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What's America's Real Role in the Afghan Heroin Trade?

The sharp rise in Afghan heroin smuggling is more than a byproduct of a chaotic war. It’s a direct result of U.S. policy, according to high-ranking Pakistani military officials and sources in the drug trade.
 
 
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Obeidullah Shanawaz’ farm is a mini-monument to recent Afghan history. The wealthy farmer took me on a walking tour of seemingly barren fields that will soon be sprouting winter wheat and vegetables.

"Over here," he says, "are stables once owned by the king." That would be stables built around 1900. "Over here," he says somewhat more grimly, pointing to a splintered frame, "is where the warlords fired rockets at my front door."

Shanawaz’ farm, on the outskirts of Kabul, was in firing range of warlords battling for control of the city in the early 1990s. After the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989 and the government they left behind fell in 1992, warlords who now belong to the Northern Alliance began a bitter civil war that caused more destruction to the cities than ever occurred during the Soviet occupation.

Shanawaz opposed the Taliban, which took over in 1996, and welcomed their recent downfall. But the new U.S.-backed regime hasn’t exactly inspired his confidence. He walks over to the spot in front of his house where his Land Rover was parked before a local Northern Alliance commander stole it. He says he has spent the last month trying to get it back, to no avail, even though he has the name of the commander who commandeered the car. So far, no policeman or government official in Kabul will do anything about it.

Shanawaz says Afghanistan has no effective central government, police, or army. Local warlords rule as they did in the 1990s. And that’s why opium poppies are back in bloom.

Farmers have grown poppies for centuries in Afghanistan. The northern climate is perfectly suited for poppy production, Afghan farmers note with a hint of local pride. Drug dealers in Mexico and Colombia grow poppies but produce inferior quality, the Afghans say. Poppy growing flourishes in Afghanistan because it’s cheap to raise and fabulously profitable to sell.

By the late 1990s Afghanistan supplied 75 percent of the world’s heroin. The low-maintenance crop had become a major foreign-exchange earner for the country. The Taliban caved in to tremendous international pressure and prohibited the crop in 1999. Within two years, the poppy crop had been reduced by 95 percent, according to an assessment by the U.N. office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCP). In May 2001, the Bush Administration even promised the Taliban $43 million in aid as a reward for their anti-drug efforts.

When the U.S. started bombing Afghanistan last October, the Taliban crumbled, and farmers started planting poppies once again. Heroin smuggling shot up. "The people need to earn money," says Shanawaz matter-of-factly.

Shanawaz doesn’t grow poppies. Neither do any other farmers around Kabul, mainly because the soil there is ill-suited for the crop. But he understands the politics of the heroin trade. By walking away from Afghanistan during the civil wars of the 1990s, says Shanawaz, the U.S. essentially guaranteed that drugs would flourish under the Northern Alliance warlords. "Now the U.S. feels the pain of forgetting Afghanistan," he says.

Shanawaz also understands the social impact for addicts in Afghanistan and the west. "It’s a big problem all over the world," he says, looking out over his land, "especially for the young generation. Now we have a new government. I hope for our people" that the heroin trade stops, he says.

But so far, it seems to be just the opposite. The U.S. is pursuing the same policies that led to the flourishing drug trade in past decades.

Peshawar, Pakistan

Ahmad points across the railroad tracks where regular Pakistani police don’t patrol. "That’s where the drug dealers are," he says. As if to emphasize the point, we hear several shots from an AK-47 rifle. "Don’t worry," says Ahmad, "when they see a foreigner, they like to have some target practice. But they’re not shooting at us." It’s purely an intimidation tactic, he explains.

Just to make sure they don’t aim our way, we go indoors.

Ahmad, who asks that his real name not be used, works for a local non-governmental organization which helps rehabilitate drug addicts. He’s a former drug user himself. Every week he checks the wholesale price of heroin so his group can better predict trends among addicts. Afghan and Pakistani addicts smoke a cheap grade of heroin. If the price of smokable heroin goes up, addicts will buy pharmaceutical opiates and inject them, leading to increases in hepatitis and AIDS.

Sitting down over a cup of green tea in his cramped office, Ahmad explains that after U.S. bombing began in October, heroin from Afghanistan flooded into the sometimes lawless Pakistani border town of Peshawar. Prices dropped from about $800 to $600 per kilo. They’ve stayed at that price ever since. The U.S. government accounts for the price decrease by arguing that the Taliban had stockpiled heroin and released it after the war began.

Ahmad and other sources intimately familiar with the drug trade doubt that the answer is that simple. Ahmad says drug dealers with no particular political affiliation had illegally stockpiled heroin. With U.S. bombs falling, they panicked and unloaded inventory rather than see it go up in smoke. The instability caused by the war has certainly made the drug situation much worse, according to Ahmad.

"The U.S. goals in Afghanistan were to defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda," he says, "but also to stop drugs. It has failed badly."

But the sharp rise in heroin smuggling is more than a byproduct of a chaotic war. It’s a direct result of U.S. policy, according to high-ranking Pakistani military officials and sources in the drug trade. They ought to know. After all, they cooperated with the U.S. in establishing the heroin trade in the first place.

Islamabad, Pakistan

Hamid wasn’t always a heroin smuggler. Like many
people in Pakistan during the lawless 1980s, Hamid was drawn to
heroin smuggling with dreams of easy profits. Hamid, who doesn’t want his real name published in the U.S. media, was once a successful businessman in Pakistan. He stands five-foot, seven inches tall and sports a mustache, a ubiquitous style in these parts. He dresses casually in gray slacks and sports shirt.

When he started smuggling in the 1980s, a kilo of heroin purchased for $100 from Afghanistan, he says, would sell for $100,000 in New York. Hamid figured he could beat the odds of getting caught. He didn’t. After being caught at JFK airport with a kilo, he spent several years in a federal penitentiary. Now, he says, he’s a legitimate businessman again. No more drug smuggling since that last run-in with the DEA.

Although Hamid was a small-time smuggler, he is intimately familiar with the Afghan/Pakistani drug trade. Afghanistan had produced opium for centuries. Locals smoked or ate the opium, but before 1979 it wasn’t processed into heroin. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan that year, the U.S. supported the Mujahadeen, who wanted to oust the Soviets. The Mujahadeen became proxy warriors in the Cold War battle against the Evil Empire. But, particularly in the early 1980s, the Reagan Administration needed an off-the-books method to finance the Mujahadeen. The U.S. also wanted to hook the Soviet soldiers on heroin, according to Hamid.

So the CIA gave the Mujahadeen some helpful lessons, Hamid says. The CIA "helped train a few Afghans and showed them how to make heroin out of opium," he says. "They convinced them, this is how you finance your war, like they did with the [Nicaraguan] Contras in the 1980s."

Hamid admits that he has no first-hand knowledge of such training; his information comes from conversations with others in the drug trade. But other sources confirm the U.S. role in the heroin trade in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The CIA "needed more money than they could provide to Afghans for their war," says Shaukat Qadir, a retired Pakistani Army brigadier general. He says the CIA instructed top generals in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to sanction the drug trade. General Qadir says while the DEA tried to stop the heroin smuggling, the CIA "as a matter of policy was saying its okay." CIA officials justified drug dealing on the grounds they were promoting a greater good, according to Qadir, who bases his conclusions on conversations with fellow generals and top ISI officers.

Throughout the 1980s, the CIA shipped increasingly sophisticated weapons to the Mujahadeen through the Pakistani port of Karachi, then by truck to border towns, and then by mule over the mountain passes into Afghanistan. Heroin followed the same route on the return trip, according to many sources.

Tariq Zafar, who heads a major Pakistani drug-rehabilitation program in Islamabad, says U.S. support of drug smuggling had a devastating impact on Pakistan. "Every city along the smuggling route from Afghanistan to Karachi saw an explosion in drug addiction," he says.

Guns, drugs, and anticommunist politics became inextricably intertwined. By the time the Mujahadeen came to power in 1992, heroin was the country’s number one export. The Mujahadeen warlords almost immediately began fighting among themselves and used the heroin trade to finance their wars. They either directly controlled the trade or taxed the smugglers. Those warlords who survived the civil war, and later battles with the Taliban, renamed themselves the Northern Alliance.

In 1996 when the Taliban came to power in most of the country, they initially banned all smuggling as anti-Islamic; poppy fields were burned. But within a year, the Taliban discovered that heroin provided a great deal of national income and encouraged farmers to plant poppies once again. Within a few years the Taliban became isolated internationally because of their policies banning women from schools and workplaces, their destruction of the ancient Buddhist statues, and their harboring of Osama bin Laden.

In an effort to assuage international opinion, the Taliban banned poppy production and drug smuggling. Such activity became "un-Islamic" once again, and this time the prohibition stuck. According to UNDCP figures, however, poppy production continued in territory held by the Northern Alliance. Northern Alliance rebels were fighting a seemingly losing battle against the better organized Taliban, and they needed all the financing they could get.

"The Northern Alliance has always been producing drugs," notes General Qadir. "It was never a moral issue. It was economics."

And the economics that kept the Northern Alliance dealing drugs during the 1990s still apply today.

Rawalpindi, Pakistan

Retired Brig. General Hamid Gul isn’t an easy man to see. He’s constantly on the phone with government officials, army leaders, and the media. He canceled one interview with me and only reluctantly agreed to schedule another. But once we finally met, he was very friendly in a patrician sort of way.

Gul, who still has the ramrod straight bearing of a military man, lives in Rawalpindi, a half-hour drive from Islamabad, which is also headquarters for the Pakistani army. Fine hand-woven carpets grace the floors of his walled mini-estate, situated in a neighborhood occupied by
other retired officers.

From 1987 to 1989 Gul headed the ISI, Pakistan’s equivalent of the CIA. The ISI was the main conduit for CIA funds and arms to the Mujahadeen. Later the ISI helped install the Taliban. Gul, who remains intimately familiar with all the players in Afghan politics, says that Northern Alliance warlords continue their drug smuggling today. He says he has first-hand knowledge that some ministers in the U.S.-backed, interim government of Hamid Karzai use drug money to bolster their power, although he declines to name names. He says the U.S. knows the players as well as he does.

"Warlordism is supported by drug trafficking and gun-running," says Gul. "This is going to increase, in my opinion. This is the American choice."

Gul is a controversial figure in Pakistan because of his avowedly right-wing, pro-Taliban views. He helps lead a group called the Afghan Defense Council, which strongly opposes Pakistan’s pro-U.S. policy on Afghanistan. But others highly critical of the Taliban also share his assessment of the new Afghan government.

NGO worker Ahmad notes that General Abdul Rashid Dostam, now Afghan deputy defense minister, has historic ties with the drug trade. He was "not just taxing the poppy production," says Ahmad. He was "helping direct it. Poppy is the only worthwhile source of foreign exchange for" the Northern Alliance.

Ahmad says, however, that Karzai’s government faces a lot of
international pressure to crack down on the drug trade. In mid-January Karzai announced that he would continue the Taliban prohibition against poppy growing and heroin production.

But Karzai has no functioning national police force or army. In fact, Karzai’s minister of transportation was murdered at the Kabul airport in mid-February, and several top government intelligence officials were charged with the crime. Press reports indicate the murder may have resulted from a dispute over lucrative smuggling routes, but the case has been hushed up.

In April government forces tried to go after poppy growers in the rural areas near Jalalabad. But Northern Alliance warlords organized the farmers to block roads. Afghan refugees trying to return from Pakistan were temporarily halted. Eventually, the government backed off.

"We have an apprehension about the Northern Alliance warlords expanding drug smuggling," says Brig. General Inam Ul Haq, head of Pakistan’s Anti Narcotics Force (ANF) in Peshawar. The ANF is Pakistan’s DEA. Karzai "is appeasing the warlords, and [allowing drug trafficking] could be one way to do that."

The U.S. could make international aid to Afghanistan contingent on poppy eradication, says Brig. General Ul Haq somewhat wryly, noting that for years the U.S. used such threats to pressure Pakistan to cooperate with American efforts to stop heroin smuggling from Afghanistan. "Now the shoe is on the other foot," he says.

The real test comes later this year. Poppies planted in November will be harvested this spring. It takes another few months for the opium to be processed into heroin, warehoused, and then spirited out of Afghanistan.

At a compound outside Islamabad, one man has a seemingly
radical suggestion about how to do curtail the heroin trade.

Islamabad, Pakistan

On the far outskirts of Islamabad, Tariq Zafar walks along a rutted dirt path, past disassembled jeeps and half-finished houses. Zafar is a former heroin addict who now heads one of Pakistan’s largest drug-rehab groups, Nai Zindagi (New Life). He’s set up a sprawling compound to provide former heroin users with housing and job skills. One group learns to repair old U.S. army jeeps, for
example, and resells them for a profit. The compound looks so much like a guerrilla base that one visiting journalist told him, "Bloody hell, it looks like Al Qaeda camp #2."

Zafar welcomes me into a modest home in one corner of the compound. He shoos his children away from the TV and we settle into the squishy soft couches that are wildly popular here. He says that even if Afghan President Karzai wants to eradicate poppy production, it won’t be easy. Armed force alone can’t stop it, he says. Impoverished farmers will grow the crop that yields the most profit; equally poor villagers will gladly transport it to the Afghan borders.

Zafar suggests that in the short term the U.S. should buy up the entire poppy crop and then sell it for legitimate pharmaceutical uses. There is a legal market for opium poppies, to make morphine and similar drugs. That way the heroin problem is quite literally nipped in the bud. Such a plan contains an obvious danger. The buyback policy could encourage others to plant poppy and thus actually stimulate production.

But Zafar says the U.S. has the technology to avoid that problem: Take satellite photos of those fields currently planted with poppy and purchase only that amount in years to come. It’s by far the cheapest and quickest fix, according to Zafar.

"The U.S. should keep on purchasing [poppies] until we train the farmers to switch to alternate cropping," he says.

The Karzai government recently decided to try a modified version of just such a plan. It offered to buy this year’s poppy crop but at prices far below what farmers would get from the drug traffickers. So far, most farmers have refused to sell.

Buying the crop is also not a long-term solution. Afghanistan needs foreign aid to rebuild its shattered economy. Farmers need alternative sources of income.

But there’s an even bigger political problem. Payments made directly to poppy farmers would eliminate warlords’ heroin-smuggling profits. So far the U.S. shows no signs of challenging the lawlessness of the warlords, let alone cutting into their drug profits. They remain allies in the bigger U.S. war against terrorism.

And one thing remains certain. If the U.S. takes no action, Afghanistan will certainly become a major supplier of heroin once again.

Oakland-based freelance journalist Reese Erlich traveled to Pakistan and Afghanistan on assignment for Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Radio, Australian Broadcasting Corp. Radio and Common Ground Radio. A version of this article originally appeared in the East Bay Monthly magazine in Berkeley.