In the movie Charlie Wilson’s War, Philip Seymour Hoffman played a CIA officer determined to help Afghans win back their country from occupying Soviets in the 1980s. The helicopter-killing missiles that Hoffman’s character promoted for mujahedeen fighters — and procured by Charlie Wilson’s congressional support —were decisive in turning the tide against the Soviet Red Army.
But there is a cruel twist of ironic fate in the drug-addicted Hoffman’s recent heroin overdose death. Most of the world’s heroin — about 80 percent — is produced in the country where the United States has fought its longest war: Afghanistan.
America’s war in Afghanistan is finally winding down, but the long-term drug war with that country is just warming up. And many of the victims of that 21st-century global opiate war will be the hundreds of thousands of Americans at every level of society, rich and poor, famous or ignored.
Irony seems to be at the heart of this issue.
Most of the heroin being produced in the world these days originates in the opium poppy fields of Afghanistan. At the time of the Sept. 11 twin-tower attacks, the Taliban had nearly eradicated Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation. The Taliban are radical extremists when it comes to Islamic purity and anti-modernity, but they were also radically anti-narcotics. Villainous Taliban leader and former emir of Afghanistan, Mullah Mohammed Omar, worked with the United Nations to ban poppy farming. Enforcement of the ban under the Taliban included severe public punishment.
When the Afghans, many of them former mujahedeen, overthrew the Taliban with the help of American forces, the regulating power for opium cultivation was gone. Suddenly, the high-profit, export-oriented heroin market was back in business. Following the Taliban’s overthrow, new players entered the highly profitable drug game — with many of them allegedly related to America’s ally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai is an erratic figure. As the American-led International Security and Assistance Force enter the endgame phase of the Afghan war, Karzai has seemingly turned on America — hyping accusations of civilian attacks by the Obama administration and holding hostage a negotiated solution for U.S. troop withdrawal. He refuses to sign the already concluded, Loya Jirga-elder leadership approved, U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement, hoping to ride out the April presidential elections.
If the threat to American troops on the ground in Afghanistan were not enough, Karzai is also at least partly responsible for the steady increase in the opium trade in his country.
And since irony is an Afghan theme, the Taliban that once used a medieval approach to eradicate opium poppy fields now relies on poppy cultivation to help fund its armed opposition to the Karzai regime.
A future Karzai-led Afghanistan, with or without an American security presence (and with or without a negotiated agreement with the Taliban), will still be a heroin-exporting Afghanistan. And if recent trends are any indication, the heroin exporting machine will continue to grow: In 2013, Afghan opium production grew 36 percent from the previous year, according to testimony at a U.S. Senate hearing. According to John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, the value of Afghan heroin produced in 2013 was about $3 billion — and that is after $2 billion has been spent on a Pentagon counter narcotics effort.
I covered the end of Charlie Wilson’s war when I was a Moscow correspondent in the 1990s, flying to Kabul on a vulnerable Soviet military transport. I witnessed the devastating effects and the lingering consequences of heroin addiction, both inside and outside of Afghanistan — from the apartments of Russian soldiers to the salons of Roman elites in Italy, and on the hard American streets. The scourge of heroin knows no social or physical boundaries.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 9.2 million heroin users, according to the Foundation for a Drug-Free World. As the U.S. counterterrorism, counterinsurgency and counter narcotics efforts in Afghanistan wind down, another, more pernicious and devastating war with more casualties than the recent hot wars is clearly on the horizon.
Afghanistan may be headed to the backburner of our consciousness once American troops are home, but that country will continue to enter our social bloodstream. Afghanistan harbored al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden prior to 2001. They are again cultivating terrorism — only in this instance, the terror is in a syringe.
Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution.
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