Where it all starts: Afghanistan, 1978. The U.S. was 30 years deep into the Cold War, and after a brief cooling period, diplomatic relations had once again deteriorated. Still reeling from a crushing defeat in Vietnam only three years prior, the citizens of the United States were conflict weary. President Jimmy Carter, with his back against the wall after Iran and Nicaragua saw their pro-U.S. governments toppled in bloody civil wars, was forced to make a decision.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, the situation was just as grim. Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud, along with every single one of his family members was murdered brutally in a violent coup. A group of Marxists quickly assumed power, implementing their own form of Leninist-Marxism government defined by the expulsion of Islamic law and customs.
The PDPA rushed to align themselves with the Soviet Union, a move which pushed President Jimmy Carter over the edge. You see, Jimmy Carter only had one goal: stopping the Soviets. His friends on the other hand (the list of which includes: Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Britain, Egypt, France, China, the UAE and Israel) had other motivations. In the case of the UAE, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, the fate of Afghanistan and neighboring Iran were of key religious importance, and it is this ideological split that doomed the endeavor from the beginning. Jimmy Carter lured the Soviets into Afghanistan in December of 1979 with the intent of giving them their own Vietnam. But just like in Vietnam, when you fight a proxy war in a third-world country, the results can be complicated.
When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1980, he stoked the flames of the war in Afghanistan, providing the rebel Mujahideen with arms and cash. What began as an internal struggle for political dominance was quickly molded into a religious war by the United States and their allies. Where the Carter administration was ethnocentric in their assumption that the people of Afghanistan were suitable fodder for a proxy war with the Russians, the Reagan administration was fanatically corrupt in their exploitation of the Afghan population. The intentional radicalization of Islamic militants created a fighting force which answered only to God. A force which proved effective at killing Soviets in the short term, and equally problematic in the long term.
Following the Soviet invasion, the Afghan government struggled to hold on to vast swaths of territory that had formerly served as agricultural lands, the consequences of which were twofold. The Mujahideen, armed by the American government, utilized a similar precursory strategy to that of the oil-field claiming of ISIS today. By strategically capturing fertile agricultural lands in the south, the Mujahideen further financed their ever-growing armory by planting opium poppies in the place of wheat and other food crops, their food needs met by aid from their friends in foreign governments. This widespread conversion of agricultural lands quickly led to a food shortage among the rural non-combatants who occupied the region since before the war, the effect of which only exacerbated the plight of the already failing government.
From the south opium cultivation spread east, all the way up to the Pakistani border. The government of Pakistan, open supporters of the radical extremist Mujahideen, had recently declared their own war on drugs. Looking to remedy their own domestic woes while simultaneously aiding their comrades in arms, the Pakistani government condemned the thriving opium producers in their northwestern provinces publicly, while secretly merging their own drug lords and product with those of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. Rather than eliminate the opium industry, the Pakistanis simply relocated it. Thus, the largest established illicit opium network in the world was merged with that of the upstart Mujahideen, the result of which was opium production on a scale never seen in the region before, the size of their production bested only by the massive quantities trafficked two centuries before by the British East India Company.
Reagan’s support for the “freedom fighters” of Afghanistan was well known, as was his administration’s hardline anti-drug policies. It would have been almost diabolically hypocritical for the U.S. government to continue their support of the opium-pushing Mujahideen while simultaneously locking-up record numbers of drug offenders back home. But what is there to do when your proxy war has so decimated a country that the only reliable economic institution left within its borders is exactly that which you have been “fighting” domestically for the past decade? The answer is complex, but the intuition is simple. The greed machine had to be fed. With its bullets, its cash and its rhetoric, the United States government believed that they had bought the right to break their own rules, and the suits and ties in Washington would accept nothing less than a full return on investment. Today, 90 percent of the world’s heroin is produced from Afghan poppies.