The Power of the Poppy

The Power of the Poppy

The Power of the Poppy

Arts and arguments in the news.
Oct. 2 2001 11:30 PM

The Power of the Poppy

In Britain and elsewhere in a few weeks time, one will see people wearing red paper flowers in buttonholes or pinned to jackets and coats. The flower is a poppy, and it's worn in honor of Remembrance Day—Nov. 11th—in memory of soldiers who died in the wars of the 20th century. More specifically, Remembrance Day commemorates the soldiers who were cut down in World War I in the fields of Flanders where wild poppies grew. This year, I imagine, the act of commemoration will also honor those who died in Washington and New York on Sept. 11th.

In Afghanistan, the poppy represents something else altogether—something so powerful that, upon taking over the country, the Taliban banned the flower's cultivation. Yet as in Britain, the poppy is also a symbol of wars fought. Afghanistan's poppy crop, of course, produces opium and heroin, and the history of Afghanistan and the history of heroin have in recent times been tightly bound together. (Lately, the Taliban regime appears to have developed a more relaxed stance toward the poppy because its religious objections to heroin production appear less important than its thirst for money. This map illustrates the two main areas of Afghanistan where opium poppies grow—around Kandahar and Jalalabad.) In the war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Afghan mujahideen offered what one might describe as weapons-grade heroin to Soviet soldiers in the hopes of transforming the occupying Red Army into drug addicts; according to Jane's Security, the experiment was less than successful. Yet the chief object of heroin production was to fund mujahideen's purchase of weapons they needed to fight the Soviet enemy. This enterprise was evidently promoted by the CIA and by the CIA-trained Pakistan security force the ISI, who strongly encouraged the cultivation of poppies as a cash crop. As Jane's points out: "Opium cultivation and heroin production in Pakistan's northern tribal belt and neighboring Afghanistan was also a vital offshoot of the ISI-CIA co-operation. It succeeded … in boosting heroin sales in Europe and the US through an elaborate web of well-documented deceptions, transport networks, couriers and payoffs." While Nancy Reagan was asking everyone to just say no to drugs, over the horizon and out of sight other Americans sponsored a program of just say yes.