Repercussions & Reflections

A Journal of the Intersection of ideas and actions on Global Conflict and Local Initiatives published by the William Joiner Center

The New York Times, the CIA and Opium, and the Vast Silence


Submitted to the Boston Globe Op-Ed page

Paul L. Atwood

University of Massachusetts-Boston

Monday, November 7th, 2011.

I wrote a version of this op-ed piece and submitted it to the Boston Globe shortly after the Times article appeared. The Globe op-ed editor replied to me that “we’ll steer clear of this.” Walid Karzai has since been assassinated, reputedly by one of his own henchmen.

On October 28, 2009 the New York Times published a bombshell story depicting the intimate relationship between the Central Intelligence Agency and Ahmed Walid Karzai, arguably the world’s kingpin drug lord, and also the brother of Afghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai. The fact that the same story could have been published years ago is another troubling matter. Nevertheless the article raised profound issues about what the United States is really attempting to do in central Asia.

Since numerous reports have shown that the Taliban, ostensibly one of America’s greatest enemies, profits greatly from the sale of opium and uses the proceeds to buy weapons to kill American troops, and since other abundant reports declare that Ahmed Karzai is by far the biggest purveyor of opium in the region, there is most obviously a mutual relationship between Karzai and the Taliban and the Central Intelligence Agency. The fact that Hamid Karzai has done nothing to curb the opium trade or the cozy relationship between his brother (and now his replacements) and Islamic insurgents is but one element in the rampant corruption of his regime, and without question the worst.

Why so?  According to President Obama defeating the Taliban and thereby preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for al Qaeda again is a vital necessity to protect American lives and maintain national security. Yet far many more American lives have been extinguished by opium and its derivative, heroin, than anything al Qaeda has thus far matched. Aside from the threat posed by HIV, or some other pathogen, nothing menaces national security more than the drug epidemic that has plagued this country since the late 1960s when a tsunami of heroin surged across the nation from its sources in Laos and Vietnam. A mountain of evidence, some of it ferreted out by a U.S. Senate Special Committee on Narcotics chaired by Senator John Kerry, documents the CIA’s long standing association with the world’s leading drug traffickers. During the “secret war” in Laos, pilots for the CIA’s contract airline, Air America, jokingly referred to themselves as “Air Opium.” Proceeds from opium sales were used to fund the top secret war waged in Laos since the U.S. Congress had appropriated only a marginal sum for the venture. So much of the substance was produced that criminal enterprises in neighboring Vietnam transformed the stuff into heroin and fed profits directly to top officials in Saigon’s government, America’s allies. Among other victims, it soon addicted many American soldiers. When the warehouses in Southeast Asia began to burst heroin “mysteriously” found its way into America’s cities and towns. (See the PBS Frontline documentary Guns, Drugs and the CIA, if you can find a copy).

In the aftermath of defeat in Vietnam many in the U.S. government rankled at the humiliation. Blaming the Soviet Union for the rout (after all how else could little “yellow dwarves ,” as LBJ put it, have vanquished the American superpower?) Officials like Zbigniew Brzezinski contrived to draw the Soviets into Afghanistan and thus the “opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War.” The CIA then recruited tens of thousands of Islamic jihadists known as the mujahideen from across the Muslim world to fight the Soviets. Since this was the largest covert operation ever conducted by the U.S., and Congress surreptitiously gave only a small portion of its cost, much of this war was also funded by the opium trade, just as in Southeast Asia. The official CIA explanation is that the war against the Soviets trumped any effort to choke off the drug traffic. Meanwhile the trade flourished and many thousands of Americans and others died from overdoses. Michael Levine, a decorated agent of the Drug Enforcement Agency, has written a number of books in which he states categorically that the CIA deliberately stifled his and the agency’s efforts to halt the flow of opium and “got into bed with the biggest drug lords on the planet.” (See the Australian documentary, Dealing With the Demon, Vol. 2; also, Michael Levine, The Big White Lie: The Deep Cover Operation That Exposed the CIA Sabotage of the Drug War: An Undercover Odyssey)

Ironically the Taliban, when it first came to power, suppressed the trade, causing near panic around the world since hundreds of billions of dollars were now not flowing into various arms bazaars, or being laundered by banks and stock exchanges. The current war on the Taliban has resuscitated opium production. Today Afghanistan produces about 92 percent of global opium but much of it is managed by warlords who are associated with the Karzai regime, many of whom were agents of the CIA during the Afghan-Soviet War. Again, there is an intimate relationship between these growers and the Taliban though they are purported to be enemies.

The Times story dropped like a stone to the bottom of the sea, not surprisingly since a conspiracy of silence has for decades surrounded this issue. A few apologists have made noises to the effect that Afghanistan is a tough neighborhood and the U.S. has to deal with unsavory characters. Slogans like “if you like sausage you may not want to visit the slaughterhouse” surfaced. One thing is clear. The 1682 American soldiers and marines who have died in that tragic country have given their lives for an utterly putrescent regime that was handpicked by the U.S. in 2002 in order to foster an unstated and highly secret American agenda. Lest we forget, 14,342 American military personnel have also been wounded.

What is the real agenda? It cannot be “freedom and democracy.” Much outrage was expressed in this country over vote fraud in Iran yet American soldiers and marines are propping up a government for which it is alleged that one million fraudulent votes were cast.

Pepe Escobar, who writes for Asia Times, notes the undisputed fact that the names of the countries Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Iran never appear in the establishment media in tandem with the word “pipeline,” while also emphasizing that the map of major American combat bases aligns perfectly with the proposed pipelines for major sources of oil and natural gas throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.

The CIA’s symbiotic relationship with the globe’s drug dealers should have alarmed and engaged many citizens, but the issue has now all but vanished, signifying that Afghanistan is not the only place where something is rotten.

(A more comprehensive, if dismal, perspective on this issue can be found in the following studies. Gary Webb, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion; Alfred W. McCoy, The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade; Alexander Cockburn, Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press)


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