Nearly twenty-five hundred years ago, Alexander the Great fought his way across the known world to seize control of the remote village of Bagram in Afghanistan. As he often did after an important victory, he named it Alexandria, after himself. Yet, within 25 years of Alexander's death, the Greeks surrendered Bagram to the powerful Mauryan dynasty of India, and for the next several centuries eastern and western powers struggled back and forth for dominance. The massive statues of Buddha carved in the mountainside at Bamyan commemorated this era.
Over the next several centuries, Bagram would be occupied by Mongols and Huns, and ruled over repeatedly by the Persians. It would be at the center of powerful empires aligned with the Arabs, the Chinese, and the Turks. It would be the scene of horrific bloodshed and it would be a nexus of international trade.
In the 19th century, Britain engaged Russia in the "Great Game" for control of this far eastern corner of the crumbling Qajar Dynasty of Persia. In 1842, the British, who were stationed south of Bagram at Kabul, were driven out by Pashtun guerillas and massacred to the last man but one as they fled back to India through the Kyber Pass. A few years later, the British would try again and fail again. A little over a century after that, the Soviets built a massive military airbase at Bagram. Today, the Americans control it.
This year, billions of dollars will be spent worldwide on heroin and illicit opium-based pharmaceuticals. This money will feed an enormous covert economy built up over centuries and now worth trillions of dollars. The international traffic in opium will cross all borders and operate almost entirely in secret. Billions of dollars derived from this trade will be laundered through banks and enter the world economy where it will influence our politics, our media, and our institutions.
Perhaps it’s always been like this? From Alexander’s epic quest, to the Opium Wars of the 19th century, and to this day – great world empires have derived immense wealth by controlling the exceptionally productive poppy fields located near Bagram in Afghanistan.
The story of this remote and inhospitable valley began millions of years ago when the Indian subcontinent slammed into southern Asia in a massive slow-motion cataclysm, distorting earth’s topology in places as far away as Turkey, North Africa, Vietnam, China, and Siberia. This unprecedented tectonic surge left tracks easily visible from space across the length of the Indian Ocean. And it pushed a thousand miles of seafloor sediment, rich in calcium and hydrocarbons – the residue of life – ahead of it.
Upon impact with Asia, it raised up the Himalayan Mountains and nearby ranges, including the Karakorum, the Pamirs and the Hindu Kush. At the point of India’s deepest penetration into Asia, the highest peaks of the Hindu Kush rise above the plains surrounding Bagram. The seam left where continents collided forms a set of straight, steep valleys running to the east and west amidst the rocky summits that tower over the poppy fields of Bagram. Waters flowing through this seam, carrying sediments deposited millions of years ago on the floor of the Indian Ocean, break out 25 miles north of Bagram, merge into the Kabul River, and flow southward to join the Indus on its path to the Indian Ocean.
In this wide, flat alluvial valley, soils rich in vital minerals fan out, forming a pebbled substrate. The climate is alpine and arid -- though the land is well irrigated by runoff from the higher peaks. These fields grow poppies that produce opium resin unusually rich in the addictive, euphoric, and pain-killing constituents of morphine, codeine and thebaine. The soil of Bagram produces the highest grade opium in the world and the fields have never been depleted of necessary minerals despite continuous cultivation. This valley is – and always been – immeasurably valuable to, and fiercely defended by, those who understand how to turn opium into wealth.
Heroin addiction is often thought of as a modern problem, and it is – but only because heroin is a modern creation, first synthesized about 100 years ago. Before heroin, the problem was morphine addiction, or in the vernacular of the American Civil War, the "soldier’s disease". Before the advent of morphine in the early 1800’s, there was Laudanum, a popular concoction of opium derivatives and spirits developed in Switzerland during the 16th century by the noted alchemist, Paracelsus.
It’s difficult to detail the history of human interaction with papaver somniferum in the centuries before Laudanum emerged as the intoxicant of choice in Europe. Nevertheless, opium turns up regularly as far back as history records. Almost a thousand years ago, the Crusaders shipped it home to Europe from their wars in the Middle East. And a thousand years before that, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius developed a distinct fondness for it, which his personal physician Galen struggled to comprehend. One thousand years before that, the ancient Greeks and Egyptians maintained an active trade in opium, as evidenced by numerous opium-tinged clay vials unearthed in these places.
It has been less than 25 years since the world condemned the Soviets for massacring Afghan civilians from aircraft and detaining and murdering them in secret prisons. It even seemed for a moment that justice had been served when the CIA teamed up with Osama bin Laden, the Saudis, the Pakistani intelligence service, and an assortment of radical Islamist warlords to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan in 1989 – bringing down the Soviet regime in the process.
Yet somehow, it is now the American military that slaughters Afghan civilians from the air and maintains a covert network of prisons. And the darkest prison in America’s network of dark prisons can be found beside an airfield on which C-17’s are loaded and from which pilotless drones are launched, in a remote alpine valley beside an ancient city which Alexander the Great once named after himself, and which is today called Bagram.