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Flower Power: From Afghan Valleys to New York Alleys

Updated on October 22, 2011

Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan sustains a lucrative heroin market for powerful Afghan factions. Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation is responsible for about 90% of the heroin on the global market. Accordingly, global networks through which Afghan heroin is trafficked are extensive, from poppy growers in secluded Afghan valleys to heroin consumers on the streets of Western nations. Afghan insurgent groups such as the Taliban have the power to control these networks within the Middle East, and use profits derived from the heroin trade in financing their opposition of Western military forces in Afghanistan. Consequently, the United States of America considers Afghanistan’s heroin trade narco-terrorism[1]. This essay analyses the heroin trafficking network from Afghan valleys to American alleys, focusing on the dependence of Afghanistan’s economy on poppy cultivation, and subsequent heroin trafficking. Furthermore, it analyses how the Taliban and Afghan warlords[2] control the heroin network, and the exchange of goods, services, power, and money within the network. This essay further argues that the American government presents a unilateral narrative of Afghan poppy cultivation to vindicate military action in response to heroin trafficking that supports terrorist groups originating in Afghanistan, and that this narrative compounds the issues of global heroin trafficking and terrorism.

Heroin trafficking networks emulate licit trade networks. Afghan farmers cultivate and harvest poppy flowers, producing the raw opium used to make heroin. Operatives of Afghan warlords collect the opium and transport it to local processing facilities where it is processed into heroin. The product is then distributed along traditional commercial routes to hubs in neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Tajikistan. From these hubs the product is further moved along a chain of distribution through Russia, Central Asia, the United Kingdom, and North America, passing through a number of network links, and eventually reaching the consumer (Aguillar-Millan, 2008, p.48).

Afghan warlords compete for power through the control of the local heroin trade. Subsequently, an unstable war economy has developed in Afghanistan. This instability generates a space for local heroin to reach the global market, creating a lucrative market for Afghan warlords (Goodhand, 2000, p.277). The warlords coerce struggling Afghan farmers to produce opium, by advancing them money on the poppy crop in exchange for the resulting opium (Goodhand, 2005, p.201). Therefore, poppy cultivation is the most viable option for poverty-stricken Afghan farmers with limited power to choose which crops they cultivate.

Afghanistan’s extensive poppy cultivation industry is the main form of subsistence for Afghan farmers, with one in six Afghans involved in the production and distribution of opium products (Schmitt, 2009, p.305). Consequently, opium products are Afghanistan’s primary export. The dependence of the Afghan farmers on poppy cultivation is attributed to a range of factors. For instance, the global market demand for heroin makes poppies a far more valuable crop than traditional licit produce such as wheat. The continuing global demand for opiates ensures a strong transnational market, and sustains opium as a productive commodity for warlords. Conversely, Afghanistan’s war-driven market and resulting economic disruption makes poppy cultivation essential to the survival of farmers (Galeotti, 2011, p.599). Additionally, the resilience of poppy flowers to Afghanistan’s drought-stricken, high altitude environment complements the high income from opium production, making poppy cultivation a rational alternative to conventional crops (Steinberg, Hobbs, & Mathewson, 2004, p.143). Essentially, the livelihood of Afghan farmers is dictated by high market demand, pressure from powerful groups, and spatial conditions such as climate and resources. The farmer’s role in the global heroin network is to produce opium and exchange it for money from Afghan warlords, who then process the heroin and smuggle it out of Afghanistan.

Once the opium is processed into heroin, Afghan warlords smuggle the product across Afghanistan’s borders, generally using the existing transport infrastructure as a means of distribution. The Taliban often provide protection for the smugglers in exchange for taxes on the profits of the product (Aguillar-Millan, 2008, p.48). Aguillar-Millan (2008, p.48) describes the Balkan routes that link the Golden Crescent[3] with Europe as the predominant trade routes for Afghan heroin. The Northern Balkan branch runs north of the Black Sea through Eastern Europe, and the southern branch runs south of the Black Sea through Turkey, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia. Heroin is often smuggled along these routes with other types of illicit goods, including illegal weapons, counterfeit products, and undocumented immigrants (Aguillar-Millan, 2008, p.48).

Illicit goods are usually smuggled out of Afghanistan along traditional trade routes in the company of licit goods, which makes their detection difficult for law enforcement agencies (Aguillar-Millar, 2008, p.48). Goodhand (2005, p.193) identifies Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries Tajikistan and Pakistan as prominent hubs in this heroin network. Heroin is transported from these hubs into Turkey and Russia. Russian crime syndicates smuggle the product into Western Europe, and North America. Tajikistan also has links to the Central Asian mafia; thus, trade is also routed through Central Asia (Goodhand, 2010, p.271). Afghan heroin accounts for 75% of the heroin consumed in North America (Schmitt, 2009, p.305), and 90% of the heroin on the global market (Danieli, 2011, p.129). The Taliban are often involved in the transport of heroin within, and beyond Afghanistan’s borders.

Powerful groups such as the Taliban impose control over the heroin trade in the Middle East (Daneili, 2011, p.131). With 90% of heroin on the global market originating in Afghanistan the Taliban’s power to control the global heroin market establishes it as what Dicken (2007, p.437) labels a transnational corporation[4]. The Taliban regained power in Afghanistan in 1996, and gathered support from Afghan tribal leaders by agreeing not to impose on the cultivation of poppies in exchange for regular tax payments on heroin profits (Draper, 2011, p.6). Reflectively, Taliban involvement in the Afghan heroin trade is similar to a government’s role in legal trade. The Taliban control the trade by collecting taxes on the production and transport of opium and heroin in Taliban controlled territory; however, no evidence exists of the Taliban growing, processing, or transporting opium products itself (Schmitt, 2009, p.307). Revenue collected from opium trafficking supports the Taliban campaign on Western troops based in Afghanistan (Schmitt, 2009, p.302). America’s military occupation of Afghanistan has a dual purpose: to extinguish the heroin trade, and to subjugate terrorist organizations respectively.

The United States of America’s response to Afghan heroin infiltrating American streets is interwoven with their military response to the September 11 twin towers attacks by Al-Qaida (Dolan, 2005, p.468). Rothe and Muzatti (2004, p.327) discuss the moral panic that ensued in America, and the American government’s contribution in escalating this moral panic to legitimise the war on drugs, and garner support from the American public. Dramatic reporting of the war on terror/drugs, intentionally disregards the reliance of Afghan people on poppy cultivation, and the sociopolitical marginalisation of Afghan civilians by powerful Afghan factions (Schack, 2011, p.152). The American government’s dramatic narrative of terrorism, and the coupling of the heroin trafficking issue with Afghan insurgent groups, ensures support from the American public for the government to pursue its geopolitical agenda of curbing the Afghan heroin trade (Rothe & Muzatti, 2004, p.345). America’s discursive formation of Afghanistan’s narco-terror situation is consistent with Foucault’s argument that discourses are essentially incomplete due to their formation of specific strategic choices (1972, p.67). Foucault also argues that the right to speak and invest discourses in decisions or practices is confined to a particular group of individuals, often those in authority (1972, p.68). America’s military approach in Afghanistan has significant implications for the Afghan heroin network.

America’s military objective of eradicating poppy cultivation in Afghanistan intends to halt terrorist funds derived from the heroin trade, and cease the flow of heroin in to America. However, the campaign’s resultant killing and wounding of Afghan farmers and civilians, and the destruction of their livelihood (poppy cultivation) causes many Afghan people to embrace the anti-American attitude held by Al-Qaida and the Taliban (Dolan, 2005, p.465). Consequently, America’s efforts to undermine narco-terrorism have the converse effect of fuelling Afghan resentment towards America, and increasing local support of terrorist groups. Correspondingly, America’s actions in Afghanistan inadvertently contribute to the necessity of opium production in funding increasing terrorist activity to oppose American intervention (Dolan, 2005, p.468).

In conclusion, the heroin trafficking network originating in Afghanistan is a lucrative market for powerful syndicates such as the Taliban, who use revenue derived from the trade to fund insurgent activity. Additionally, due to the war economy in Afghanistan, farmers are reliant on the heroin trade and are coerced into poppy cultivation by powerful Afghan groups to fund political campaigns. Accordingly, the American government sees Afghan heroin trafficking as inextricably linked to terrorism. The American government constructs a strategic discursive formation of Afghanistan’s heroin and terrorism issue, to perpetuate the moral panic that has arisen in America after the Al-Qaida terrorist attacks of September 11. The government maintains this moral panic to justify its military action in Afghanistan, to suppress terrorist groups, and eradicate the heroin trade that is infiltrating American Streets, often using a unilateral narrative that fails to address the underlying issues of the pervasiveness of the heroin trade in Afghanistan. However, America’s military action in Afghanistan intensifies anti-American sentiment; thus, the growing support of terrorism groups necessitates an increase in the production of heroin in Afghanistan.



[1] Narco-terrorism is performed by an organisation that engages in drug trafficking to advance politically motivated goals (Dolan, 2005, p. 454).

[2] Afghan Warlords are powerful entities that maintain a private army, and have the economic means to sustain themselves. Afghan tribal leaders preluded the modern Afghan warlord (Ginty, 2010, p.583).

[3] The Golden Crescent encapsulates Afghanistan and Pakistan, and dominates the global heroin market, taking over from the former dominant heroin producing area the Golden Triangle. The Golden Triangle incorporates Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar (Aguillar-Millan, 2008, p.48).

[4] Transnational Corporations have the potential power to control or coordinate production networks across several countries (Dicken, 2007, p.437).



Aguillar-Millan, S. (2008). Global crime case: Heroin. The Futurist, 42(6), 48-49.

Daniele, F. (2010). Counter-narcotics policies in Tajikistan and their impact on state building. Central Asian survey, 30(1), 129-145.

Dicken, P. (2007). Global shift: Mapping the hanging contours of the global economy (5th Ed.). London:Sage.

Dolan, C. (2005). United States narco-terrorism policy: A contingency approach to the convergence of the wars on drugs and against terrorism. The Review of Policy Research, 22(4), 451-171.

Draper, R. (2011). Opium Wars. National Geographic, 219(2), 58-78.

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. London: Routledge.

Galeotti, M. (2011). Global crime: Political responses and challenges. Perspectives on Politics, 9(3), 597-601.

Ginty, R. (2010). Warlords and the liberal peace: State-building in Afghanistan. Conflict, Security & Development, 10(4), 577-598.

Goodhand, J. (2000). From holy war to opium war? A case study of the opium economy in North Eastern Afghanistan. Central Asian Survey, 19(2), 265-280.

Goodhand, J. (2005). Frontiers and Wars: the Opium Economy in Afghanistan. Journal of Agrarian Change, 5(2), 191-216.

Patel, R. (2007). Stuffed and starved: Markets, power and the hidden battle for the world food system. Melbourne: Black Inc.

Rothe, D. & Muzzati, S. (2004). Enemies everywhere: Terrorism, moral panic, and US society. Critical Criminology, 12(3), 327-350.

Schack, T. (2011). Twenty-first century drug warriors: The press, privateers and the for profit waging of war on drugs. Media, War & Conflict, 4(2), 142-161.

Schmitt, M. (2009). Targeting narco-insurgents in Afghanistan: The limits of international humanitarian law.Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, 12, 301-320.

Steinberg, M., Hobbs, J. & Mathewson, K. (Eds.). (2004). Dangerous Harvest. New York: Oxford Press.



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    • Jaims profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from North Queensland


    • Hillbilly Zen profile image

      Hillbilly Zen 

      9 years ago from Kentucky

      I know much more about this subject than I did when I began reading, and that's always a good thing. Nicely done - voted up and interesting, along with the HubNugget vote.

    • Jaims profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from North Queensland

      Cheers Mary615!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 

      9 years ago from Florida

      You put a lot of research and thought into this writing. It was very interesting to me, and informative. I voted it UP, etc.


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