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Heroin's Hometown

Our friend Christoph, a reporter in Afghanistan, tells us what it’s like at the source of those little baggies full of brown death that we used to buy from a hole in a brick wall in a building that now houses a Japanese-French fusion bistro.

Where smack grows on trees… Poppy field photo by Paul Kooi, dope bag scans courtesy of Pedro Mateu-Gelabert and Liza Vadnai

he story was that villagers had informed the local drug-eradication unit of a heroin lab in the village of Adam Khor in Badakshan, northeastern Afghanistan. An extremely mountainous area where fertile land is scarce, Badakshan is a place where poppy is cultivated in every valley. It is then harvested and the raw opium, or teryak, is smuggled across the borders with homemade mini-planes, or simply by bribing policemen.

A raid was staged based on the villagers’ information, and several people died when it was carried off. Western officials claimed it was a success. They said that the fact that villagers had informed them of the area’s heroin lab showed that the local resentment over heroin production was growing. But some of us began to wonder… Nearly everyone grows poppy in Badakshan. Why would the villagers want a heroin lab destroyed? A bit of asking around yielded the truth: The warlord who had installed the lab only allowed farmers from his villages to use it. Farmers from the neighboring villages pleaded for access, were repeatedly denied, and finally grew so angry that they burned down the lab and informed the authorities of its existence. Now that the playing field is level, no one smuggles heroin across the border. They all smuggle raw opium instead. I have spent several months in Afghanistan over the last few years, talking to poppy farmers, dealers, policemen, Taliban, and foreign diplomats, and they have all told me that the current opium-eradication program is a joke. Opium is Afghanistan’s big business. Last year’s crop of 6,100 tons, enough to produce 610 tons of heroin, was the largest ever in Afghani history. It provided 90 percent of the world’s supply. While US officials claim that opium funds the Taliban, the reality is far more complicated. Opium profits are shared among government officials, affiliated warlords and, yes, the Taliban. Most poppy farmers I talked to paid bribes to the local police to escape the regular eradication campaigns. This is the case not only in Badakshan in the north, but as well in Kunar in the east and Helmand down south. Sometimes, however, police begin to ask for more than farmers can afford. A farmer in the Balagh district close to Mazar-i-Sharif told me, “Local officials get about 2,000 afghanis [$40] per jerib [approximately half a square meter] of land as a bribe. Those who can’t pay have their crops destroyed. We are gathering the harvest as fast as we can so that they don’t hold us up for money again.” “The richer farmers can pay bribes to avoid eradication, while the poorer ones can’t,” said Abdul Manan, head of the government’s counter-narcotics department in Helmand. The poppy farmers who can’t afford to bribe the police often call on the Taliban for protection. These farmers fight side-by-side with the Taliban against the police and the Afghan National Army (ANA). A farmer in Helmand said to me of the collaboration, “I am happy about it—if everyone is busy fighting, I can grow my poppy in peace.” And a Taliban spokesman in the Nadali district said, “This is a good opportunity for us to win local support. We can continue our jihad, and local people can keep their lands. Our Taliban are ready to go anywhere in Helmand to help people fight the eradication campaign.” Though the Taliban help protect the fields by fighting against the police, they also do so by eliciting their tacit cooperation. In the mountain town of Cinar on the Kandahar-Helmand border, 20 yards away from the mud-brick compound housing the district police heardquarters, a large field of poppies flourishes. Captain Said Farad, an Afghani army commander based just outside the town, said that the district chief in the region has no choice but to cooperate with the Taliban: The last three chiefs sent there by the governor were killed. “The police definitely have a hand in the poppies. Those two vehicles near the compound help with the drug smuggling and run supplies for the Taliban,” Farad says. “Nobody will kill the current chief because he had a deal with the Taliban.” Since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, the old mujahideen warlords and drug lords have taken positions in Afghanistan’s new democracy, and poppy cultivation and drug production have skyrocketed. None of this is a secret. According to a recent report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, “This emerging underworld is connected through payment and patronage to senior political figures who provide the required protection.” Qayoum Babak, a political analyst in Balkh Province, says, “Many of the ministries involved in poppy-eradication plans are the main cultivators of the crop. These officials will never get rid of poppy, since they are the main beneficiaries. They are just trying to defraud the world community.” The drug trade has corrupted virtually every level of Afghan society, notably law enforcement and the judicial system. And the corruption reaches the highest echelons of the Afghan government. Last year, the DEA compiled a list of the 14 most important drug smugglers in Afghanistan. In cooperation with US authorities in Kabul, president Hamid Karzai managed to have two names removed from the DEA list: Mohammed Daud, the assistant interior minister personally in charge of drug eradication, and Wali Karzai, the brother of the president himself. Chris Alexander, deputy special representative of the UN Secretary General, even joked about it during a press conference in Kabul last November. Speaking of the Afghani narco-trade, he quipped, “It is important to realize that not everyone [in the government] is involved.” When the laughter died down, he added, “But it is an absolute imperative to remove those who are.” At present, the reverse seems to be happening. On the top floor of a Soviet-built apartment building at the edge of Kabul lives General Aminullah Anarkhil. He used to be in charge of security and customs at Kabul International Airport. We sat on pillows on the floor of his living room, surrounded by pictures of arrested drug mules and their contraband, hidden in body packs, capsules, and elsewhere. Anarkhil helped create a secure international airport from little more than an airstrip adjoined by some wooden shacks and damaged buildings. Undaunted by the paltry facilities, he began to intercept and arrest drug couriers. But the smugglers mysteriously kept being released once they were out of Anarkhil’s direct custody. After a month of these arrests, people from Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabit’s office showed up to investigate unspecified corruption charges. Then Anarkhil was fired. He is convinced it was because he was interfering with the drug-trafficking business. “I received many death threats, telling me that I should stop, I would be killed, and so on,” he says. Anarkhil fears for the safety of his family. The government took away his bodyguards when he was fired. “It is a very powerful and dangerous mafia,” he says. “They are very well connected in the government.” Since Anarkhil was fired, no drug couriers have been arrested at the Kabul airport. All that said though, things may finally be looking up for the current antipoppy campaign. It’s starting to gain some powerful supporters, namely, the big drug traders. It’s the same situation as it was with the Taliban’s 2000 opium ban. Last season there was overproduction of 30 percent. “I’ll be very happy if the eradicators are successful,” said one trafficker in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand Province, early this spring. “I have lots of poppy stored. If they don’t destroy poppy, I’m afraid the price will come down.” Which has actually started to happen already. In Balagh, the price for one kilo of teryak has suddenly plunged from $100 to $30. Most local farmers have given up on planting poppies for this season: “We live in a flat, accessible area and cannot hide our fields. There are no Taliban around here. The policemen would still demand the same bribes as last year, therefore we have ceased cultivation this year.” Officials from the office of the governor in Mazar-i-Sharif laud this decline in poppy cultivation as a great success in their antipoppy campaign. In reality, it is no more than a market correction. As the poppy farmer in Balagh said: “I still have half a dozen oil-barrels full at home and so do all my neighbors. If we would sell now, we would lose—so we win by waiting for better prices!”