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The Barking Dog Issue

Afghanistan's New Capitalism

The first thing you notice on the flight from Dubai into Kabul is that the business-class section of the plane looks like it is populated straight out of central casting: large, heavily muscled men in their 40s wearing North Face gear as if it were...


Chocolate cake mix this is not. (It’s opium.)

The first thing you notice on the flight from Dubai into Kabul is that the business-class section of the plane looks like it is populated straight out of central casting: large, heavily muscled men in their late 40s wearing North Face gear as if it were standard government issue, with “Booo yeah!” haircuts and the posture of grunts who have had the boot of a sergeant major up their asses for 20 years or more. They clutch their duty-free booze bags close to them (alcohol is in short supply in Afghanistan), talk in loud voices about which province is more “hairy,” and are all flying to Kabul for one thing. To make money.


Almost all the money that’s floating around Kabul right now comes from the companies these men work for. There are the government-supported projects usually subcontracted out to various multinational services companies, there are even more international NGOs and their respective development projects, and there are countless aid organizations all setting up shop in Afghanistan with seemingly never-ending coffers to draw from. All of these organizations need can-do badasses who don’t rattle at the sound of the “Afghan guitar” (or AK-47) to run their good-will projects for them, so these guys arrive in Kabul with their duty-free Jack Daniels, their gung-ho attitudes, and their danger pay. The problem is that the enterprising Afghans have twigged to this and are making the most of it. When America first invaded, kidnappings were rare and mostly politically motivated. The average ransom was a hefty sum to many Afghans, $10,000, but nothing to the insurance companies that paid it out on behalf of the NGOs and aid agencies. With the Afghans quickly catching on to this, the kidnappings increased, as did the average ransom—to $100,000. Now kidnappings are commonplace, and the ransom? One and a half million dollars, or about the most a standard insurance policy will carry. Many of the men I was flying in with had already been kidnapped—one ex-marine had been nabbed three times and was very effusive about his Muslim captors’ hospitality. “Never had pilaf so good! I gained ten pounds!”


Is this a Johnny Ryan sketch or the most light-hearted and fun anti-heroin Afghan graffiti of all time?

When these men arrive in Kabul they are met by their security teams and respective convoys of armored vehicles. Everything is run as a quasi-military operation, everything planned out. They are then taken to their HQs, which are generally housed in the only habitable (and defendable) properties in town, called “cakes” by the locals because a) they look like cakes and b) they are paid for by “brown sugar,” which is heroin—the only other real source of money in the country.

These poppy palaces were until recently the cribs of Afghanistan’s powerful narcos/warlords. Now they command rents of $50,000 to $60,000 and some even as high as $100,000 a month. They are completely over the top, gold everything, everywhere. All rooms must have a bathroom, including the kitchen, dining room, and den (indoor plumbing is a rare feature in most of the country), and for some reason the ceilings are insanely intricate and can sometimes feature 60 to 70 separate lightbulbs (electricity can also be a rarity, so if you have it why not light that shit?). The drug lords then take these exorbitant rents and build even more lavish narco-tecture in Kabul and their home provinces. Afghanistan today produces the bulk of the world’s opiates. It’s estimated that more than 90 percent of the world’s opium, or raw heroin, is produced there. A huge amount of hash and pot also flows out of the southern and western provinces that border Pakistan and Iran. Drugs in one form or another account for the bulk of the country’s GDP. And while the United States is in Afghanistan ostensibly nation building, this poppy-based culture is permitted, if not openly accepted—which means, if we follow the logic, that since America’s controlling Afghanistan (it is), then America is not only the largest market for drugs in the world, it’s also now officially the world’s largest drug dealer.


The “poppy palaces” we found were designed as though Liberace were a fundamentalist Muslim who sold heroin and kidnapped people.

In December, on a shoot for a forthcoming episode of the

Vice Guide to Everything on MTV, I visited the house of a well-known warlord, a guy who has a warrant on his head by the American government for producing massive amounts of opium. He’s supposedly on the lam now, but weirdly enough two of his closest neighbors are the country’s treasury ministry and internal security agency, both of which are effectively run by the USA. So we have a wanted drug lord living next door, all cozied up tickety-boo, to the people who are supposed to be arresting him. It makes one think about the level of hypocrisy in our “war on drugs” here at home. Recently, America surpassed Russia for time spent occupying Afghanistan, moving well into its tenth year of official presence. But the American contribution to Afghan culture consists mostly of military bases, governmental puppetry, artillery shelling, troops, and almost unintelligible foreign-policy moves. Americans by and large don’t actually leave their bases, and interaction with the native people mostly amounts to unmanned Predator drone attacks. Which alone make the case for Taliban suicide-bomber recruitment across the region. Since America took over control of Afghanistan, its economy has been based on graft, kidnapping, extortion, and drugs, and despite all efforts to the contrary, the United States is just barely putting off the return of one Afghanistan’s national pastimes: civil war. When asked, most Afghans stick to a popular distillation: When America first came to Afghanistan in the 70s there was one Talib in the entire country; now there are 50,000, and by the time they leave there will be 500,000. Due to its utter mismanagement, confused policies, and continued support for a corrupt and hated puppet government under President Hamid Karzai, America is effectively creating the Taliban in Afghanistan. In doing so, the US is all but assuring the next ruling regime in Afghanistan after America pulls out will be the Taliban.

When junkies go through the hallucinatory stages of heroin withdrawal is this what they see? Two donkeys trundling toward them with enough smack on their backs to kill off the whole of the Lower East Side circa 1979?

I asked two of my bodyguards, both Kazakhs from the northern part of Afghanistan, about the threat of civil war once the Americans leave. I was worried about them, as they wore no beards, rocked fake D&G gear, and had slicked-back hair (which would be noted by Kabul’s many “watchers” and reported). They were so Western in their dress and manners that I called them my “hipster helpers” and wondered aloud to them about their safety if the Taliban and their unforgiving law took over again. “The Taliban won’t take over again,” they said. “Why?” “Because we’ll kill them.” “But what if they somehow manage to gain control?” “Then… we’ll be dead.” Oh.
  Shane Smith