Source: ArmyAmber


History has contributed to the circumstances which have led to Afghanistan’s domination of the global heroin trade, the turbulence of Afghanistan in the 20th century to modern day will be examined in this article.

In 2017, Afghanistan is a South-Asian landlocked country surrounded by Pakistan, Iran, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. Until 1747, When Ahmad Shah founded the Durrani Empire, Afghanistan has never been ruled as one country. Kabul (the current capital city) was just a small village, it grew to a town of 10,000 by the end of the 18th century and to the country’s largest city over the following hundred years (Wahab & Youngerman, 2007, p. 26). Religion is the strongest unifying factor, Afghanistan is not unified in any ethnic or linguistic sense. Many of its dozens of ethnic groups have long histories of conflict. (Wahab & Youngerman, 2007, p. vii-ix).

From the 1950’s onwards Afghanistan’s opium trade continuously developed, in 1955 Iran’s shah government aware of a rising opiate addiction within Iran illegalised Opium, this was followed years later by a policy change to allow a little opium cultivation. Afghanistan’s opiate markets main export country became Iran (Haq, 1996). Afghanistan’s rise to the big leagues in illicit narcotics production and trafficking came from a tremendous increase in external demand (Haq, 1996, p. 946). Iran was one notable market, but the United States was another. The golden triangle trade route to the United States was disrupted by ongoing conflict in Vietnam and Laos (Haq, 1996). The United States went to war in Vietnam from 1955-1975 to halt the advancement of communism, and Laos experienced a civil war from 1953-1975.

In 1979 the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up a failing communist regime, cultivating opium was legitimised by Afghans to buy food or arms to fight the Soviets (Haq, 1996). The United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan funded the Islamic resistance (the mujahidin) in the largest covert operation in history. The CIA instantly began training mujahideen to fight the Soviet invasion, using Pakistan to tunnel weapons (Edstrom, 2015). The Pakistani secret service funnelled weapons to their favoured groups (Rubin, 2013, p. 25). When Pakistan’s former Afghan allies failed to gain power, it found a new one, the Movement of Islamic Taliban (students). This ultraconservative group started as a revolt against the warlords in Southern Afghanistan. Some in the US government hoped it would unify the country and guard the pipeline routes. With Pakistani aid, the Taliban captured the capital and two-thirds of the countries territory (Rubin, 2013, p. 26). During wars and foreign invasions, Afghans have always put their differences aside and united against the common enemy (Wahab & Youngerman, 2007, p. 13). In the time of the Soviet Invasion, the enemy was clear. But even after the fall of the USSR, Afghanistan struggled to recover. Bread prices in Kabul rose 400% in the first four months of 1996 (Rubin, 2013, p. 30). After the war, the Taliban gained control of the government.

Rubin (2013) argues a post-cold war conflict arose in Afghanistan after the cold war. The conflict was exacerbated by increasing state collapse without USSR funding, new alliances forming across ethnic and regional considerations, no UN or international effort to create peace, a disinterested US, female exclusion, regional power intervention (Pakistan/Saudi Arabia), destabilised neighbours, and an increased importance in illegal resources and humanitarian organisations. After the Soviet invasion, some farmers went back to cultivating opium, whilst the traffickers learned how to refine the drug to create heroin. By this point, the firepower of the traffickers had come to be equal to that of government authorities on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border (Haq, 1996, p. 949-950). Opium is illegal in Afghanistan but the government has never been able to enforce this law as they lack control over much of the country outside Kabul (Haq, 1996). Opium became the country’s most valuable crop in the 1980’s (Wahab & Youngerman, 2007). By the mid-1990’s the CIA’s trained mujahedeen were now better at opium cultivation than being warlords (Haq, 1996).

Opium is illicitly produced in nearly 50 countries (UNODC, 2016b, p. 26). At current levels, world heroin consumption and seizures represent an annual flow of 430-450 tons of heroin into the global heroin market. Of that total, opium from Myanmar and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic yields some 50 tons, while the rest, some 380 tons of heroin and morphine, is produced exclusively from Afghan opium. Whilst approximately 5 tons are consumed and seized in Afghanistan, the remaining bulk of 375 tons is trafficked worldwide (UNODC, 2016c). In 2015 global opium cultivation dropped largely due to poor yields in Afghanistan’s southern provinces (UNODC, 2016b).

In 2000, the Taliban outlawed opium, after 9/11 the US went to war in Afghanistan as the Taliban refused to extradite Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden was eventually killed in 2011, in Pakistan, and in 2012 NATO began drafting an Afghanistan exit strategy. The war ended in 2014. The Opium trade managed to flourish during the war.

As a country, Afghanistan experiences an internal struggle with the rural regions being largely conservative, undereducated, and reluctant to change. Due to the lack of infrastructure, these places seldom have contact with the more urban areas such as Kabul, where the population is more educated and outward-looking (Ansary, 2012). Other than Opium, Afghanistan has extensive mineral resources which have been largely untapped. Potential commercial deposits have been found for chrome, beryllium, copper, lead, zinc, uranium, manganese, asbestos, gold, silver, iron, sulphur, mica, nickel, slate, and salt (Wahab & Youngerman, 2007, p. 16). Several precious gems and stones have also been found in mining sites for example emerald, sapphire, ruby, jade, etc. (Wahab & Youngerman, 2007). The lucrative global heroin trade infringes on social development. Afghanistan’s prominence in the world narcotics trade meant that the U.S. denied it certification in 1994 (Haq, 1996, p. 953). Time will only tell what initiatives are utilised to curb opium cultivation in the future.


By Shaneka Knight

Instagram: Shanekaakknight



Ansary, T. (2012). Games Without Rules: The often interrupted history of Afghanistan. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.

Edstrom, W. (2015). Heroin Dealer in Chief. Afghanistan, Source of 90% of the World’s Heroin [website]. Retrieved from

Haq, I. (1996). Pak-Afghan Drug Trade in Historical Perspective. Asian Survey, 36, 945-963. Retrieved from

Rubin, R. B. (2013). Afghanistan from the Cold War through the War on Terror. Oxford University Press: Oxford.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2016b). Drug Trafficking [website]. Retrieved from

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. (2016c). World Drug Report. Retrieved from

Wahab, S. & Youngerman, B. (2007). A Brief History of Afghanistan. Infobase: New York.

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