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Title: Afghanistan: The Making of a Narco State
Source: Rolling Stone
URL Source: http://www.rollingstone.com/politic ... king-of-a-narco-state-20141204
Published: Dec 4, 2014
Author: Matthieu Aikins
Post Date: 2016-08-27 04:14:01 by A Pole
Keywords: drugs, profits, war
Views: 302

Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan is named for the wide river that runs through its provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, a low-slung city of shrubby roundabouts and glass-fronted market blocks. When I visited in April, there was an expectant atmosphere, like that of a whaling town waiting for the big ships to come in. In the bazaars, the shops were filled with dry goods, farming machinery and motorcycles. The teahouses, where a man could spend the night on the carpet for the price of his dinner, were packed with migrant laborers, or nishtgar, drawn from across the southern provinces, some coming from as far afield as Iran and Pakistan. The schools were empty; in war-torn districts, police and Taliban alike had put aside their arms. It was harvest time.

Across the province, hundreds of thousands of people were taking part in the largest opium harvest in Afghanistan's history. With a record 224,000 hectares under cultivation this year, the country produced an estimated 6,400 tons of opium, or around 90 percent of the world's supply. The drug is entwined with the highest levels of the Afghan government and the economy in a way that makes the cocaine business in Escobar-era Colombia look like a sideshow.


Even more shocking is the fact that the Afghan narcotics trade has gotten undeniably worse since the U.S.-led invasion: The country produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000. How did all those poppy fields flower under the nose of one of the biggest international military and development missions of our time? The answer lies partly in the deeply cynical bargains struck by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his bid to consolidate power, and partly in the way the U.S. military ignored the corruption of its allies in taking on the Taliban. It's the story of how, in pursuit of the War on Terror, we lost the War on Drugs in Afghanistan by allying with many of the same people who turned the country into the world's biggest source of heroin.


It's hard to imagine now, but Marjah was once the site of one of the fiercest battles of the war, when, in 2010, the Marines air-assaulted into the Taliban-controlled area, braving gun battles and tangles of IED traps amid the mud-walled compounds and orchards. Today, the area is peaceful, the kind of green, flat farmland where you can watch a tree scroll slowly across the horizon as you drive, or a faraway thunderhead mount. The weather is hot, and the air has the nectary scent of early summer.


"This area was all controlled by the Taliban until the Marines came," says Hekmat. He smiles fondly. "It was great when the Marines were here." The Americans spent freely, showering the locals with cash-for-work projects and construction contracts, and outfitting a local, anti-Taliban militia that employs child soldiers and imposes a levy on opium fields. We pass a wide scar of cleared ground that had once held a Marine outpost. "But now they're all gone."


Mirza Khan, wearing a robe and a neatly trimmed beard, greets us warmly. Behind him is a field of dull-green poppies, the end result of the tiny black seeds he and his family sowed back in November. "I've been planting this since the time of the Communist revolution," he says.

Mirza Khan's son is standing amid the chest-high stalks, in his hand a lancing tool, a curved piece of wood with four shallow blades on its tip. Lancing is laborious and delicate work; he moves one by one to each bulb, cradling it with his left hand and drawing the blades across it in a diagonal stroke with his right. "You can't press too deeply, or otherwise the bulb dries up after just one lancing," he explains, his hands flicking deftly among the poppy heads. "We're able to come back and lance each of them four or five times."

The bulbs are lanced in the afternoon, and the milky sap seeps out through the night, thickening and oxidizing into a dark-brown hue. In the mornings, the nishtgar go from bulb to bulb scraping off the sticky resin with a flat blade, which they wipe into a tin can hanging around their necks. Fifteen workers can harvest a productive hectare within a week. When you consider that Helmand alone has at least 100,000 hectares under cultivation, you get a sense of the vast amount of manpower that must be mobilized.


Marjah had been largely poppy-free since the arrival of the Marines, due to eradication campaigns and the flood of cash the Americans pumped into the economy. Now that foreign aid has dried up and the government's interest in punishing farmers has waned, people like Mirza Khan and Abdullah Jan followed simple economic logic: Wheat prices were too low to be profitable, so this year, all over Marjah, poppy was being planted.


Back at Hekmat's house, I ask his uncle Mirza Khan if he'll show me the results of his harvest thus far. He returns with a polyurethane bag the size of a soccer ball and hefts it onto the carpet. He unwinds a thick rubber strap, and a sour, vegetable odor fills the room. Inside is a mass of raw opium, with a rich brown color and a moist texture, like pulped figs. It's about 10 pounds, a half-acre's yield. "If I'm lucky, I might get 60,000 kaldar for this," he says. That's about $600.

"Do you know how much this is worth on the streets of London?" I ask him. He shrugs, and I make a quick calculation. Ten pounds of opium can be refined into a pound of pure heroin. Cut it to 30 percent purity and sell it by the gram – that's 1,500 grams at a hundred bucks a pop. "This is worth over $150,000."

That's a 25,000 percent markup. We stare at each other for a moment, and Mirza Khan gives a chuckle. He shakes his head in amazement. A future hundred grand sitting in the living room of a guy who doesn't have plumbing, electricity or furniture. Someone between him and that junkie is clearly making a killing.

From the farmers' fields at harvest time, Afghanistan's opium was beginning a journey that would span vast global webs of traffickers, corrupt officials and powerful militant groups.


Afghanistan is landlocked, and its borders leak opium like sieves into five neighboring countries. In recent years, the northern route to Russia and Europe via Tajikistan has gained importance, but the southern route through Balochistan still accounts for the largest portion of opium that leaves the country. From there, it is smuggled into Iran, and then onward to the Balkans, the Persian Gulf and Africa. Most of it is destined for Western Europe.


Baramcha was once just a collection of mud-walled compounds, but these days you can find late-model Land Cruisers driving past concrete mansions – this despite sporadic raids and airstrikes by U.S. and Afghan forces. The area is so remote that raiding teams would have to refuel their American helicopters in the desert using fuel bladders parachuted out the back of a cargo plane. "There's an area of town that we used to call Hajji JMK Village," says a member of Afghanistan's elite commando units who has hit the area a number of times with Marines and British special forces. "It's like a Sherpur in the desert," he says, referring to a neighborhood in Kabul notorious for its gaudy "poppy palaces" built by the country's warlords. "They had everything out there: generators, appliances, fancy cars. We used to take ice cream out of their freezers."


In the summer of 2000, the country's fundamentalist leaders announced a total ban on opium cultivation, "a decision by the Taliban that we welcome," as former Secretary of State Colin Powell said. It remains a mystery why the Taliban's reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, made the call. But the Taliban enforced his decision with their customary harshness. In Helmand, those caught planting poppy were beaten and then paraded through the village with their faces blackened with motor oil. The following spring, the only significant opium harvest was in the corner of the northeast that was still controlled by the Taliban's rivals, the Northern Alliance. Opium production fell from an estimated 3,276 tons in 2000 to 185 tons in 2001.

Then history intervened. After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration, seeking a "light footprint," partnered with anti-Taliban warlords, including the Northern Alliance, to take control of the country. In its quest for vengeance, the U.S. allowed figures accused of being involved in grave civil-war-era human rights abuses to come to power; these included people like Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, whose rival mujahedeen factions shelled Kabul to rubble and who would later become the country's vice president and a leading member of Parliament, respectively.

These were the first in a series of decisions that helped revive the Afghan opium economy in a drastically expanded form. Within six months of the U.S. invasion, the warlords we backed were running the opium trade, and the spring of 2002 saw a bumper harvest of 3,400 tons. Meanwhile, the international community and the Afghan government paid lip service to counternarcotics, with the latter adopting an official strategy that fantasized about opium production being reduced by 75 percent in five years and eliminated entirely within 10.


U.S. counternarcotics programs, which have cost nearly $8 billion to date, and the Afghan state-building project in general, are perversely part of the explanation for the growing government involvement in the drug trade. Even the newly rebuilt Afghan Air Force has been investigated by the U.S. military for alleged trafficking. In many places, the surge had the effect of wresting opium revenue from the Taliban and handing it to government officials. For example, in Helmand's Garmsir District, which sits on key trafficking routes between the rest of the province and Baramcha, a big Marine offensive in 2011 finally pushed out the Taliban and handed the district back to the Afghan government. The result? The police began taking a cut from those drug routes. "There are families, as in Mafia-style, that have the trade carved up between them, and when some outsider tries to get in on it, they serve him up as a success for drug interdiction," one Western official who worked in Garmsir told me.


Between the impoverished farmer on one end and the desperate junkie on the other lies a tangled chain of criminals, politicians and drug warriors – the product of a world where drugs are illegal and addicts are plentiful. And with all the corruption and greed that have created the Afghan narco state, it's hard to imagine the country any other way.

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