This article originally appeared on VICE Germany.
For the past six months, Afghanistan has more readily associated with people desperately trying to flee the country than a rise in foreign investment. After the Taliban took over in August 2021, there have been reports of widespread human rights abuses and persecutions of people whose lives are at odds with the strict interpretation of Sharia law enforced by the regime.
It doesn’t exactly seem like the best place to set up an international business. And yet, in late November 2021, the Taliban Interior Ministry tweeted they had reached an agreement with a foreign company named CPharm over a €400 million investment in a cannabis processing facility to be built in the country. The news threw CPharm, a small Australian medical consulting firm, into a publicity storm – one that came as a surprise even to the company itself, especially as they claimed they had nothing to do with the deal.
It turns out CPharm is also the name of another company – CPharm International (ECI), a German research and development firm that’s been experimenting with fast-growing cannabis for the past 20 years.
Werner Zimmermann, 56, the company’s owner and managing director, told me he’s not exactly happy the deal has become public. A very busy man, I managed to catch him over the phone on his way to an appointment with the honorary consul of Pakistan in Düsseldorf. According to him, the magnitude of the deal between CPharm and the Taliban regime has also been misconstrued. Still, the media inquiries keep coming. "I hardly sleep anymore," Zimmermann said.
Zimmermann explained his company has already worked in multiple countries across the world, including Lesotho, Morocco, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, North Macedonia and Cyprus, among others. The company builds facilities to process weed and also consults on legal issues, such as how to legally export cannabis between different countries. One of his upcoming projects is a €500,000 plant in Kazakhstan. Afghanistan is up next.
At the moment, he plans to produce medical cannabis in Afghanistan for both local and international markets. Only later, if countries like Germany legalise weed for recreational use, will his company grow it for non-medical purposes in Afghanistan, too.
Zimmermann’s aspirations might seem far-fetched, but they aren’t as wild as you might think. The humble cannabis plant is native to Afghanistan and has been grown in regions near the Himalayas for centuries. Even though it was officially banned in the 70s, weed is still traditionally consumed in some remote regions of the country, or at least it was before the Taliban takeover.
Zimmermann himself is no stranger to Afghanistan. A former long-distance runner and professional athlete, Zimmermann met elite USSR soldiers at a training camp in what is now Almaty, the largest city in Kazakhstan, back in 1989. There, he also came across some Afghan people and decided to travel to their country for the first time in 1991.
Once in Afghanistan, Zimmermann claims he made friends with Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Afghan resistance leader who’d just led the guerrilla operations that kicked the Soviets out. Massoud later headed the Northern Alliance, a military group that fought against the Taliban after they first took control in 1996. He was assassinated on the 9th of September, 2001, shortly before the attacks on the World Trade Center. Today, his son Ahmad Massoud is an important voice of the Afghan resistance against the Taliban.
Zimmermann insists he knows Afghanistan better than his haters give him credit for. “I'm not a nobody. I'm not some stoned German following a trend,” he said. “In the past two working days, more of my acquaintances in Afghanistan have been killed than German soldiers have died there over the last 20 years."
Zimmermann says he’s currently receiving no consulting fees from his operations in Afghanistan; his company will only start making money once weed can be legally exported. But that still seems like a long shot for the moment. After all, the United Nations announced in early December it would not officially recognise the Taliban government until further notice.
And that brings us to the main issue: How can a German company do business with a government that is not recognised by Germany itself? If it were up to him, Zimmermann said, the German government should have recognised the Taliban from day one. "A foreign minister who acts all high and mighty is about the worst thing that could happen to the Afghan people," he explained.
That’s why part of his role is actually assisting the Taliban interior minister in negotiating treaties with individual countries so as to facilitate foreign business exchanges in the near future. “We are not criminals, you know,” Zimmermann protests.
I asked Zimmermann whether he felt any ethical qualms about his business aspirations given the grave human rights abuses the Taliban regime stands accused of. "I’m familiar with that," Zimmermann said. But there isn’t a single “Afghanistan”, he added, just multiple tribal and family groups that influence the country’s image abroad. “I work professionally, not ideologically, with the minister of the interior in charge, and I support them with my project,” Zimmermann said.
The businessman insists he does not support terrorism. Sometimes, he admits, he fears he will be arrested en route to his next business trip. And when it comes to the ongoing human rights crisis in Afghanistan, he seems to be quite fatalistic. “The prevailing ethical and moral code of Afghanistan has nothing to do with my view of humanity, but I can’t change it either,” Zimmermann said. "There won't be real equality in Afghanistan in my lifetime – but not because I support the government."
In one sense, a ban on any business transactions involving Afghanistan isn’t the most straightforward answer to dealing with the Taliban. Multiple countries have already imposed sanctions as a response to the human rights violations, but the measures have so far mostly affected poor Afghans, deepening an ongoing economic crisis that’s now left 23 million hungry.
For the time being, the deal between CPharm and the Taliban is likely to be on hold. The company says it will have to wait and see how the international community approaches toward the new government in the future before it can make the private investment happen.
Even during our conversation, Zimmermann sounded like he could use the pause. He claims to have received death threats from representatives of a European drug cartel who are unhappy that his plans are competing with their illegal drug trade from Afghanistan.
The businessman also said he’s received a similar warning from the minister of interior of Kyrgyzstan – whom he’s apparently friendly with, and where Zimmermann maintains a second residence. Zimmerman acknowledges that it’s difficult to predict how the political situation in Afghanistan will develop. But, he adds, he’s a "man of conviction”.