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Wednesday, 10 October, 2001, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
War Views: Afghan heroin trade will live on
Richard Davenport-Hines, an expert in the history of narcotics, says that whatever happens in the war on terror, the drugs trade will find a way to live on.

'The arms the Taleban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets,' Tony Blair claimed on 2 October.

'That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy.' What are the facts behind this declaration?

According to US State Department figures, Afghanistan's crop of 3,656 metric tons accounted for 72% of the world's illicit opium in 2000.

That is another part of their regime we should seek to destroy

Tony Blair
Opium poppies cultivated for the medical use of heroin are however legally grown in other parts of the world. At least 90% of the illicit heroin in Britain originated in Afghanistan.

Recent Home Office figures suggest that there are 295,000 illegal heroin users in Britain consuming about 30 tons annually with a value of more than 2.3 billion. This represents approximately one-third of the 6.6 billion spent annually on illegal drugs in the United Kingdom.


US government agencies have been crucial in escalating this supply of heroin to the western world.

In 1947 the CIA's supply of arms and money to Corsican gangs recruited to harass French trade unionists in Marseille docks was the beginning of the 'French Connection' which supplied heroin to North America until the early 1970s.

Heroin trafficking subsequently developed in areas of SE Asia suffering from weak central governments, endemic warfare and private armies allied to the CIA.

Drug trafficking does not seem to be a major source of money for al-Qaeda

CIA support of anti-Communist Chinese Nationalists who had settled near China's border with Burma [Myanmar] and of Hmong tribesmen in Laos helped the development of the so-called 'Golden Triangle' which, after American withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973, supplied about one-third of heroin smuggled into the US.

Burma remains the world's second largest illicit source of heroin, with an estimated 89,500 hectares of opium under cultivation in 1999.

Soviet occupation

Crucially, in 1979, the Carter administration shipped arms to the mujaheddin [Muslim holy warriors] resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. These American-backed rebels raised money for arms by selling opium, and by 1980, 60% of heroin in the US originated in Afghanistan.

Tony Blair's promise to destroy Afghan opium trafficking may prove hard to keep

A UK Government spokesman has stated that Osama Bin Laden 'has been closely involved in the Afghan drugs trade and has encouraged major traffickers in the past to flood Europe and the US as a means of undermining and destabilising'.

This may be overstated, for drug trafficking does not seem to be a major source of money for his al-Qaeda network.

Indeed, when the Taleban temporarily banned the cultivation and trafficking in opium during 2000, it was their opponents the Northern Alliance who continued to grow and sell the poppy crop.

Hard promise

Tony Blair's promise to destroy Afghan opium trafficking may prove hard to keep. Despite the Bush administration's costly Operation Just Cause, launched in 1989 against General Noriega's drug-racketeering regime in Panama, that country remains a major centre of drug money laundering and an important link in cocaine shipments.

Drugs enforcement often serves only as a business incentive

The joint US/Colombian search-and-kill operation of 1993 against Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellin drug cartel in Colombia, merely improved the business opportunities for his rivals.

Reports from both the US Drug Enforcement Agency and the United Nations agree that Colombia's cocaine production capacity has soared since Escobar's death.

Raised stakes

Drugs are like most other businesses: the higher the risks, the higher the potential rewards. If policing is increased, or criminal penalties are raised, then the profits taken by successful trafficker will be hiked too.

Drugs enforcement often serves only as a business incentive, as there will always be men desperate or bold enough to take on the increased risk.

Currently up to 15% of illicit heroin is intercepted. As traffickers have gross profit margins of up to 300%, at least 75% of illicit shipments would have to be intercepted before the traffickers' profits are hurt. It is unlikely to happen.

Richard Davenport-Hines' book The Pursuit of Oblivion - A Global History of Narcotics 1500-2000 will be published by Weidenfield and Nicolson next week.

This is one of a series of differing opinions on the War on Terror which we shall be publishing in the coming days. You can send your view about this or other articles by using the form below.

Your comments:

Isn't it time that we force world governments to act upon the realizations that prohibitions just don't work, and that they do more harm than good?
Peter, US

So Britain alone (Britain alone!!!) spends more than 2.3 billion on heroin annually, 90% of which originates from Afghanistan. Yet drugs remain illegal, their revenues continue to fuel illegal arms trading the world over (and in turn terrorism of course), whilst half of Afghanistan starves and the other half gets bombed. It's a sick, sick, world we live in and it frightens me to think where this is all leading to.
Rich, UK

As long as there is demand, surely destroying the crop in Afghanistan would just ramp up the price of heroin from other sources.
Sam, UK

I sincerely hope that the use of biological weapons in the war on terrorism would be regarded as totally unconceivable. The fear of biological and chemical retaliation against western nations; and the risk of losing Arab support, should stand as a deterrent to deliberate sabotage of the environment in that region.
Andy, UK

It's quite disheartening to note that there are no absolute means of totally destroying this trade, as long as there are consumers, I guess supply will continue somehow, if they have official patronage in any country , then it's next to impossible to stop drug cultivation. It's a sad state and we have to live with this bitter truth. It's difficult to pinpoint the blame on either the producer or the consumer of drugs
Deepak, India

I recall reading about the development of a biological agent that kills opium poppies. Using such a weapon against the drug trade in Afghanistan, said an official, would be an act of war, and so could not be considered without Afghan approval. But now that we are "at war with terrorism", how about it Tony?
Paul, UK

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See also:

04 Oct 01 | South Asia
Analysis: The heroin trail
04 Oct 01 | UK Politics
Blair statement in full
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