Of Poppies and War

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Afghanistan: U.S. Escalates the Illegal Drug Industry

It is common knowledge that Afghanistan remains the primary source of the world’s supply of opium and heroin. A recent United Nations’ report claims that three quarters of the world’s heroin comes from the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. But there is also recognition that poppies are grown in almost all of the country’s 34 provinces.

The western media argues that most of the production of illegal drugs is being done by the Taliban or that the Taliban is protecting the farmers. The fact that there are well known drug lords in the government of President Hamid Karzai, and many are members of the parliament, is usually ignored. Yet the Asian press carries photos of “narco palaces” in Kabul and describes the local “narcotecture.” The Afghan population is well aware of the close ties between the drug lords and the government.

Of course this is quite embarrassing to the U.S. government, which put Karzai in office and created the present Afghan constitution and system of government. Thus Hillary Clinton, nominated for Secretary of State, created quite a shock when she referred to Afghanistan as a “narco state” in her testimony before the U.S. Senate.

Forgotten in all this is the key role that the U.S. government played in the development and expansion of the illegal drug industry in Afghanistan. It goes back to the decision made in July 1978 by the administration of Jimmy Carter to give aid and assistance to the radical Islamists in their rebellion against the leftist government of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan.

The CIA and the Afghan Drug Trade

The U.S. government devoted billions of dollars to the proxy war in Afghanistan. Most of this was funneled through the Pentagon’s infamous Black Budget, secret funds for secret operations. In 1981 this budget was estimated at $9 billion but rose to $36 billion by 1990. The CIA obtained cash to buy weapons and other equipment which was then channeled to the Islamist rebels.

In the Afghan operation the CIA provided cash to the Pakistan government, primarily through its accounts with the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), best known for laundering illegal drug money. As John Cooley notes, “The CIA already had a history of using corrupt or criminal banks for its overseas operations.” In the 1980s the CIA and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency were using the BCCI for covert operations. First American, in Washington, D.C., was one of the CIA banks of choice, and it had been acquired by BCCI.

BCCI had close links to the Pakistan government. During the Afghan jihad BCCI officials actually took control of the customs house at the port of Karachi where shipments of arms were sent by the CIA to Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). They made cash payments to the ISI, part of which were payoffs, but large sums were also needed to finance the transportation of armaments to the Afghan border and beyond. As Brigadier Mohammad Yousaf reports, much of the CIA aid came in the form of cash. This was used to purchase hundreds of trucks and thousands of horses, mules and camels, in addition to the materials needed to build the training bases for the mujahideen fighters.

The CIA would inform the Pakistan government about the shipments. When the armaments and supplies were landed in Karachi they came under the control of the National Logistics Cell of the Pakistan army and the ISI. They trucked the materials north to the various bases. On the way back the trucks carried opium and heroin for export from Karachi, mainly to the United States. Some of the heroin factories were directly under the control of the ISI, and the whole operation had the support of Pakistan General Fazle Haq, the protector of the industry. President Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had appointed him the military commander of the Northwest Frontier Province. He was also directly involved in the heroin trade and laundering money through the BCCI.

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