Blood of the Poppy: The Cold War and the Birth of the Afghan Narco State

For millennia, Afghanistan and its people have had to endure the wildly changing fortunes of living in the strategic heartland of Asia. The legendary riches of Kabul, Balkh, and Begram that once captured the imagination (and greed) of Alexander of Macedon seem a distant myth when faced with the havoc wreaked by centuries of invasion and war. Thus, it is sadly ironic that while the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and the subsequent political chaos dealt massive damage to the country, Afghanistan’s position at the crossroads of global trade has not receded, but has instead taken on a new life.

In 2014, Afghan opium exports totaled 6,400 pounds, accounting for 90 percent of global opium supply (1). The poppy plant has a long history of cultivation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but its influence today is unprecedented, serving as the basis of Afghanistan’s global opium network. Opium production has filled the coffers of brutal warlords vying for power from the 1980s to the present, spanning the Cold War and the U.S. invasion in 2001. It financed the C.I.A.-sponsored mujahideen in their battle against the Soviet Union in the 1980s and only skyrocketed from there, being used today by both the Taliban and even the Afghan government (informally) as a bountiful cash crop (2).

Yet, as usual, the Afghan people have paid the brutal price. Some 2 million Afghans (over 5 percent of the population) suffer from opiate addiction, according to Hadi Khalid, a former counternarcotics official in the Afghan government. Khalid believes official reports by the U.N. and other organizations consistently underreported addiction figures, perhaps due to the “deep embarrassment over how addiction rates had risen despite billions of dollars in development assistance” (3). Furthermore, this flood of opiates into the world market has triggered similar or worse addiction epidemics in other countries. Some 4.5 million Pakistanis suffer from opiate dependency, illustrating the Afghan drug industry’s wide-reaching effects.

The horrific outcome of this glut in opiate trade we witness today contrasts with Afghanistan and Pakistan’s role in the drug trade before 1979 and the Afghan War, when “there was no local production of heroin in either Afghanistan or Pakistan” (4). While poppy cultivation existed then, it accounted for less than 5 percent of global opium production . In order to confront Afghanistan’s opium industry and move towards mitigating its effects, it is crucial to understand the roots of the Afghan drug trade in the context of the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s and how this conflict set the stage for the birth of the 21st-century Afghan narco state.



The Soviet invasion of 1979 and the U.S. response to this incursion unleashed an array of destabilizing forces in Afghanistan. Within this conflict lie the origins of several contemporary geopolitical contests, such as the politicization of the Sunni-Shi’a doctrinal divide and the rise of right-wing Islamism in global terrorism, but such subjects warrant an independent discussion. Most pertinent to this article is the momentous expansion of poppy cultivation and subsequent drug trade that coincides exactly with the intervention of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) into Afghanistan. As Julien Mercille notes, several contemporary analyses of the Afghan drug trade by the UN, NATO, Western nations, academia, and the media have missed the mark by blaming the “irrationality of locals” or other causes inherent to Afghans and within Afghanistan (5). While local warlords and corrupt governmental officials no doubt play a large part in the maintenance of the opium industry, this perspective unjustly diminishes the critical role that the CIA and ISI played in providing the monetary, legal, and logistical cover for drug operations.

After the Communist-led coup of 1978 in Afghanistan that removed the dictator Mohammad Daud disintegrated into factional political disputes, the Red Army invaded a year later in December to prop up the wavering pro-Soviet regime. Prior to this, in July 1979, President Jimmy Carter signed a directive to provide aid to anti-communist forces so as “to induce a Soviet military intervention,” in the words of Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s National Security Advisor (6). Aid to nujahideen forces in Afghanistan went hand-in-hand with aid to the military dictatorship of General Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan, which, in becoming the third biggest beneficiary of American foreign aid (after Israel and Egypt), took on new importance as an ally after Afghanistan’s political move towards the Soviet Union (7). Crucially, however, the CIA hoped to maintain plausible deniability over their operations in Afghanistan by developing an extensive chain of proxies, the most important one being the Pakistani ISI. As Mahmood Mamdani argues, “It would be a proxy war run through third and fourth parties” so as “to ensure the direct involvement of as few Americans as possible” (8). Yet the implication of this seemingly arms-length approach to the Afghan jihad was that regional proxies could operate with unprecedented freedom, and as long as nominal objectives were accomplished (as the CIA chief in Pakistan Howard Hart put it, “Go kill Soviet soldiers”), mujahideen leaders would remain on the receiving end of the arms and cash pipeline from Langley via Islamabad (9). Thus, the United States and its allies (such as Saudi Arabia) poured money into a religiously-inflected geopolitical contest for hegemony in Afghanistan, culminating in what can only be called an “American jihad” (10)



ISI’s close connections to mujahideen guerilla fighters made the agency indispensable for the CIA, who relied on the Pakistani intelligence service for contacts among resistance forces and ground intelligence. And so, without batting an eye, the CIA, at the encouragement of ISI, flooded Afghanistan’s would-be warlords with money, weapons, and perhaps most destructively, the legal and logistical means to raise massive funding through the drug trade.

As many have noted, the CIA’s game plan for operating proxies on the cheap by papering over their extensive drug operations originated in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 1970s. In the famous “Golden Triangle” region that extends across the borders of Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand, American-funded Nationalist Chinese (KMT) military units, Yao mercenaries, and the Hmong tribe guerrillas operated what would become one of the world’s most bountiful opium-growing and heroin-processing regions in the world. The CIA would tolerate KMT opium caravans, which, according to the agency, accounted for 90% of Burmese opium smuggling, and even lent a helping hand by chartering Air America to transport the drug from the Hmong-controlled poppy fields of northern Thailand to refineries in the tri-border area (11). Rising addiction levels among American troops in Vietnam buoyed the Southeast Asian opium and heroin industry, which in turn bounced back from troop withdrawals by exporting opium directly into the major consumption hubs of Europe and the United States (12).

This strategy presented an invaluable tool for maintaining the plausible deniability required by the CIA in managing resistance groups in the Afghan war. Of the $2 billion in covert aid provided to mujahideen guerrillas over the course of the war, over half was given to one man, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and his private political party-turned-army, the Hizb-i Islami (Islamic Party) (13). Hekmatyar, a man who in the early 1970s had ordered fellow members of the Hizb to “throw vials of acid into the faces of women students who refused to wear veils,” gained the trust of the CIA through his contacts in ISI (14). Hekmatyar had worked closely with the Pakistani government prior to the Soviet invasion, when in 1975 he was sent with 5,000 Afghan rebels (trained in clandestine camps in Pakistan, much like later mujahideen fighters) to spark revolts against the Afghan Prime Minister Daud (15).

Hekmatyar’s guerrillas, in keeping with their share of CIA funds, also received over half of the arm shipments sent by the agency. However, as the Hizb’s ranks swelled, Hekmatyar’s reign of terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan was beginning. Given the power to rule over Afghan refugee camps encircling Peshawar, Hekmatyar slaughtered defectors from the Afghan government, seen as mortal enemies in the war (16). This violence, Mamdani says, closely hewed to the approach of the CIA and ISI, since “neither agency was interested in a compromise settlement” with the Soviets and the Afghan government and “preferred anti-Communist radical Islamists who shared their desire for ‘killing Russians’” (17).

Furthermore, Hekmatyar’s guerrilla army operated its drug operations with the same ruthlessness it displayed in the refugee camps. The Hizb was known to have killed at least 30 members of another mujahideen group, signaling Hekmatyar’s intention to consolidate his power as the preeminent mujahideen warlord in Afghanistan (18). After seizing control of southern Helmand, Hekmatyar and his commanders established six heroin refineries in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But trouble brewed on the horizon, as rival mujahedeen groups began challenging Hekmatyar’s stake in the opium/heroin trade. Mullah Nasim Akhundzada, known as the “King of Heroin,” seized the highly irrigated fields of northern Helmand and began demanding opium cultivation from farmers who were “once Afghanistan’s breadbasket” (19). Mullah Nasim was by no means less brutal than Hekmatyar, and Nasim would punish those farmers who dared to disobey his orders “by killing or castrating” them.

But in light of this enormous opium industry, which was producing nearly 575 tons of opium by 1983, one wonders where President Reagan’s famous “war on drugs” enters into the equation. Simply put, it didn’t matter. The CIA and ISI systematically enabled mujahideen groups like those led by Hekmatyar and Mullah Nasim to continue and expand the growth of poppy and the refinement of opium and heroin by providing crucial services at each juncture of the drug trade. This occurred initially through, as we have seen, massive amounts of covert funding and arms trafficking that empowered these groups to conquer wide swaths of arable land in Helmand and brutally subject local peasant populations to poppy cultivation. General Fazle Huq of the Pakistani army, who governed over the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) where at least 100-200 heroin refineries stood, protected heroin traders and allowed them to deposit funds in the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), based in Abu Dhabi and run by Pakistanis (20). Trucks carrying CIA weapons would return to Karachi loaded with heroin, but were protected from searches by ISI papers (21). And perhaps most ironically, the well-funded DEA office in Islamabad was almost entirely shut out of free operations, making no significant arrests, due to the simple reality that “U.S. narcotics policy in Afghanistan has been subordinated to the war against Soviet influence there” (22).



In the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, the CIA and ISI assets operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan did not simply put down their guns and return to their homes (something that should come as no surprise). By this point in 1990, opium production in Afghanistan and Pakistan comprised 71% of global supply, and warlords like Hekmatyar and Mullah Nasim intended to keep it that way (23). Armed by the CIA with arsenals that included “automatic assault rifles, anti-aircraft guns, and rocket launchers,” former mujahideen groups zealously guarded their opium fields against the limited power of the police (24). Mullah Nasim, before his assassination in 1990 by Hekmatyar’s troops, held the position of Deputy Defense Minister in the Afghan government. Hekmatyar himself went on to become Prime Minister of the interim regime in Afghanistan (before Kabul’s conquest by the Taliban) in 1996, and then a prominent ally of Osama bin Laden post-9/11. Mullah Nasim’s nephew Sher Mohammad Akhundzada was appointed the governor of Helmand by Hamid Karzai after the U.S. invasion in 2002, illustrating how high narcotics corruption in Afghanistan has reached (25).


Yet to focus solely on these warlords diminishes the tangible effect of their actions on the Afghan and Pakistani populace. As this stark video from the New York Times demonstrates, Afghan heroin addicts have become something of a popular attraction in Kabul, gathering pitifully under a bridge to satiate their dependency on the drugs that have flooded their society. The war has left an irrevocable scar on Afghanistan, and this has directly fueled drug culture by bringing about “prolonged human deprivation and suffering, the breakdown of traditional social controls, the return of refugees who developed a drug problem in refugee camps, and the almost unlimited availability of opiates within Afghanistan” (26).  Poppy cultivators, who could be earning as much as $100,000 for their product on the streets of Europe or in the United States, earn only $600 for that same lump of opium in Afghanistan. (27). These impoverished farmers are forced to take loans from the drug traders to continue poppy cultivation (which was, you might remember, forced on them in the first place). But this poppy, targeted by the Afghan government in an eradication program, in some cases is quickly destroyed, forcing some families to pay their debt in a horrific alternative, by giving their daughters as brides to the warlords. Caught between the competing factions of the government and the cartels, peasants in Afghanistan have been, as has been a regular occurrence in the past few centuries, shoehorned into the maelstrom of a war utterly foreign to their pursuit for survival (28). 



(1) Matthieu Aikins, “Afghanistan: The Making of a Narco State,” Rolling Stone, 4 December 2014.

(2) Ibid

(3) Joseph Goldstein, “Kabul Residents Watch as Heroin Addiction Grows,” The New York Times, 20 December 2014.

(4) Mahmood Mamdani, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, and the Roots of Terror, (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2004), 143

(5) Julien Mercille, Cruel Harvest: US Intervention in the Afghan Drug Trade, (London: Pluto Press, 2012), 14

(6) Mamdani, 124

(7) Ibid, 126

(8) Ibid, 131

(9) Tim Weiner, Legacy of Ashes: The History of the CIA, (New York: Anchor Books, 2008), 444

(10) Mamdani, 130

(11) Alfred McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2003), 287-290

(12) Ibid, 286-7

(13) Mamdani, 143

(14) McCoy, 475

(15) Ibid, 476

(16) Ibid, 477

(17) Mamdani, 145

(18) Ibid, 146 and McCoy, 478

(19) McCoy, 484

(20) Ibid, 479-80

(21) Ibid, 480

(22) Lawrence Lifschultz, “Bush, Drugs and Pakistan: Inside the Kingdom of Heroin,” The Nation, November 14, 1988, 47, 492-96

(23) Mamdani, 143

(24) McCoy, 484

(25) Aikins, “Afghanistan: The Making of a Narco State,” Rolling Stone, 4 December 2014.

(26) United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, “The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: An International Problem,” New York, 2003, pg. 9

(27) Aikins, “Afghanistan: The Making of a Narco State,” Rolling Stone, 4 December 2014.

(28) Najibullah Quraishi, “Opium Brides,” PBS Frontline, 3 January 2012.