Beach on Bradford, 'Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy'

James Tharin Bradford
Robert Beach

James Tharin Bradford. Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. 300 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-5017-3976-7

Reviewed by Robert Beach (SUNY Albany) Published on H-War (February, 2023) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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Afghanistan has become a global leader in opium production in recent years. When explaining this phenomenon, some basic historical assumptions dominate the conversation: Afghanistan has “always” been a lawless and stateless nation, long a buffer between British and Russian imperial interests, plunged into further chaos after the Soviet invasion in 1979, when any number of corrupt entities emerged including the Taliban; ties to international terrorism; and of course, a flourishing illicit opium trade. Historians, limited by the lack of extensive Afghan archives, have added important nuance to pre-invasion Afghan history, but as it pertains to opium, continue to cite the Soviet invasion as the starting point for Afghanistan’s opium market. James Bradford presents an important corrective to this narrative in his book, Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy.

The study covers over a hundred years of Afghan history, using Afghan sources where possible but relying overwhelmingly on American and British sources. Despite these obstacles, Bradford convincingly argues that Afghanistan’s opium market was a product of Afghan leaders attempting to build a modern state prior to the Soviet invasion while negotiating two very complex dynamics. On one hand, Afghanistan had to negotiate the various contradictory demands of, first the British and the East India Company’s opium trade, then American-led international drug conventions in conflict with often contradictory pro-market priorities, especially during the Cold War, led by American foreign development aid. On the other hand, Afghan leaders had to balance the demands of its modernizing urban populations with its more conservative, isolated but economically and culturally important rural hinterlands to maintain its legitimacy. In each of these relationships, Afghan leaders and citizens were not at the mercy of these larger forces, but instead made pragmatic decisions in response to those pressures, often resulting in unintended outcomes.

The book centers its analysis and its evidence on relationships between Afghan officials and their American counterparts, along with aid organizations during the post-World War I period in Afghanistan’s history. There is some consultation of British sources for the first part of the study, which brings us through World War I. The study ends prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979. Bradford’s study is the first of its kind that weaves the history of Afghanistan with the history of opium prior to the invasion. It also contributes to the growing literature on decolonization, demonstrating how societies coped and adapted to imperial demands, even as Afghanistan avoided outright colonization throughout this period.

Opium, as an important buffer crop at the beginning of the story, evolved in reaction to the various contradictory pressures from home and from abroad. The exploding demand for opium from Western pharmaceutical companies created incentives for foreign investment while also making the nation party to international drug control agreements, led by the United States. Afghan leaders used the various incentives, offered by American entrepreneurs (both licit and illicit) and foreign aid organizations, to their own advantage, Afghan leaders received development aid needed to build a modern state, and opium growers gained access to an insatiable global market for opium poppies.

Bradford’s argument is strongest when he emphasizes the contradictions in American-led narcotic control efforts, which sought simultaneously to promote the integration of Afghanistan into the emerging American-centered global economy and to regulate and control opium, one of the more lucrative products within that emerging global system. At the same time, Afghan leaders desired to build a modern state that could administer to its people, respond to crises, and provide economic opportunities within the context of a majority-Muslim nation whose political culture is very dependent on kinship and community associations (qawm). The importance of maintaining positive relations with rural communities influenced the way Afghanistan’s own drug prohibitions were applied, operated, and succeeded (or failed). The centrality of qawm and the inability of modernization efforts to square with local needs and desires explains the inability of the state to project its legitimacy effectively and created opportunities within that system that thrust Afghanistan into the center of the global opium market.

The concluding case study, of a dam-building project in the Helmand Valley funded in part by US private and public sources, is where Bradford clinches his argument. In attempting to create a market-based economy in the valley, specifically one that abandoned opium in favor of more “productive” farming, the inability of American priorities to translate in the Afghan context proved to be counterproductive as farmers used equipment and knowledge gained to capitalize on the opportunities in illicit opium. Bradford establishes that Afghanistan’s domination of the international illicit opium trade predated the Soviet invasion in 1979. The fundamental weakness of this study is the lack of Afghan sources. Bradford fully acknowledges this weakness from the introduction, recognizing this as a factor in the study of the Central Asian nation’s history. Despite this weakness, Bradford’s study is an important contribution to the history of Afghanistan, the global history of opium, and American foreign policy. In addition to affirming the agency of Afghan officials in responding to international demands, it also considers the agency of those most vulnerable to adherence to those demands. It was within that context that illicit opium in Afghanistan became a work beater.

Citation: Robert Beach. Review of Bradford, James Tharin, Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy. H-War, H-Net Reviews. February, 2023. URL:

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