Nick Hackworth

In Bloom: Afghanistan's Heroin Boom

Essays & Reviews Dazed

Text by Nick Hackworth and Ahmed Shoaib, photography and additional research by Damian Bird

Since US-led forces removed Afghanistan’s strict Taliban rulers, heroin production in the poverty-stricken country has sky-rocketed and the UK has been flooded with the drug. Now, to stop the trade, the US is about to launch a Colombia-style war on the farmers and subject the Afghan people to yet more conflict and grief.

Sitting in a windowless room in a heavily fortified building in the Afghan capital, Kabul, an “anonymous western official”, is unofficially briefing journalists on the next big campaign in the War on Drugs. “It’s time to wield the big stick,” he says with a note of bravado. “We’ve gotta let these guys know that what they’re doing is illegal.” He is referring to the soon to be launched US-led effort to put a stop to the exponential rise in opium production in Afghanistan since the removal of the Taliban regime. Due to commence this spring, the Americans’ all-guns-blazing plan appears to contain within it all the prerequisite conditions for a classical tragedy; participants driven by incompatible needs and aims; an imbalance of power and hidden motives. While the mission’s success is far from certain, one outcome is predictable – more conflict and suffering for Afghanistan and its people.

In the last year of their regime the Taliban bowed to international pressure, exerted their undoubted moral authority and stamped out poppy cultivation, hanging those caught breaking their edict. But since their post-9/11 removal from power just over three years ago, poppy cultivation has become endemic. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s latest report shows a 64 percent increase in 2004 on the previous year’s harvest. Afghanistan now produces 75 percent of the world’s opiates, bringing $2.8 billion into the country’s economy – 50 percent of its GDP. It is also the origin of 90 percent of the heroin on the streets of Britain. It is for this reason that the UK has, until now, taken the lead on the anti-narcotics front in Afghanistan, pursuing a mixed long-term strategy. Units of the British Army based around Kabul and Mazar have been training Afghan troops to destroy poppy fields and have instigated strikes on heroin labs. But in the main the Uk has adopted a softer strategy focused mainly on fostering alternative livelihoods for poppy farmers. As the figures prove, the strategy has, at least in the short term, failed and the US has lost its patience. For Americans, the War on Drugs is twinned with the War on Terror. As the western official in Kabul put it, “The prime motive of the US in fighting drugs is the big T, terrorism. The US does not want Afghanistan to become a narco-state where terrorists fund their activities through the drug trade.” So when the green poppy stalks grow once again this spring, the US plans to go in hard, Colombia-style, eradicating fields with crop-dusters and arresting and extraditing leading drug lords back to the US.

Squatting on her haunches in her simple mud brick house in the Argu district of Badakshan, in northern Afghanistan, 55-year-old farmer Bibi Deendaray has a different perspective. Widowed, like her two daughters, during Afghanistan’s internecine civil war of the 90s, she is head of the household and responsible for providing for the family. Along with ten percent of the population, 2.3 million people, she is utterly dependent on poppy. “I don’t see it as an illegal drug, but a blessing that saves the lives of my grandchildren and my two widowed daughters.” For the Afghan people, who have the misfortune of being farmers in one of the most arid countries on earth, the poppy is indeed a miracle. Walking out into the nearby fields, fallow for the moment and waiting for spring, Bibi gestures at the dry landscape: “We have drought here, and people cannot cultivate large portions of land without water or other crops to make a living. Poppy only needs a small area of land with little water. And most of the people have very small pieces of land from which they can never earn a good living if anything but poppy is cultivated.” In fact, poppy brings in ten times more revenue than any other crop and it is the only one against which they can borrow money – local warlords and traffickers will lend enough to invest in equipment, typically water pumps and tractors.

Down the road lives Nezam, a local warlord who commands around 100 men. His living room walls are studded with nails from which hang a variety of guns and in the corner a couple of his men sit smoking Chinese cigarettes. He looks sanguine when asked about his trade: “I am not a drug dealer, I am just one of those involved in a business which is routine here. Nobody forces the farmers to grow poppy, they do it to survive. And they’re not the only ones. The district administrator, security commanders, judges and even religious leaders are all poppy growers or are fathers, sons or brothers of poppy dealers.” It is for this reason he thinks eradication will fail. “How will they destroy the poppy? If they do and then don’t compensate us then it will be a disaster for the government. If you take a person’s bread from his hand then he will never like you. He may even fight you. If you do that to a whole country, the people will not tolerate it. They will turn on Karzai’s government and those acting for them.”

Nezam is just a small local player in an economic and political network, beneath him are the vast base of farmers, who do well enough out of the poppy trade to survive; above him the commanders, many of them quasi-official, and warlords, who really profit from the trade. Of the $2.2 billion Afghanis made from opium in 2004, $1.6 billion went to the warlords and other men of power who control the trade within Afghanistan’s borders and around $600 million went to the farmers. These men are learning fast. Previously they simply exported raw opium, which was refined into heroin elsewhere. Now they are setting up labs to produce refined opium and heroin. In the last three years heroin has even arrived on the streets of Dushanbe, the capital of neighbouring Tajikistan, packed neatly in one kilogram parcels, stamped with the producer’s name and a map of the trafficking route, from northern Afghanistan into Tajikistan, marked proudly with an arrow. Profits have also continued to rise, explaining the burgeoning domestic market for consumer goods and the evidence of other trappings of wealth. House prices in Kabul, a city ravaged by over two decades of war, are closer to London’s than Tehran’s. In certain wealthy suburbs of Kabul, multi-million dollar mansions are appearing, resembling in their gauche combination of traditional architectural styles with expanses of blue, mirrored glass, the buildings of cities like Dubai built on rapidly acquired wealth.

This wealth percolates everywhere, most dangerously in the structures of President Hamid Karzai’s central government. Karzai and some of his ministers are sincere in their fight against poppy. However, many from cabinet level are corrupt and rumours also circulate about members of Karzai’s family. Though Afghanistan has not yet slipped into the category of a narco-state, where governmental control and the rule of law is utterly perverted by corruption, it is close.

Pitted against this downturn is an array of international, mainly western, organisations, from the UN, to the UK and US governments, to NGOs, harbouring between them a variety of differing agendas. Unsurprisingly, most NGOs view the US’s new strategy with alarm. As Sarah Ireland, Head of Oxfam’s mission in Afghanistan puts it, “A simplistic approach won’t work and this (US) kind of anti-narcotics strategy is likely to be just a short-term fix. What’s needed is an increase in education and awareness of alternative livelihood options for local farmers as well as work on economic issues like access to credit so that we can find long-term solutions that will work for local communities.” But such objections count for little against the power of the US administration, which, despite a strong UN presence, calls the shots in Afghanistan. President Karzai is dependent on the US, even for his life. He is protected by a private security firm employed by the Americans.

For the US, Afghan opium isn’t a domestic issue. Most heroin consumed in the US comes from South America – less than five percent comes from Afghanistan. The overt motive for opening this new front in the War on Drugs is to limit funding for terror organisations. The motive is not unreasonable. In the past extremist Islamic groups based in the country did indeed benefit from the drugs trade. But it was only one source of income, the other vital ones being covert donations from sympathetic or politically expedient governments (including, previously, the US), and powerful individuals. But equally pressing for the Neo-conservatives, given the continuing disaster of Iraq, is the need to make Afghanistan a crucial example of possible success in their mission to transplant modern liberal democracy into the heart of the east. In his first televised debate with Kerry, Bush made much of Afghanistan’s first presidential elections (held in October 2004), saying, “I believe a free Afghanistan is in this nation’s (US’s) interest and I believe both a free Afghanistan and a free Iraq will serve as a powerful example for millions who plead in silence for liberty in the broader Middle East.” In practice that means curbing the power of regional warlords such as Atta and Dostum, effectively absolute rulers of their domains, and that in turn means halting their income from the opium trade.

Thus in Afghanistan the War on Drugs, the War on Terror and the spread of democracy and free markets, publicly the three pillars of Bush’s overtly moral, post 9/11, foreign policy are united. This apparent unity is meant to appeal not only to Bush’s core supporters in Christian Middle America, but to the world in general. While the War on Terror continues to be divisive, the War on Drugs is not. Its ambitions are widely supported. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, for example, is committed to achieving a “World without drugs” by 2020. By linking the fight against terror and drugs to the desire for global democracy, the US is creating a powerful sense of virtue by association, also serving to mask other geopolitical aims, such as maintaining access to the world’s diminishing hydrocarbon reserves. This analysis, though of course generalised, sits well alongside the well-documented neo-conservative strategy of deliberately deceiving the general public – the better to shield them from disturbing facts that they simply do not need to know.

Some elements of the US military in Afghanistan, however, are rather less keen than their political masters on the new policy. Conducting a policy of eradication and arresting traffickers will mean turning on the warlords and commanders who have been, up until now allies (of sorts) in the fight against the Taliban and Al Qaeda. According to one well-placed source who wishes to remain anonymous, some US army chiefs “privately fear stirring up a hornet’s nest. They don’t have much respect for the remnants of the Taliban. They suspect that what resistance there has been (to the presence of foreign forces) has come from drug lords keen to scare the international community away.”

Underlying the entire drugs issue is the simple fact of its widespread illegality. As the excellent recent report by British pressure group Transform argues, the War on Drugs has long since been lost and is in any case a violation of a basic human right – the right to privacy, the right to freedom of thought, belief and practice and the right to make informed choices about one’s own behaviour. Widespread legalisation would decriminalise both users and producers, freeing up state resources to tackle other social and political issues. That’s not going to happen anytime soon, especially given the resurgence of right-wing religious morality in parts of the west. Not that the prohibition of drugs is a western imposition upon the east. Heroin, like all drugs, is illegal under Islamic law and Islamic states tend to meter out ruthless penalties for infractions. A few years ago the Iranian government hung five heroin smugglers, including a woman, from a crane in Tehran. But legalisation in the lucrative markets of the west might encourage foreign governments to change their attitudes to commercial gain. It is depressingly unsurprising that the happiest solution to such an intractable problem is the one furthest from everyone’s minds.