to other crops with efforts to eradicate opium poppies and interrupt the movement of opium out of the country. So far, neither “Plan” appears to have made a serious dent in the trade. Drugs give weak states a kind of strength, just not the kind we want.

Matthew Quirk, “The World in Numbers: The New Opium War,” Atlantic, March 2005, pp. 52-53.

[1] This offers an interesting example of analogical thinking as a guide to action. See: Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton UP, 1992); and Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (Free Press, 1988).

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