Material World: Opium wars,old and new

  The phrase “opium wars” usually refers to the British military assaults of 1839-42 and 1856-60 that forced the Chinese emperor to allow British merchants to sell his subjects opium. The opium was grown in India, where the tax revenue from its sale maintained the colonial administration.

In 1839, imperial commissioner Lin Zexu wrote to Queen Victoria: “By what right do the barbarians use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Although they may not intend to do us harm, in coveting profit to an extreme they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience?”

He never received an answer.

Poisoning “their own people”

Not only the Chinese suffered at the hands of the profit-coveting barbarians, who derived equal satisfaction from poisoning “their own people.” Britain imported 200,000 pounds of opium from India in 1840. It was consumed, quite legally, mostly mixed with alcohol in a flavoured concoction called laudanum, as an all-purpose painkiller, tranquilliser and sleeping potion. Society ladies used it to acquire the then-fashionable pallid complexion associated with tuberculosis, while the neglected and undernourished babies of the working class were dosed with it to keep them quiet while their mothers toiled long hours in the mills.

Nowadays trading in opium is illegal. That, of course, does not prevent its large-scale production, sale and consumption, mostly as heroin. It merely raises prices and makes the business even more lucrative, though some “drug lords” perhaps envy the respectability enjoyed by their Victorian predecessors – and by pushers of currently legal poisons.

Opium and Afghanistan

At present the global centre of opium production is Afghanistan (accounting for 93 percent of opiates sold worldwide in 2007). To be more precise, production is concentrated in three border zones of Afghanistan: in the northeast, supplying the post-Soviet region through Tajikistan; in the west, for export through Iran; and above all in the south, for export through Pakistan. Sales within the country have also grown rapidly.

Afghanistan’s annual earnings from opium exports are estimated at $4 billion. This is some 15 times larger than earnings from all legal exports combined (nuts, wool, cotton, carpets, etc.). Thus opium has greater dominance over the Afghan economy than oil, for instance, has over the economies of most oil-exporting states. The farmers who grow the poppies get about a quarter of the money, $1 billion. The rest goes to traffickers and to the politicians, officials and military commanders who control the territory and protect the traffic (where they do not organize it directly).

As we know, Afghanistan and adjoining areas of northwest Pakistan are at war. This is Obama’s favourite war, so we can expect it to intensify. On one side: the US and NATO, their client regime under President Hamid Karzai in Kabul, their allies in Pakistan’s governing elite. On the other side: the Taliban and their Islamist allies in Pakistan. In between, fluctuating in their allegiance (depending on who pays more): the local bosses or “warlords.”

What is the relationship between the war and the opium trade?

First of all, the predominance of opium in the Afghan economy is largely a product of prolonged warfare. The many years of war disrupted long-established patterns of food production and distribution. Unlike food crops, poppies do not require much tending and so are better suited to unpredictable and chaotic conditions.  

A new opium war

All players, except possibly the US and NATO, are closely involved in the opium trade. This applies equally to the Taliban, the warlords, and the regimes in Kabul and Islamabad. One of the biggest traffickers, for example, is Karzai’s brother. All, to varying degrees, are financially dependent on opium. Pakistan receives US aid and has other sources of revenue, but it too depends on opium money: the trucks that carry supplies over the border for NATO forces in Afghanistan return loaded with opium.
Thus to a large extent opium funds the war. It pays for weapons and hires fighters. And, in turn, the fighting is not only for control over territory, but also and especially for the control over opium production and exports that goes with territorial control. As in Congo, war is simultaneously a means and an end in the struggle to control a valuable resource – metallic ores in Congo, opium in Afghanistan. If Congo is a “mobile war”, then Afghanistan, to some extent at least, is a new opium war. 

Opium and the US role

The role of opium in US policy regarding Afghanistan is more difficult to assess. The illegal status of the trade prevents opium interests from exerting open influence on the US government, although secret influence – through links between politicians, officials and illegal business (“organized crime”) – may be significant. However, the US market in illegal drugs is supplied primarily from other parts of the Americas, not from Afghanistan.  

Officially, the US government conducts a “counternarcotics strategy” in Afghanistan. Farmers have been offered assistance in switching from poppies to wheat. In practice, even if the intentions behind such programs are genuine and even if they were to be adequately financed, the conditions of war and the reliance of US allies on opium money would still militate against their success. It may be worth noting that the CIA, which has traditionally been quite willing to cooperate with foreign drug interests (for so long as they served its purposes) and even sell drugs itself to raise additional funds, plays no part in anti-opium measures.


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