Ants fight ants. Chimpanzees too have territorial confrontations. But no one spills blood like humans.
On February 24, 2022, Moscow began an invasion of its neighbour – Ukraine. Like Zeus from his mighty throne on Mount Olympus, the West reacted with a thunderous fury lashing Russian President Vladimir Putin with a flurry of economic sanctions. The world was shaken. And like with any war, we were sucked into a quagmire of truths and untruths.
More than 40 years ago, it was a different neighbour – Afghanistan. Back then, Pakistan was a key player in the proxy war. The fallout was devastating. From the mountains of Waziristan to the shores of Karachi, it changed the political and cultural landscape of Pakistan forever.
We live in a crazy world. Albert Einstein said it best: “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.”
A few years back, I attended an art exhibition organised by the local arts council in southwest Georgia, my wife being a member on the board. I stood in a quiet corner with my head down, lost in my thoughts, when a soft voice greeted me. I looked up. A charming elderly couple stood in front of me gazing directly at me with a courteous smile. It was ex-US President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn Carter. We shook hands and briefly exchanged social pleasantries.
Prior to 1980, heroin addiction in Pakistan was as rare as hen’s teeth. Drug addicts mostly used cannabis as ‘charas’ or ‘bhang’. But with a resurgence in opium trade to fund the war in Afghanistan, we were introduced, in addition to Kalashnikovs, to a new kid on the block – opium.
That night, President Carter left a lasting impression on me as a man of good-natured disposition – demure and affable. Later that evening, as I watched Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter mingle with other guests at the party, I couldn’t help but think about Operation Cyclone – arguably the most expensive covert operation undertaken by the US Central Intelligence Agency. The goal was to assist Afghan rebels, later referred to as Mujahideen, to counter the threat of direct Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.
Mired in Secrecy
It was July 1979. Initially reluctant, President Carter approved $695,000 as non-military aid to support Afghan resistance against the Soviet-backed DRA (Democratic Republic of Afghanistan). Fast-forward to December 1979. Soviet Union surprised Americans by invading Afghanistan.
General Ziaul Haq was the President of Pakistan. To consolidate his power, he enacted stringent laws that ultimately paved the way for religious extremism. Public floggings became a harrowing spectacle. Zia also thrust Pakistan into a proxy war waged by the United States against the Soviet Union. When Ronald Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter as the US president, the US financial assistance for the Afghan resistance forces shot through the roof, ballooning into millions, and ultimately into billions. Saudi Arabia matched the funds dollar-for-dollar.
But What About Opium?
Prior to 1980, heroin addiction in Pakistan was as rare as hen’s teeth. Drug addicts mostly used cannabis as ‘charas’ or ‘bhang’. But with a resurgence in opium trade to fund the war in Afghanistan, we were introduced, in addition to Kalashnikovs, to a new kid on the block – opium. The recipe was simple: opium ® morphine ® heroin
Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, heroin refineries popped up. Weapons, including the 5 feet long surface-to-air stinger missiles, arrived in Pakistan en route to Afghanistan. Truckloads of opium returned from Afghanistan. Drugs were smuggled out to destinations in Europe and the US. The Guardian reported, “Black-Budget U.S. and British operatives flew out opium on the planes with which they brought in arms.”
So, did we clean up the mess after Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan?
Quite the opposite. At first, Taliban, under the leadership of Mullah Omar, banned opium production. On October 7, 2001, following 9/11, the US-led coalition began invasion of Afghanistan with an all-out aerial assault. The Taliban government was ousted. More than 50,000 troops (later to swell to 130,000) from 40 countries landed in Afghanistan. This was the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), under the leadership of NATO, to assist the country in returning to peace and nation building. The troops also patrolled the poppy fields. During this period, opium production in Afghanistan soared from 8,000 hectares to a whopping 200,000 hectares.
This is 2022. Operation Cyclone is a distant memory. General Ziaul Haq died in a plane crash in 1988. Ronald Reagan is long gone. So are many others. But the ghost of religious militancy and indoctrination continues to haunt our towns. Heroin addiction, like a blood-sucking vampire, still roams our streets.
By 1985, Pakistan had 1.3 million heroin addicts. Some of us snorted it. But most of us injected it into our veins to get the buzz. To make things worse, we shared dirty needles spreading HIV/AIDS. Unlike cannabis, heroin was highly addictive. We used it as self-medication to alleviate anxiety and depression. The euphoria was immediate. We entered a dream-like state. Our breathing slowed down (respiratory depression). At higher doses, the breathing stopped all together and many of us died. We died in great numbers.
“Midway upon the journey of my life, I found myself within a dark forest, for I had wandered off from the straightforward path.” — Inferno by Dante.
This is the same time period, the 1980s, when punk fashion became popular, when young girls emulated Madonna, when Michael Jackson cast a spell on music fans with Thriller, when E.T. and Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark captivated the imagination of movie-goers. We spent evenings at home watching dramas on TV: Ankahi, Dhoop Kinaray, and Waris. Maula Jat rocked on the big screen. Jahangir Khan ruled the world of squash and made us proud.
“I’m a bird imprisoned in a cage,” says a drug addict in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in an interview with Al Jazeera. In 2015, we had 7 million drug addicts. About 700 died from drug addiction every day.
This is 2022. Operation Cyclone is a distant memory. General Ziaul Haq died in a plane crash in 1988. Ronald Reagan is long gone. So are many others. But the ghost of religious militancy and indoctrination continues to haunt our towns. Heroin addiction, like a blood-sucking vampire, still roams our streets. Right now, somewhere in Karachi, somewhere in Peshawar, quite possibly under a bridge, an extremely talented young Pakistani, despair etched on his face, is holding a heroin syringe in his hand searching for a vein in his other arm to stick that dirty needle into. Can we stop it?
The writer is based in Atlanta, USA. He writes to tease his brain cells.