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From India to Afghanistan, the Opium Trade Still Remains a Lucrative Business for Colonial Powers


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By Steven MacMillan/The Analyst Report: 11 May, 2014

In 1773, the British East India Company (BEIC) launched the initial cultivation and production of opium in India’s Eastern region of Bengal, where they built upon the ideas and practices of the early Portuguese imperialists who settled before them. The Indian opium was then exported to China in exchange for gold and silver which in turn was used to purchase silk, tea and other desirable goods from Chinese markets to be shipped across the globe by the BEIC. This marked the beginning of an immensely profitable business of exporting opium from areas controlled by the BEIC – which was formed by a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I in 1600 – to supply a demand for opium within neighbouring China.

Since 1729 the sale of opium in China was illegal and in 1796 emperor Chia-ch’ing outlawed the importation and the farming of the product, which forced the BEIC to use Chinese smugglers as middle men to avoid punishment by the Chinese authorities. This was at a time when Euro-Chinese business ties were weak and western traders were confined to trading with a few select areas, with the city of Canton being the most prominent. The inability to trade and the prohibition of opium finally led to two Opium Wars (or Anglo-Chinese wars) throughout the 19th century, the first stretching from 1839 to 1842, and the second war was fought between 1856 and 1860. At the end of the second war in 1860 the Chinese government legalised the opium trade and foreign traders began to gain a foothold within China.

Oxford educated Indian Historian and Anthropologist Amitav Ghosh has asserted that Britain’s colonial occupation of India was financed through opium production, as the profits of the trade were so great that the expenditures of occupying India were comfortably covered by the revenue from opium. The opium trade continued even after the British Raj took direct control of the territory from the BEIC in 1858, with production finally halting in the 1920’s. India was the largest opium exporter for centuries with that historical legacy present even today with the largest legal opium factory in the world located in Ghazipur India, which was established in 1820 by the BEIC.

The parallels between colonial powers dealing in opium to fund occupations of foreign lands and profit handsomely from it are glaring when you compare historical India with Afghanistan today. Since the US-NATO led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the level of opium cultivation has exploded and over the previous two years production has skyrocketed. Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer accounting for “around 90% of the illicit opium production” according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service stated last year that Afghan heroin production has increased 40 times since NATO’s intervention in 2001. Just prior to the war in 2001, the Taliban had outlawed the farming and production of the drug as they believed it was against Islamic principles, which reduced production to just 185 tons in 2001 – by 2002 it had exploded to 3,400 tons (P.10 of the 2004 opium survey conducted by the UNODC).

A 2013 report from the UNODC has documented a 36% rise in areas cultivating poppy  compared to 2012, and production increased by 49% between the same time span to 5,500 tons. In 2011, ABC news documented how US troops were assisting poppy farmers in the Kandahar region of Afghanistan, which is one of the largest poppy producing areas of the country along with the Helmand province. US troops freely admit that their objective is not to stop production or cultivation of the drug, but instead it is to target traffickers after the harvest has been sold. To claim to be trying to stem the flow of opium in Afghanistan whilst at the same time refusing to eradicate the source of the drug is frankly ridiculous. It would be truly naive to believe that the western nations are not taking a major cut of the profits from the trade that has blossomed since the 2001 invasion.

Back in 2009, the New York Times reported that Ahmed Wali Karzai – the brother of the Afghan President Hamid Karzai – was on the payroll of the CIA and had been since the US-NATO war 8 years earlier.  Ahmed Wali Karzai has long been suspected of being a major drug lord in the central Asian state, with strong connections in the Southern region of Kandahar which is one of the greatest areas of opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

A former Soviet commander in Afghanistan during the 1980 occupation of the country accused the US of trafficking drugs out of Afghanistan in a 2011 interview, arguing that the profits of the scheme keep too many people’s pockets full for the production and cultivation of opium to be stopped. He estimated that the drug trade was worth 50 billion dollars to the US government per annum and claimed that US planes were often used to transport the drugs out of the country.

Allegations of the US government being involved in the world’s drug trade are nothing new to many readers.  In 1972, History Professor Al McCoy published a book which asserted that the CIA was involved in the “Golden Triangle” heroin trade which stretched across Laos, Thailand and Burma during the Vietnam War. McCoy alleged that the CIA officials were aware and often supportive of anti-communist allies in the region fuelling their military efforts through the drug trade and that Air America was used to transport narcotics around the planet. He also described the rise in Afghan heroin production shortly after the US began covertly funding the Mujahideen in 1979:

“Between 1981 and 1990, Afghanistan’s opium production grew ten-fold from 250 tons to 2000 tons.”

The CIA was also accused of drug running by the former head of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) Robert Boner, who claimed in an interview with CBS that the agency imported a ton of cocaine into the US in conjunction with the Venezuelan government.  More recently, Mexican officials have accused the CIA of managing and controlling the illicit drug trade that has plagued the Mexican people for years.

This year Afghan opium production is at record levels according to a recent report conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction or SIGAR. The report states that Afghan heroin users has increased to approximately 1.3 million people this year in contrast to approximately 130,000 using the drug in 2005.

There is no distinction between colonial powers of the past and the present as certain products have always brought power and wealth down through time. The opium trade remains as lucrative a business for the US-NATO interests in 21st century Afghanistan as it did for the BEIC in India during previous centuries.

Photo: A US soldier patrols alongside an Afghan opium field in Marjai, 2010 (Credits: Wikicommons)

 




2 thoughts on “From India to Afghanistan, the Opium Trade Still Remains a Lucrative Business for Colonial Powers

  1. Hal Spooner

    It’s not just the west that’s being ravaged by opium and heroin, a major chunk of the production is consumed in Asia itself. Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and part of the Indian Punjab is also a big market for both opium and heroin.
    A simple way to control this scourge is to legalize and tax it and issue permits to users. This used to be the case in British India.
    Even in the early 1960’s one could spot signboards in north India announcing “Authorised Dealers of Bhang, Charas and Opium”. American and western hypocrisy regarding drugs has (but excluding western pharmaceutical concoctions) put paid to this practice.
    The wheel has turned a full circle and marijuana is now being legalized; what can be taxed can be controlled, lets hope the same is done for opium, heroin and cocaine.

    Reply

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