In 2005, Jon Tapper and John Boit, both co-founders of Melwood Global, had relocated to Afghanistan to become advisors to President Karzai’s government on counternarcotics messaging. Working closely with the US Department of Defense, the US Drug Enforcement Agency and Afghanistan’s Ministry of Interior Affairs, Boit and Tapper were tasked with training Afghan press officers, coordinating across multiple government offices, and designing and executing successful communications strategies that informed Afghan and international audiences about the country’s counternarcotics efforts.
In a conversation with the country’s top drug czar, the two had learned of an immense hidden stash of opium and other illicit drugs seized in narcotics raids, hidden away in a heavily guarded warehouse. The country was desperate to show its hard fought gains against the narco-economy. The drug stash was the physical representation of a policy which, at the time, was working in Afghanistan’s favor. The challenge was in capturing the attention of a wary media and the general public at large, much of whom had written off Afghanistan.
Boit and Tapper convinced the Afghan government to stage a media event to burn the stash of drugs. Over the next several weeks, the two coordinated the transport of the drugs to a remote desert location, worked with international and local media to pitch the story, and worked with Afghan officials, US drug agents, and the diplomatic corps to coordinate messaging.
On the morning of the event, dozens of journalists boarded buses to be transported to the secret location of the drugs. After official remarks, and with cameras rolling, drug agents set fire to the pile of illicit narcotics, sending a column of black smoke into the sky that would be seen for miles. By the time the pyre of drugs—30 metric tons in one location outside Kabul and another 30 tons in various locations around the country—was reduced to ash, the story led on BBC television for an entire news cycle and dominated headlines across the world. It was billed, as Tapper and Boit had pitched, as “the largest drug burning in world history.”