Afghanistan, Drugs, and the Cold War (Prologued, Season 2, Episode 4)

About this Episode

On this episode of Prologued, we follow the Global War on Drugs to Afghanistan. Opium has played a significant role in its history and, as we discuss, shaped how Afghan policymakers have negotiated its position in the world throughout its history.

Cite this Site

Brionna Mendoza , "Afghanistan, Drugs, and the Cold War (Prologued, Season 2, Episode 4)" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective


Theme Music: Hotshot by Scott Holmes

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Michelle Paranzino, “The Evolution of Narcoterrorism: From the Cold War to the War on Drugs,” in Beyond the Eagle’s Shadow: New Histories of Latin America’s Cold War, edited by Virginia Garrard-Burnett, Mark A. Lawrence, and Julio E. Moreno, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2013): 281-306.

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Episode 4: Afghanistan, Drugs, and the Cold War


Brionna Mendoza

Previously on Prologued

Kathleen Frydl

So the drug war, as I say, became this way for the police to preserve older models of policing that had been rejected in other settings.

Brionna Mendoza

Following WWII, the United States began to boldly pursue a global community modeled upon American political, economic, and cultural systems, including the ideas & infrastructure it had developed to control drugs and those who use them.

Matt Pembleton

One of the most tangible things is that the United States begins to send actual police agents overseas from the Federal Bureau of Narcotics.

Brionna Mendoza

In the postwar period, though, the United States wasn’t the only nation that aspired to international leadership.

The rise of the Soviet Union, in many ways the ideological & economic foil to the United States, terrified American lawmakers, the latest menace seeking to snuff out America’s light. The godless Communists, American logic went, would stop at nothing to implement their revolution around the world…including pushing drugs onto those too innocent to know better.

Today, we delve into how and why the Cold War, drugs, and communism became inextricably linked in the minds of American policymakers, and how that mindset accelerated the globalization of the U.S. War on Drugs.

I’m Brionna Mendoza, and this is Prologued.




Matt Pembleton

There are all these interesting benchmarks, or sort of milestones. These like potential turning points in history of the drug war. And 1962 is one of these overlooked ones.


Brionna Mendoza

The Kennedy administration wasn’t particularly happy with the way that the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and others had been approaching drug control at home. But, as we learned in the previous episode, Harry Anslinger & FBN agents are incredibly skilled at leveraging the press to make a base hit look like a grand slam, much to the dismay of their foreign hosts.

Ultimately, at the White House Conference on Narcotic and Drug Abuse in September 1962, Kennedy yielded.

Matt Pembleton

So Kennedy actually makes this big announcement in the at the summit that the FBN’s global jurisdiction is going to be expanded throughout the world from Europe to East Asia and into Central and South America. Even as they're saying, we don't really like the Bureau's approach on the domestic front.

So it looks like this moment where there's already a disconnect between the U.S. drug war and the U.S.-led global drug war. But it also turns out to be a dismissed turning point. The Kennedy administration appoints this commission, which is really intent on taking a moderate, middle of the road approach to drugs. But it all gets lost in the Kennedy assassination and all the other chaos of the 1960s.

Brionna Mendoza

As the FBN strived to expand the American footprint around the world in regards to drug controlareas that we might refer to as “laboratories” of the War on Drugs, to borrow the phrase from Dr. Teaguethey expanded into regions that were of interest to U.S. policymakers for another important reason: containing communism.

Michelle Paranzino

So during the Cold War, U.S. counterinsurgency efforts were typically directed against leftist or Marxist or socialist insurgencies whereas counter-narcotics policies were directed against the production and trafficking of drugs. But during the Cold War, there's a tension between those two goals. And the rhetoric of U.S. officials suggests that they were trying to use the U.S. public concern about drugs in order to cultivate U.S. domestic support for anti-communist policies. Even in the earliest years of the Cold War, the rhetoric was very much that it was communists in Europe and Asia who were directing the drug traffic into the United States.

Brionna Mendoza

U.S. policymakers used the Cold War and drug control to reinforce each other, a sort of circular logic that didn’t always produce the most coherent foreign policy.

Michelle Paranzino

Looking at the Chinese Civil War, for instance, it was actually the Nationalists under Chiang Kai Shek who were most involved in trafficking of opium. And the United States was, of course, supporting the Nationalists against the Chinese communists. And again, with all these accusations that it was the communists who were directing the supply of narcotics to fund their own insurgencies or governments; in fact, the reverse was true. When Mao came to power, he enacted legal restrictions against the use and trafficking of opium which carried really harsh penalties. So on the drug issue, it would seem that actually Chinese communist policy and U.S. policies were aligned. But of course, because of the Cold War, the Chinese Communist Party was viewed as the enemy. And so the United States, because of that refused to collaborate or coordinate with the Chinese Communist government on Narcotics Control policies internationally.

Brionna Mendoza

Before we continue, let’s pause here for a moment to review how we tell the story of the Cold War.

In general, the history of the Cold War is often presented as an international showdown between two superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union. Hostilities never broke out directly between the two, but plenty of proxy wars were waged between 1947 and 1991, like those in Korea and Vietnam     . In this narrative, secondary and tertiary actors are often presented as pawns of a sort in the larger chess match between the Americans and the Soviets.

Many history experts, however, challenge the idea that smaller nations were simply following orders. Rather, much like how we’ve learned that different nations waged drug wars for their own reasons, they also participated in the Cold War on their own terms the best that they could.

Thus, even as the international context shaped how people understood what was happening in their local communities within their home countries, histories exist that predated and outlived the Cold War. The war in Vietnam, for example, ignited initially in 1946 as a struggle for liberation from French colonial control, and then later morphed into the Cold War proxy battlefield we now remember it for in the 1950s.

Keep this in mind as we turn our attention to Afghanistan, where the challenges of nation-building, drug control, and Cold War tension collided.

James Bradford

Even Afghanistan as a place doesn't really start to sort of emerge until the 17th century, 18th century. Afghanistan was largely sort of these city states, you know, brocco, boxer and Empire and that's way way back, Bamiyan which is one of the great trading cities of the Silk Road. And obviously, opium was an important product in in Asia and in Europe, Eastern Europe.

Brionna Mendoza

This is James Bradford, an Assistant Professor of History at Berklee College of Music.

James Bradford

I'm a specialist on the Afghan drug trade and U.S. foreign policy in South Asia. I have a sort of keen interest in the global impact of the War on Drugs and on drug policy in parts of Asia.

Brionna Mendoza

For much of its history, opium has been an essential trade product for Afghanistan.

James Bradford

It's an anti-diuretic so most people had recognized that areas which were struggling are coping with diseases or diarrheal diseases—cholera, dysentery—opium is a lifesaver. It's a fundamental drug that will save people's lives. And going back historically, these are great killers of humankind, diarrhea and cholera. So the problem is when do you start to see it commodified? And that's really when you see the more contemporary, more modern features of it.

Brionna Mendoza

Trade in Afghan opium was concentrated mostly within that country, though, until the turn of the 20th century.

James Bradford

It's not until we get into the 20th century that we start to see, and this is, again, thinking about the global expanse of this, is when opium two starts to really emerged as a much bigger global commodity that's making its way into almost all markets and then becomes one of those commodities that that starts to define modern life. Having access to opium is indicative of one's embrace of modernization in all of its sort of loaded and problematic ideas.

This is sort of the duality of drugs, right? I mean, opium can save your life. If you get cholera dysentery or diarrhea, it constipates you, it's a painkiller. But it's also euphoric. And so the duality of a drug like that is that it's dangerous, right? And you can become addicted to this drug.

Brionna Mendoza

Despite its dangers, Afghan policymakers & everyday citizens recognized that opium was a lucrative product. If trade were expanded in the drug, it could transform their country and its position in the international community entirely.

James Bradford

So traders started to trade this in larger quantities. You started to have a series of government companies which were producing it in India, under British colonial control of India. Afghan traders were increasingly bringing Afghan opium into the subcontinent. And it was posing a significant threat to to the British colonial authorities, largely rivaling their legal—I put that in air quotes— “legal” trade for opium. Afghan traders basically undermined it by offering, not paying, largely smuggling, and not paying excise taxes.

What we start to see is in the 1910s, 1920s, one of the things that contributes to drugs being eventually abandoned as legal commodities, opium particularly, is the threat of outside sources of opium, particularly Afghan opium. And this is in British India. So that's what sets the stage by the 1930s where you start to have these government companies that are cultivating opium, they're shipping it, they're trading it with with a variety of countries: Germany, France, Thailand. And a large array of Western pharmaceutical companies are buying it to produce for pharmaceutical drugs, pharmaceutical narcotics. And that's really when Afghanistan starts to arrive and show up on the map as a global cultivator of opium.

For Afghans, there's a recognition that there's something more about opium than just a medicine. And that's like the idea that this is a product that has global appeal and was lucrative and Afghans were pretty good at growing. So that really sparks this, this change among [unintelligible, I think its in Dari or Pashto] consciousness that to recognize that this is a product that has significant potential to transform Afghanistan. That, of course, then, is where Afghan opium comes in full force with the emergence of the international drug control regime.

And that's where the history of Afghan opium gets really, really messy.

Brionna Mendoza

What is interesting to note here, as Dr. Bradford describes, is that in the early 1900s in Central Asia, the issue wasn’t trading opium, per se…rather, the issue was who was doing the trading.

James Bradford

There's some indications that Afghan authorities were doing this sort of balancing act between recognizing opium as an export good and cultivating that as an export good, the potential being significant for the generation of capital, which Afghanistan, was in desperate need [of].

Brionna Mendoza

As novelist Kim Stanley Robinson once wrote “Money equals power; power makes the law; and law makes government.”

A flourishing opium industry promised much for Afghanistan; not just money, but international power and protection against Western colonization. Which, if you were a British colonial authority watching from not-too-far away India, was a problem.

James Bradford

In the 1920s, Amanullah Khan comes to power. He's seen as the “great modernizer.” He's the Afghanistan ruler that wants to embrace this broader pan-Islamic movement that you start to see in Turkey and in Iran. And that's really to build Afghanistan into the modern state that embraces these Islamic ideals, but also the secular Western notions of liberal democracies, and balances it.

In 1924, they passed a law that is significant in the sense that it really maps out that legal authority of the state in a way that's quite big in Afghanistan. But it was that it in Afghanistan, there's a difference between sort of urban communities and rural communities in rural Afghanistan.

Brionna Mendoza

Before Amanullah Khan, Afghanistan wasn’t a cohesive nation—rather than a central government holding all of the power, the rule of law was largely determined by local landlords and religious leaders.

James Bradford

What was significant about Amanullah’s law is that it largely circumvented the rule of law of those religious leaders in rural Afghanistan.

Now, why that is important to drugs in Afghanistan is that the law started to talk about export trade, and it talks about applying excise taxes for imports, but it was largely encouraging in reducing taxes for exports. The idea was that they're really trying to increase export trade in order to get as much capital to come back. However, the balance of that was that the law indicates some pretty harsh penalties for the use of opium and charas, which is sort of like the Afghan form of hashish. And that's an indication that Amanullah was trying to map out this balance between reducing and penalizing domestic drug use while at the same time encouraging international exports.

Brionna Mendoza

These changes in Afghanistan occurred at the same time that the British and Americans were     instituting stricter boundaries around drugs, which tempts speculation about Amanullah Khan’s reasons and motivations. Might he have been trying to stake a claim to international prestige by encouraging a drug-free nation, much like Japan did in the aftermath of the Opium Wars? Or was it simply a coincidence?

As Dr. Bradford made clear during our conversation, we haven’t yet found any historical documentation to support one theory over another.

James Bradford

 But that's certainly an indication that at least at the top levels of the government, the Afghan government was trying to, in one sense, increase exports, but also sort of mitigate the effects of domestic drug use.

What’s key about this is that Amanullah Khan—he’s very ambitious. He rules for nine years. In 1928, there's a huge uprising against Amanullah Khan that deposes him. And there's a struggle for power for over four years. But I think what's the lesson of Amanullah Khan is that there's real limitations about the the impact of centralized government in this country. And there's cultural features, and then there's like, literally physical features to this.

Brionna Mendoza

Not only was there a culturally-based resistance to central government, but its mountainous geography made travel in Afghanistan very challenging, especially in the 1920s.

James Bradford

And I think what you see happen over time in Afghanistan is that the Afghan government balances this international pressure to conform to drug control to start to map out some semblance of control, and that doesn't necessarily mean imposing criminal laws. It also means if they're going to pursue a legal drug trade, they have to demonstrate authority over that drug trade. At the same time, the fact that the central government is projecting to the international community that this is what it's going to do.

Brionna Mendoza

But because of those cultural and geographic barriers, Afghan officials were trying to walk an incredibly thin line.

James Bradford

And that is what really, I think, drives the drug trade in Afghanistan is that I see drugs essentially as a symptom of the bigger political issue in Afghanistan, which is this disconnect between the Central State and local rulers and farmers and traders. And as that disconnect grows politically, as tensions grow between the Central State and entities outside of the state, drugs grow as well. They become sort of this buttress this support for people economically, politically, socially, to allow them to navigate the attempts of the Central State to impose rule. 

I think that’s the really fascinating element about Afghanistan is that we today, and we just think about it today—this is a country that's been at war for 40 years, it's been in a great deal of conflict and instability for 40 years, and drugs have largely become a significant component of the Afghan economy and the Afghan political culture. And that I think is a consequence of this bigger political and cultural conflict between the Central State and rural Afghans and traders who see this product in a different light than authorities who might might—honestly—individually or personally agree with these farmers. And it really illuminates the problems in the most basic sense is that what is being viewed at the international level about drugs just doesn't make sense to rural farmers and traders.

Brionna Mendoza

The rapidly-shifting international attitude towards controlling drugs did not match the circumstances on the ground in Afghanistan, where opium cultivation was a way of life for many rural Afghans.

James Bradford

So the United States gets involved in Afghanistan, in I suppose the most ironic way possible in that they are buying drugs. Afghanistan was a backwater. It posed no significant economic interest to the United States in the 1920s and 1930s.

In the 1930s, American pharmaceutical companies and other pharmaceutical companies, start to buy Afghanistan opium—it’s really, really good. The morphine content is just exceptionally high. And so, if you buy a kilo of Afghan opium with 15-18% morphine in it versus somewhere in China, or India, which is about 5%, you're tripling the amount of morphine that you can extract, so it's a great value.

Brionna Mendoza

During WWII, there was an especially high demand for opium to produce morphine for the war effort. In that time, the United States was the largest buyer of Afghan opium.

James Bradford

What changes is that by the time we get to 1944-45, there's a big pressure within the international community to, as the war comes to a close, drug authorities start to envision the reestablishment of drug control. And this is where the pressure in Afghanistan starts to increase about, hey, let's think about drug control, because Afghanistan had demonstrated some interesting things that didn't sort of put them in a positive light.

So to give you an example of this, I think it's either Bayer or Pfizer, one of the pharmaceutical companies purchases opium, and the Afghans give them extra. So they make this purchase, and the Afghans like, throw a bunch of opium on top. And, of course, the pharmaceutical companies are like this is great, we just got extra opium. But for drug regulators this is outside of the book, this is totally unprofessional, this is inconsistent with how the system is supposed to operate. So that's indicative of like, well, wait a minute, the Afghans don't quite play by the rules of the game, and we got to rein them in.

And so by 1944-45, the pressure mounts. And Afghans are great diplomats; one of the consistent themes of Afghan diplomacy is the ability to use other people's ambitions and demands for your own purpose. And they do it very well. So Afghans, basically say, look, we're a poor country, opium is clearly a viable commodity for us, give us something in return. And we will conform to your efforts for drug control. And basically, the United States establishes formal diplomatic channels with the country. They open up an embassy and by 1945-46, Kabul is recognized as it’s own diplomatic relationship. And more importantly, the United States agrees to invest essentially hundreds of millions of dollars into the Afghan economy.

The Afghan government announces a ban of opium. All government-run companies will stop producing open, and that this will acquiesce to this sort of international movement towards drug control.

And I find this sort of comical. By the time we get in 1946, British agents in Afghanistan start to go to the Americans and say, Look, I think you've got duped. G     overnment authorities are still producing opium, they're still trading with France; they just stopped trading it with American companies, they're trading it with other companies. And there's very little indication that it did anything.

What's significant about that is that the ban was announced in the newspaper, but it was never ever actually put into legislation in Afghanistan. And as a result, it was basically sort of a paper ban. It was just a way to convince Americans to give them money and a pretty clever diplomatic ploy to get Americans to invest in their country. So that begins this whole episode between the United States and Afghanistan, where the United States essentially becomes one of the major contributors to Afghanistan's economic and political development. And opium played a pretty big role in that.

Brionna Mendoza

The episode that Dr. Bradford just described is an excellent example demonstrating why we should think about the War on Drugs from a global perspective. If told solely from the American perspective, this Afghan ban would seem like a major victory. But by expanding our investigatory lens to include the larger Afghan and international context, we discover a much more nuanced trajectory for the Global War on Drugs, one that accounts for a variety of individual actions & motivations that explain why nations bought into drug control even when it seemed against their own interests.

James Bradford

When you get into the 1950s, is that the Afghan tone, there's a growing sentiment that maybe they should become legal producers. By the time we get to the mid-1950s are seven countries that are legal producers, and there's this push by Afghanistan to become the eighth legal producer. And a lot of people support this, they're like, they've done this for a long time. This is a product that's in parts of Afghanistan is an important crop, it's been an important crop for centuries, in some places, let's let them have it. It's also a really poor country; let them have it as a product that gets them into the global market. And interestingly enough, even Harry Anslinger, like the drug cop of all drug cops, kind of sees the reality of this, is like, you know, it actually makes sense like this country needs something.

But this is where you again, get into regional politics. Iran, also another major producer of opium, starts to feel the pressure and the weight of its own drug problem. We know that there's an increasing presence of Afghan opium in Iran. And that troubled Iranian authorities. And by the time we get to 1957, Afghanistan has really, you know, they're actually presenting this in front of the UN, this is part of the 1958 opium convention, eventually culminating in the 1961 single convention, but basically, the big pressure is should Afghanistan be allowed to produce legal opium. And most people say yes; Iran is saying no, because they can't control opium. That’s a key part of allowing a country to be a legal producer, they have to demonstrate the ability to control domestic production. And what Iranians were saying was that there's just, we're being flooded with Afghan opium. And it's clear that the Afghan authorities are either unwilling, which is certainly true in some cases, or unable, which is probably the more accurate answer, to control the production of drugs. And ultimately, Afghanistan abandoned any attempt to have become illegal producer of opium and in 1958 reimposes a ban of opium.

Brionna Mendoza

Ultimately, the Afghan bid for legal producer status didn’t pan out. But that didn’t stop them from continuing to leverage the international atmosphere for their own benefit the best that they could.

James Bradford

The Cold War really does have a looming presence always in Afghanistan. And I think that the major reason why the Cold War shapes Afghan drug politics is that Afghanistan is neutral. Like I said before, the policy of Afghanistan was to stay outside of this Cold War conflict. And I would even argue it might not even be neutrality. It's really duality. It's playing both hands. They're sort of playing two games at once; they’re using Americans for what they can get out of Americans and then using the Soviets for what they can get out of the Soviets, and it really creates this interesting dynamic when it comes to drugs.

Brionna Mendoza

A key approach that the United States utilized during the Cold War was modernization—essentially, U.S. resources could be strategically deployed to “vulnerable” countries to accelerate their growth towards a capitalist democracy. Doing so would bolster them against Soviet influence, thus containing the spread of communism.

It was also a great opportunity for smaller countries to draw much-needed money into their economies.

James Bradford

So in that sense of this dual game that the Afghans are playing between the Americans and Soviets, it creates these pressures. And also, you know, what are the objectives of the state? Right? what are they trying to accomplish? And that, of course, is going to shape the development of certain parts of Afghanistan based off of who is contributing and financing and supporting that development, if that makes any sense. So I think what you see in Afghanistan with the Cold War is that certain parts of Afghanistan start to develop in certain ways, conforming to these two separate entities.

So give me an example of this. on the American side, the Helmand Valley is America's—I mean, this is where they built “little New York” in Afghanistan, Lashkar Gah, which is this creation of this modern city. And this was part of the 1945 opium ban, by the way, was the Helmand Valley development project. A consequence of the diplomatic relationship is it the Helmand Valley becomes huge, hundreds of millions of dollars development project to turn Helmand into an agro-industrial base. That is, in one sense, in a neutral nonpolitical way for the United States to bring this poor country into the global marketplace. And I say that kind of condescendingly because obviously, that wasn't the real intent; the intent, too, is also to build a sort of bastion of capitalism in Southwestern Afghanistan that would also serve as a buttress to what is a few hundred miles to the north, which is the Soviet Union. It is the buffer state, it is the state that sits between American interests in the subcontinent and Southwest Asia, and the Soviet Union to the north.

So the Helmand Valley is a really good example of development of this space where the United States is transforming this rural economy that is laden with Cold War tensions essentially creating a solidly pro-American space that works that functions that's engaged in the global market that will prevent an incursion of socialist and Soviet ideas into Afghanistan and even moreso, what they would be more worried about, into the subcontinent.

Brionna Mendoza

And it works. The American project succeeds. By the 1970s, the Helmand Valley was producing crops of wheat and cotton to sell on the global market.

But the thing about capitalism is that it doesn’t really adhere to laws.

James Bradford

It’s really ironic that America spends decades building this place to become little New York, this great American petri dish of economic development, and it ends up becoming, now in Afghanistan today, arguably half if not two-thirds of the opium that’s produced in Afghanistan comes from the Helmand Valley.

Brionna Mendoza

So, what exactly does the story of drug production and control in Afghanistan      tell us about the War on Drugs?

James Bradford

I think what we need to recognize is that drugs are a symptom of these deeper issues of politics that exist in these spaces. So in Afghanistan, if we talk about economic development, drugs provide economic development in in absence of other legitimate products.

So I think a global perspective of drug control really shows how interconnected we are, not only in these products, but also politically and how sort of the consequences of a decision in one country can have ramifications elsewhere.

That very narrow lens of viewing it, in when applied in a country like Afghanistan and other parts of the world, that we don't fully understand the consequences of that. That that ends up having much bigger consequences for issues of politics and economic development—and I would argue, ultimately, for the human sanctity of life—because what you have over the last 40 years in Afghanistan, six and a half million refugees, hundreds of thousands of people have died from war and conflict and instability, Afghanistan has almost a million drug addicts. Yes, drugs have contributed to it, but the policy has as well. And again, I think that goes back to viewing it as a symptom.

Brionna Mendoza

A global perspective also reveals how drug wars became an international system through multilateral conversations, agreements, and compromises over time. And when it comes to questions of legalizing drugs, we must keep in mind this constellation of connections and systems that comprise the War on Drugs and ask who the job of unraveling it will fall to when the time comes.

Next time on Prologued….

Dan Weimer

When looking at drug control and the relationship between drug control and counterinsurgency and modernization or development, that counterinsurgency and modernization are two sides of the same coin, they work hand in hand.

Brionna Mendoza

The Cold War on Drugs, Part II.

Alexander Aviña

Whether they're Chinese communities in northern Mexico, whether they’re indigenous communities in southern Mexico, the fact that they're somehow imagined to be linked to drug consumption or cultivation is enough to get them to be targeted by different state forces, state apparatus is within this emerging post revolutionary state.



Brionna Mendoza

This season of Prologued was brought to you by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective, an online publication created by the Public History Initiative, the Goldberg Center, and the History Departments at The Ohio State University in Columbus and Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Special thanks to The Stanton Foundation for their ongoing support.

Our editors are David Steigerwald, Steven Conn, and Nicholas Breyfogle. Researched, written, and hosted by Brionna Mendoza. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer and our production specialist is Brandon MacLean at Oranjudio. Our theme song is Hot Shot by Scott Holmes.

If you like what you hear, please leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts—it helps others find our show. As any good historian should, we encourage our listeners to visit episode descriptions for citations to background reading and sources that informed the creation of this podcast

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