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Cooperating with the Taliban to Fight Opium Production in Afghanistan Before 9/11

Fighting opium production in Afghanistan before 9/11 meant working with the Taliban.  Veteran foreign service officer James P. Callahan found ways to do that. He recalls a time when U.S. interests in combating the heroin trade aligned with those of the Taliban, and when efforts to curb opium production had some success.  

From 1999 to 2001, Callahan served as office director for INL covering Africa, Asia, and Europe.  INL assists local governments in developing anti-drug policies and operations, as well as in training local official to execute these policies. In the vacuum created by the Soviet exit in 1989, Afghanistan remained volatile, and became a hotbed of drug production and extremist activity. Callahan found that the war on drugs and the fight against terrorist extremism were often one and the same. And in that era, the United States and other international partners found ways to enlist the Taliban’s help in limiting the growth and cultivation of the opium poppy.  


The anti-American Taliban, who at the time were protecting al-Qaeda, became major targets when the United States launched the war in Afghanistan following 9/11.  Before then, however, we sometimes found ways for de facto cooperation with the group — which had great influence over small farmers and communities. James Callahan was interviewed by ADST senior historian Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning November 28, 2011.

Read James P. Callahan’s full oral history HERE:

This moment was drafted by Amelia Bowen.

“The economies in those places after the Soviet system ended pretty much collapsed.”

The Taliban, Afghanistan, and an abundance of poppy. “Before 9/11 – the Taliban were controlling most of Afghanistan and the opium poppy crop was increasing every year. Poppy was being cultivated throughout the country, in the areas controlled by the Taliban, and in the areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, but the Taliban controlled the more productive areas. INL was funding a project through Mercy Corps, an alternative development project, in Afghanistan. We eventually pulled the funding for that because the area was controlled by the Taliban and the project was having no impact on reducing poppy cultivation. However, the Taliban did, after a lot of pressure, enact a poppy cultivation ban on the farmers in the 2000 planting season. We thought it was just the usual hyperbole and that they were saying something that would not happen, as they had done in the past. But, in fact, satellite surveillance started to show that the farmers weren’t planting poppy that year.”

“Afghanistan was then . . .  in many parts of the country, like a country in the 15th century.”

“Afghanistan was then, and I suppose in many parts of the country, like a country in the 15th century, or earlier. We flew from Islamabad, Pakistan, into Kandahar on a UN flight … The Taliban were quite solicitous of us. They didn’t want anything to happen and they provided strong security.  You’ll remember that Al Qaeda was operating out of Afghanistan at that time. Initially in Kandahar we met with a group from their “Ministry of Counternarcotics.” They all dressed very simply, and I didn’t see any Rolex watches under their sleeves. Later, in the countryside, we talked to a lot of farmers, and were able to do that without the Taliban standing right over us and listening in. A lot of the farmers said that while they weren’t happy with some of the Taliban’s policies and definitely not happy about the poppy ban because they were losing their livelihoods, but they noted that the Taliban provided security. This was something they didn’t have during the warlord period after the Soviets pulled out.”

“By 2000, [local communities] had become so reliant on poppies that there was kind of a reluctance to give it up.”

“In Afghanistan, they only started to produce poppy seriously after the Soviets left. Previously, they were growing wheat in those areas, and they were surviving. However, by 2000, they had become so reliant on poppies that there was kind of a reluctance to give it up. Plus, the traffickers would go in and provide credit and seeds to the farmers upfront and then the farmers would be obligated to do the cultivation and provide the product for the traffickers. I think, however, that because they had survived previously without poppy, it’s something that could be done again. But, you would have to turn around an entire culture at this point, not to mention end the conflict with the Taliban.”

A Regional Narcotics Network. “Transnational organized crime tends to be regionalized, localized in the case of drug trafficking. The production, the conversion of opium to heroin was done in labs in Afghanistan. They were primarily financed and run by Pakistanis in those days but I think more and more now are run by Afghans. From the labs in Afghanistan, the heroin would pass through different groups and different hands.



     University of Florida Gainesville                                                                                                  1966-1969
     Florida State University, Class of 1970                                                                                       1969-1970
     Served in Korea until                                                                                                                      1976
Foreign Service Institute                                                                                                       1978
     Maracaibo, Venezuela – Vice Consul                                                                                           1979-1981
     Lima, Peru – Vice Consul                                                                                                               1981-1983
     Washington, DC – Special Assistant                                                                                            1983-1989
     Toronto, Canada – consular unit chief                                                                                        1989-1992
     Dublin, Ireland – Consul General                                                                                                1992-1994
     London, UK – Consul General                                                                                                      1994-1998
     Washington, DC                                                                                                                              1999-2001
     INR Director

     Vienna, Austria – United Nations Office on Drug and Crime                                               2001-2003
     Tashkent, Uzbekistan – UNDOC Regional Representative for Central Asia                      2003-2010