Heroin Smuggling On the Rise In Afghanistan

By REESE ERLICH Featurewell
Tuesday March 09, 2004

KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN—Although temperatures sometimes drop below freezing, farmers have already planted this year’s opium poppy crop in fields just outside Kandahar city. It’s no secret to the government of interim President Hamid Karzai or the U.S. troops who patrol the area. Opium poppy is virtually the only winter crop. 

Akhtar, a major opium growing farmer who asked that his full name not be used, says his and other nearby villages producing drugs never see any U.S. anti-drug officials. The farmers are quite open about their business, even offering visitors bowls of salt-roasted marijuana seeds, a byproduct of another major commodity in the village: hashish. 

Akhtar and other villagers say producing drugs is a simple matter of capitalist economics. They can earn three times as much growing poppy and marijuana as raising wheat, their traditional crop. 

“Because these two crops don’t require a lot of water,” said Akhtar, “we make a better profit when we sell it.” 

Afghanistan has once again become the number one exporter of heroin in the world. Drug trafficking accounts for a startling 50 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated gross domestic product, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. 

Mirwais Yasini, head of Afghanistan’s Counter Narcotics Department in Kabul, says his government is making some progress in the fight against drugs. The government is educating farmers, cracking down on heroin labs and “eradicating the opium plants,” said Yasini. He said the U.S. Army has a new policy of destroying heroin labs and poppy fields when they encounter them during normal operations. 

So far the results are not encouraging, however. While poppy production decreased last year in some provinces such as Kandahar, entrepreneurs shifted production to other parts of the country. Overall opium cultivation increased by eight percent from 2002-03, according to the UN’s 2003 Opium Survey. 

Opium poppies have grown in Afghanistan for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1980s that significant amounts were processed into heroin. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the mujahadeen guerrillas discovered that heroin smuggling was a lucrative means to finance their anti-Soviet jihad. Weapons for the mujahadeen arrived in Karachi, Pakistan, traveled by truck to the Afghan border and then by mule over the mountain passes. The heroin followed the same trail in reverse. 

Within a few years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, factional fighting among the mujahadeen led to chaos. Heroin quickly became the country’s number one export as warlords financed their armies with drug smuggling. By the time the Taliban seized power in 1996, Afghanistan produced roughly 75 percent of the world’s heroin, and the fundamentalists at first did little to address the problem. 

Under tremendous pressure from the U.S., however, the Taliban reversed course and banned poppy growing in 1999. Within two years, poppy cultivation dropped by over 90 percent, according to UN aerial surveys. It continued only in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance, the U.S.-backed guerrillas that later helped topple the Taliban. 

Within months after the US invasion in 2001, when Afghanistan had no effective government, farmers planted poppy and heroin smuggling surged once again. Interim President Karzai has tried to crack down on the drug trade, but the government has limited resources, according to drug czar Yasini. For example, only 430 of the proposed 17,000 Afghan national police will be assigned to anti-drug efforts, because the government’s priority is fighting the Taliban and maintaining security. 

The government would like to provide alternative crops to impoverished farmers. “We are thinking about saffron as an alternative crop, olives, and all types of vegetables and fruits,” he said. 

Yasini concedes, however, that the government has no money for such projects. The drug trade, on the other hand, finances the country’s warlords and their underlings known as commanders. One high government official said flatly that drug corruption reaches extremely high in both the national and provincial governments. 

“If you give me a list of all the commanders in the country, I will point out the few who are not involved in the drug trade,” he said. 

For example, the former governor of Kandahar province, Gul Agha Sherzoi, helped protect drug smugglers, according to Sarah Chayes, until recently head of the non profit Afghans for a Civil Society in Kandahar. One day she saw him lunching with “the top opium trafficker in the region.” On another occasion, a tanker truck carrying 9,000 kilos of hashish into Pakistan “had provincial governor license plates,” said Chayes. The driver carried “a safe conduct written on provincial governor stationery.” 

Sherzoi, a staunch US ally, is no longer governor of Kandahar Province. Karzai promoted him to minister of housing in Kabul. Minister Sherzoi was not available for comment despite numerous phone calls to his office. 

Back in the village outside Kandahar city, farmers are tending their fields. They understand the social problems caused by drug addiction. “But what option do we have? asked poppy farmer Akhtar. 

“We don’t like to grow this, but we’re obliged to,” he said. “If God brought us something to grow instead, we would immediately change.” 

As we prepared to leave, Akhtar had an additional thought. “It’s interesting to know that people in America know we’re growing poppy, but they don’t know we’re not getting food.” 


Reese Erlich is co-author, with Norman Solomon, of “Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You” (Context Books, 2003).ˇ