Man working in Afghan poppy fields to support his family.
The “Golden Triangle” of Southeast Asia, a 367,000 square mile area overlapping Burma, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand, and the “Golden Crescent,” a region of Southwest Asia that includes Afghanistan and Pakistan, constitute the two primary areas of opium production in the world.
Since the U.S. has come to the region, Afghan poppy production has tripled. With the U.S. now slated to start pulling troops from the area, world powers wonder what it will ultimately mean for Asia’s opium trade.
While the Golden Crescent has a much longer history of opium production than the Golden Triangle, it was the Golden Triangle that first emerged as a modern-day opium-producing force in the 1950s, with the former not coming into prominence until the 1970s.
Historically, opium cultivation in the Golden Triangle is a relatively new industry, introduced to the Chinese by Arab merchants in the late 13th Century. Upon discovering that their thin soil was well-suited to poppy cultivation, the hill tribes of southern China capitalized on the demand for medicinal opium.
Through the centuries, however, as tensions mounted between the hill tribes and ruling-class Chinese, the tribes slowly migrated south -- taking their poppy-growing industry with them -- until the mid- 1940s when they came to occupy Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Although it would be a few more decades (and the advent of the Vietnam War) before the Triangle was completed, Burmese warlord Khun Sa had already established himself as the “Opium King” of Southeast Asia by the late 1950s.
Until the early 1960s, Turkey was one of the world’s few sanctioned growers of pharmaceutical poppies. For years, however, a large percentage of Turkish poppies were being smuggled into France to be processed into heroin that subsequently found its way to the streets of the US.
To curb the flow of heroin into the US and elsewhere -- heroin being the drug of
primary international concern -- the United States began to pressure Turkey into implementing a national prohibition against opium production. After nearly a decade of non-compliance, the US Nixon administration declared an official “war on drugs,” the crux of which meant that any further US financial aid to Turkey (and a number of other countries) would be contingent on meeting drug eradication criteria. When Turkey finally fell into compliance in 1972, the balance of Asian opium production and distribution shifted, spurring Golden Crescent production and further linking Asia’s other poppy-growing regions. This, coupled with a Thai/US alliance funded by America’s Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), opened the door for two countries to seize control of the Asian drug market: Myanmar and Afghanistan.
For nearly two decades, Myanmar held domain over the world’s opium production. But then in 1991, after several years of unfavorable growing conditions and new government policies of forced eradication, Myanmar poppy production plummeted, allowing Afghanistan to move into the dominant position.
Then on October 7, 2001, after the Taliban's repeated refusal to expel Osama bin Laden and end their support of international terrorism, the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan. As a result of the Taliban's fatwa (a legal Islamic pronouncement) against heroin production, poppy cultivation dropped significantly that year. But since it was largely the sale of opium that funded the Afghan armies, local growers were encouraged to step-up production.
By 2005, a UN report claimed that 87% of the world's opium was coming from Afghanistan. Today, that figure is believed to be over 90%. For the foreseeable future, Afghanistan will remain the dominant player in Asia’s opium trade, with 90% of villages in the south currently involved with poppy cultivation.