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  • Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy by James Tharin Bradford
  • Kyle T. Evered
Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy. By james tharin bradford. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2019. xii + 281 pp. ISBN 978-1-5017-3976-7. $95.00 (hardcover); $27.95 (paper).

Imagine purchasing two "comprehensive" histories; the first purports to examine oil throughout human history, and the second promises a thorough history of Soviet and post-socialist Russia. Then imagine receiving these books only to discover that the first addresses oil just in the Gulf region and only from roughly World War II to the present, and the second text covers Russia's later years of that Brezhnev fellow's rule up to the present. You could learn about oil over the past seven or so decades—but only in one of many regions (forget Baku, and many other examples), and you might have an image of the late Soviet years up through Putin's regime, but forget Lenin, Stalin, and so on. These hypothetical instances both of a purchase and of intense buyer's remorse are exaggerated, but this has been something of the case for popular and scholarly accounts of opium as a commodity and of opium in Afghanistan. James Bradford's global history of opium and Afghanistan rectifies these monumental lapses.

Bradford begins this history by quickly situating opium as a commodity both geographically and historically within Afghanistan, and he then outlines some of the most striking of the otherwise myriad ways in which opium has been implicated in the country's agricultural, cultural, social, economic, and political dynamics through time. This concise yet thorough contextualization becomes his foundation as he deftly (and politely) identifies how these crucial aspects of both poppy and drug have been overlooked in most popular, policy-driven, and scholarly accounts that have thus far rendered only a very limited set of snapshots. Popular and policy-linked texts focus specifically on Afghanistan's "poppy problem," and these narratives just begin with the country's Soviet occupation (back to Brezhnev's final years). Most scholarly accounts thus far offered little more. Histories both of commodities (and drugs) and of Afghanistan (and Eurasia) typically feature opium in their final chapter(s) as examples of the drug's latest ravages upon humanity without even identifying how the narcotic's global reach extended to include Afghanistan well before Soviet intrigues and invasions. In this regard, the author's thesis is not only a corrective to existing histories but a major contribution to a sizable lacuna in these fields. [End Page 179]

From his introduction through his six substantive chapters, Bradford initiates a chronological exploration and analysis of opium in Afghanistan through time. While the book does not provide coverage of the plant and narcotic from its earliest introduction onward—apart from its reference in Mughal accounts, its point of departure starts with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; the era of British imperialism and the globalization of opium. At this time, networks that included the country shifted from simply a matter of local cultivation, possibly regional marketing, and eventual consumption to instead meeting considerable demands when nearby India curbed production in response to the rise of international suppression. Contemporary with these developments—and a contributor to the commodity's regulation and prohibition, Western markets rapidly expanded to include more than just medicinal consumption. Spanning this turn-of-the-century period, opium became a progressively lucrative export but also a target for increased domestic excise taxes and criminal penalties in order to prevent consumptions at home.

The second chapter proceeds to address how Afghanistan, in the late 1920s, began striving to comply with heightened international prohibitionist regimes, outlawing the export and import of non-medicinal intoxicants. Meanwhile, at local scales, the poppy and its derivative remained in place and were sometimes implicated in domestic political rivalries. Also, in the 1920s, licit international trade in Afghan opium steadily increased, with exports to Britain, Russia, Japan, Germany, and other countries. By World War II, this trade expanded to include the United States, both with exports of opium to the United States and...


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