Afghanistan’s opium industry has been depicted as arising from a general atmosphere of conflict, chaos and lawlessness – reinforcing stereotypes about the region. But the country’s history reveals that, contrary to popular discourse, the trade of drugs, and opium in particular, was an important part of Afghanistan’s state formation. This is the central focus of historian James Tharin Bradford’s recently published book, Poppies, Politics and Power. Himal Southasian interviewed Bradford, an assistant professor of history at Berklee College of Music, about misconceptions around Afghanistan’s history, the role of the global ‘war on drugs’ on the opium crisis, and the difficulties he encountered in conducting research for the book.
The interview has been edited for concision.
Himal Southasian: Most writings on opium and its development as an industry in Afghanistan infer causation from the Afghan-Soviet War (1979-1989). This is then tied to the 2001 US invasion and its failures in peacekeeping and state rebuilding. What is wrong with this framework and how does it impact our understanding of Afghanistan?
James Tharin Bradford: When Alfred McCoy wrote the Politics of Heroin in 1972, it transformed the way people viewed the drug trade, its transition from a free market to a more prohibitive one, and its ties to broader machinations of the Cold War and globalisation. Unfortunately for Afghanistan, much of the ‘history’ of the drug trade thereafter centred on the more recent and visible manifestation of Afghanistan’s entry into the late stages of the Cold War. War, statelessness, and instability became defining aspects of Afghanistan, and in turn, were intrinsically linked to the ever growing and influential drug trade. But as a historian, this just seemed incomplete. How could Afghanistan, in the middle of Asia, have no ‘drug history’ when much of the rest of the continent had such a rich, and complex, historical relationship with the cultivation, trade, and use of opium and cannabis?
The limited historiography of drugs in Afghanistan reinforced many common tropes about Afghanistan – that it was defined exclusively by conflict and chaos and was isolated from global processes. I found this narrative to rest on the assumption that drug trade in Afghanistan was always outside the legal norms of the international drug trade and contrary to state ambitions: ie the drug trade was connected to terrorist or criminal organisations, illegal, and thus a barrier to the state, stability and peace. Furthermore, framing the Afghan drug trade around relatively recent events seemed to further substantiate Afghanistan’s geographic and political isolation from the world. As I dove into this topic more, I soon realised how little was known about drugs in Afghanistan, how complicated the relationship between drugs, Afghan society, and governance truly was, and the impact of global forces, such as the drug trade and the international drug control regime on Afghanistan’s trade in drugs.
HSA: You propose an interesting thesis in your book: that drug trade – opium in particular – has been an integral part of Afghanistan’s state-building process. Can you explain what you mean by that?
James Tharin Bradford: Broader historical analysis shows that throughout the 20th century, opium was deeply embedded in the process of state formation. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Abdur Rahman Khan (Emir of Afghanistan from 1880-1901) and Amanullah Khan (who ruled from 1919-1929) both encouraged Afghans to cultivate opium and cannabis and trade with the Southasian market. Even when the British started cracking down on opium produced outside British India, Afghan rulers encouraged the smuggling of drugs to markets to the south.
The limited historiography of drugs in Afghanistan reinforced many common tropes about Afghanistan – that it was defined exclusively by conflict and chaos and was isolated from global processes.
During the Musahiban period (1929-1978), Afghanistan faced an evolving geopolitical landscape, particularly so with the growing influence of the United States and USSR as a consequence of the Cold War. As a result Afghans began selling opium to Western pharmaceutical companies. Although Afghan opium was prized by pharmaceutical companies due to its higher-than-normal morphine content, the lack of professionalism and control demonstrated by Afghan authorities concerned drug regulators, especially those in the US. This was critical, because American officials managed to convince Afghans to abandon the opium trade (Afghanistan banned opium in 1945) in exchange for the expansion of diplomatic relations and increased economic investment. This marked a transition in the type of diplomacy and form of government the Musahiban leaders intended to create; rather than generate revenue through trade, as had been done before, Afghan leaders would manipulate diplomatic channels for aid to build the state.
Despite the Musahiban leaders declaring opium illegal in 1945, then again in 1958, the drug trade continued to grow. By the 1960s, opium and charse (an Afghan form of hashish) were moving beyond the Iranian and Southasian markets, and were growing in demand in Western markets. This coincided with shifts toward more stringent forms of international drug control, particularly in the US, when President Richard Nixon declared the war on drugs in 1971. With the US pledging more money for law enforcement strategies to curb drug production globally, Afghanistan emerged as a potential future hot-spot for the growing illicit drug trade. Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, various Afghan leaders ratcheted up the scope of police and government authority to curb the production and trade of drugs. Drug control, particularly anti-smuggling campaigns, and crop eradication were emerging as key vehicles for state growth.
Ultimately, the timing of this raised questions as to whether the state’s move toward more stringent drug policies influenced the coming period of war and chaos.
HSA: Could you give us the international context behind the emergence of Afghanistan’s opium industry during the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
JTB: During the late 19th century, the British were trying to control the legal trade of opium and cannabis in Southasia. Over the course of that century they became increasingly reliant on the revenue generated from excise taxes levied from opium and cannabis producers and traders within the British colonies. By the 1920s and 1930s, Afghanistan’s role in the regional and eventually global market for drugs would shift for several reasons. In a regional sense, colonial authorities in British India were dismayed by the growing demand for smuggled Afghan opium and charse eating into the excise revenues of legal opium and cannabis, which in turn, helped motivate the eventual changing perceptions toward the legal drug trade. This was in conjunction with a growing international movement to abandon the colonial drug trade altogether, and establish an international regulatory system that would, in one way, help control a growing legal pharmaceutical industry, and suppress illicit sources of the drug. Maybe most significant, is that as the British abandoned their colonial trade, the demand for drugs did not significantly decrease in Southasia, and consumers found new sources, in this case, Afghanistan.
HSA: How did international drug-control regime emerge and what was its impact – including that of the US-led global ‘war on drugs’ – on Afghan politics and society? What does it tell us about the efficacy of such prohibitionist policies?
JTB: I see the US as having the most significant impact in shaping Afghan drug policies, and thus, influencing deeper aspects of Afghan society and politics. Prior to World War II, American companies had been active players in buying Afghan opium for the production of pharmaceutical drugs, but the US government was also hesitant to support Afghanistan’s push for international recognition as a legal producer of opium. This left Afghanistan in an untenable situation, as it was a relatively impoverished nation in desperate need of revenue. Afghan authorities were left asking some very difficult questions: should the country continue to produce opium, albeit in contravention of international regulations? Or seek other methods to grow the state?
Prior to World War II, American companies had been active players in buying Afghan opium for the production of pharmaceutical drugs, but the US government was also hesitant to support Afghanistan’s push for international recognition as a legal producer of opium.
This is where the politics of drugs reinforced the structure of the Afghan state in the post-World War context. As Barnett Rubin analysed in The Fragmentation of Afghanistan, Afghanistan became increasingly reliant on foreign aid and development grants as a vehicle for state growth post-war. Drug control, thus, was a convenient way for Afghan authorities to increase access to foreign aid. For example, Afghanistan launched prohibition of opium in 1945 when they realised that there was very little support for their push for a legal drug trade. Although the ban was essentially meaningless, as it did very little to address the issue, it helped Afghanistan court the US as a new diplomatic partner and investor. As a result, drug control became a diplomatic tool. The nexus between Afghan drug control and American foreign aid became even more apparent when the US launched the war on drugs under President Richard Nixon in 1971, as the US provided greater access to aid and resources for nations to suppress the illicit production and trade of drugs. The government of Afghanistan, which by the 1970s recognised that the country was emerging as a major source of illicit hashish and opium, embraced the militarised law enforcement strategies encouraged and supported by the US. New smuggling laws were passed, new police units were created, and greater emphasis was placed on anti-drug operations as a result. Afghanistan embraced these forms of drug control, not merely because they expanded state power, but because they needed to. The reliance on foreign aid meant Afghanistan had little option other than to embrace American-style drug control, lest they lose access to much needed money and resources.
The consequences of this I find to be quite profound. Afghanistan’s embrace of more stringent forms of drug control was not without consequences, which helped shape the conditions of lawlessness and violence that we commonly associate with the drug trade today. Many Afghans, including some of those within the government, openly questioned the efficacy of these policies, and found them to largely penalise poor Afghan farmers who had little other choice than to grow illegal drugs in the absence of legal options. It reinforced growing sentiments that the Afghan government was too reliant on foreign powers, or that opium should be a legal export, and contributed to the growing disillusionment of many Afghans toward the Afghan government that characterised the political environment of the mid to late 1970s.
HSA: In your book, the Helmand Valley Development Project (HVPD) emerges as an example of how US aid and diplomacy impacted the Afghan state and the country’s opium industry. Can you describe the project, what the US hoped to achieve with this, and why it failed?
JTB: The Helmand Valley Development Project emerged out of the newly established diplomatic relationship with the US following the ban of opium in 1945. As Michael Latham noted in 2003, the US was driven by a newfound theory of modernisation which tied industrial development to diplomatic engagement. By helping countries such as Afghanistan build roads, dams, and other forms of agro-industrial capacity, they hoped to bring countries into the global marketplace, as well as reinforce the broader goals of the Cold War and encourage closer ties to the US. In many cases, the US was trying to take the lessons of its own successful modernisation and implement it globally as a vehicle to bolster both capitalist markets and American diplomacy. The US had facilitated similar projects elsewhere in Asia, such as in Rapti Vally in Nepal, where it tried to transform local landscapes into those that would be more recognisable to Americans.
Drug control, thus, was a convenient way for Afghan authorities to increase access to foreign aid.
In Afghanistan, the US hoped that by helping farmers in the Helmand grow crops for the global marketplace it would provide revenue from exports for the Afghan government, strengthening the power of the Afghan state. The first two decades of the project, which started in the late 1940s, was plagued by corruption, inefficiencies, and ethnic and political conflict. By the early 1970s, however, the HVDP started to show some promise. This episode reveals an odd paradox of American diplomacy, Afghan state formation, and its conflict with other forms of capitalism that are often ignored in diplomatic and economic histories. What would happen when the development project succeeded in getting farmers to grow for the entirety of the global market, including illicit goods such as opium?
In many ways, the US succeeded in building a market-based economy in the Helmand, just not in the way they intended. When opium emerged, it triggered the prohibitive instincts of the war on drugs. By 1973, when Mohammad Daud Khan took over in a coup, the government continued to embrace the war on drugs as a vehicle to stop the opium trade (tied to its dependency on foreign aid) despite the fact that farmers were benefiting from illicit opium. In this way, I see drug control as contributing to the growing illegitimacy of the Afghan state by supporting a policy that was at odds with the general will of farmers and traders who profited from the drug trade. Ultimately, Helmand would emerge in the 1970s and early 1980s as one of the largest sources for opium in Afghanistan, and the HVDP undoubtedly had a significant impact in shaping its emergence.
HSA: How was Pakistan, its security establishment in particular, involved in this global diplomatic quagmire?
JTB: Despite Pakistan’s significant role in the contemporary Afghan conflict, it does not have a big role in the history of the Afghan drug trade. Iran was by far a more important regional force, particularly because of the ways in which Afghan opium fed Iranian demand. The role of Pakistan is a bit more nebulous. Much of this is connected to the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan which, throughout the 1960s and 1970s, were sources for opium and hashish. But there was very little impact from security forces, or at least until the late 1970s, when the Pakistan state started to take a more direct stance on the issue of drugs. When the Afghan government started to crack down on drug trafficking in the early 1970s, it posited that much of the drug supply came from the North West Frontier Province, but there was very little evidence as to the true origins of supply. If anything, the idea that Pakistan was the source of illicit drugs in Afghanistan seemed to reinforce the notion that many of Afghanistan’s problems stem from Pakistan. But in this historical case, there is not a great deal of evidence to corroborate those notions.
HSA: In the book, you note the limitations of using the state as an analytical tool. We see this anthropomorphising of the state – treating countries as individuals acting out of self-interest – very frequently in writings on international relations and economics. Why was that a problem for you and what approach did you take in your research?
JTB: When analysing drug trade, especially in the second half of the 20th century, they are commonly operating outside of the legal parameters of the state. This creates a problem for researchers, because the vast majority of resources about those drug trades seems to come from state sources. Furthermore, drug trades are inherently global, and writing and researching from a national perspective is ultimately limiting. I did struggle with this when researching and writing this manuscript. A few questions seemed to guide my thinking and approach: How do I reconcile the dependence on state sources, while also recognising its limitations? To muddle things further, how do I take resources about Afghanistan, which often come from foreign and outside perspectives, to write a history about this country?
I suppose my response was two-fold. Given the global and increasingly illicit nature of the drug trade, I tried to frame the state-centric narrative within the framework of development and the implementation of drug control as an aspect of state formation. Similar to Kathleen Frydl’s 2013 work in the US, I viewed drug control as ‘modality’ and a valued tool for statecraft and the expansion of state power. Further, it tied Afghan history to the growing international drug control regime, particularly its diplomatic ties with the US.
In this way, I see drug control as contributing to the growing illegitimacy of the Afghan state by supporting a policy that was at odds with the general will of farmers and traders who profited from the drug trade.
But this approach is naturally limited. Drug traffickers don’t keep archives (I wish they did), so how do I incorporate their history into my research? I based a great deal of this off of Itty Abraham and Willem van Schendel’s seminal work published in 2005, Illicit Flows and Criminal Things. As they point out, researchers need to analyse not only the development of the state, but also the fissures and conflicts against the implementation and growth of the state and its policies. So if opium farmers and traffickers continue to break the law, it can be indicative of deeper social, political, and economic issues between the state (and its foreign influences) and society. Or as political scientist James Scott would point out, a form of local-based resistance to a law or state system that limits local agency. Those forms of resistance, (such as the smuggling of drugs, manipulating the politics of prohibitions, or just general ambivalence towards various forms of drug control) are demonstrative of the types of fragmentation common in borderlands or regions distant from the state and reinforce the limitations of the state and its implementation of drug control. I tried my best to hold onto those concepts as I researched for and wrote this manuscript.
HSA: The shortage of Afghan sources, and the classification and redaction of US sources, you mention, is a reason why history of opium in Afghanistan remains so understudied. How did you do your research on the subject?
JTB: Much of my research came from archival sources from the US, United Kingdom, and the United Nations. Given the diverse role of drugs in their own histories, and the emphasis by respective institutions to control the drug trade, they left a long archival trail. I had to use these sources, but also recognise the limitations of those sources. I also found the archives to be revealing at times, and I tried to read along the archival grain, looking for areas where American, British, or UN officials tried to frame and edit official documents, revealing of course more genuine perceptions of the issues at hand.
I tried to offset the dependency on American and British sources with newspaper articles from Afghanistan, rare Afghan government documents and other sources that would substantiate or enrich concepts being explored. Most of the Dari-language sources came from archival research conducted at the National Archives (Archif-i-Milli) in Kabul, as well as the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University (ACKU) and the library at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU). The Library of Congress in Washington DC also housed several great Dari sources, particularly newspapers. I did conduct interviews of Afghans and American officials as well.
drug trades are inherently global, and writing and researching from a national perspective is ultimately limiting.
Having said that, I recognise that there are still limitations to what this book reveals. In this way, I don’t see it as a definitive statement in any way, but rather the beginning of what I hope to be a more concerted dissection of Afghan drug history.
HSA: How did the scholarship on drug trade, its history, and its political economy in other parts of the world inform your research?
JTB: The history of drugs has evolved rapidly over the past two decades. I, of course, referred to many of the canonical works of Paul Gootenberg, Al McCoy, Emdad-ul Haq, Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy, William Walker, Francisco Thoumi, and others who were critical in shaping the field of drug history. Maybe most important, in Andean Cocaine, published in 2008, Paul Gootenberg analyses how cocaine was made into a global commodity, and I used much of this to inform how regional and global forces, such as the demand for drugs, could help globalise the Afghan drug economy. I leaned heavily on Itty Abraham and Willem van Schendel’s work to emphasise how deeply embedded, and at times symbiotic, illicit and criminal economies were to the social, political, and economic systems. I also found James Scott’s works Seeing Like a State and Weapons of the Weak, to be useful in examining drug control and development projects as forms and projections of state power, but also the conflicts and resistance to them as indicative of deeper resistance to state control and encroachment.
HSA: Given what we know of its history, how do you see the relationship between opium and Afghanistan evolving in the future?
JTB: Opium is certainly entrenched in the current Afghan political and economic system, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. The Afghan government (and by extension, the US) can’t maintain the prohibition policies of the past. They need to think more creatively as to how to incorporate the people involved in the drug trade. Is legalisation a possibility? Possibly, as the state could use the revenue from the trade to build revenue and tax bases. However, I think it would still be limited in its effect.
Drug traffickers don’t keep archives (I wish they did), so how do I incorporate their history into my research?
But I think there is a more important element to the current Afghan drug system that reinforces the global dimensions I unearth in my book. We can’t forget that Afghanistan’s role as a major supplier of heroin is tied to the massive global demand for the drug. So, in that sense, there needs to be a more concerted international effort to reduce demand rather than criminalising use, which has been the norm for the past half century and clearly hasn’t worked. If countries increased access to drug treatment, destigmatised drug use, or even provided outlets for less harmful drug consumption, it would have a significant impact in the reduction of illicit supply from Afghanistan. As my book details, Afghanistan has been tied to the growth of the global drug trade for a century, if not more, and a reduction in the role of opium in this country is more of a reflection of the global drug trade and the failures of the international drug policies, than it is a failure of Afghanistan itself.