Who’s in Charge?
By Reese Erlich
Farmer Ebadullah Ebad walks out into his lush fields, now planted with vegetables and fruit trees. Only a few years ago, Ebad was growing opium poppy — ingredient for tons of heroin produced every year. “Afghanistan’s economy was weak,” says Ebad. “My income was very good. We could sell one kilo of raw opium for about 250 dollars,” enough he says to solve all his family’s economic problems. Listen here:
Afghanistan produces ninety percent of the world’s heroin, accounting for about half the country’s gross domestic product. The Canadian and U.S. governments, along with major media, say the Taliban controls this drug trade. The reality is quite different.
Ebad explains that traffickers in Jalalabad sell the drugs to larger criminal groups protected by the police and politicians. The national drug exporting rings are not led by the Taliban, but by warlords allied with President Hamid Karzai.
Jean Luc Lemahieu, head of the Afghanistan office of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), tells me that insurgents directly control only about $125 million of the country’s $4.4 billion heroin trade — less than three percent of the total. “Certain individuals in this government are the big architects,” he says. “That is what is really dangerous.”
Press reports have implicated several ministers in the government of Hamid Karzai ministers, including Karzai’s half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, as being major drug lords. Government officials, according to Lemahieu, then collaborate with the Taliban to protect the drug trade. The Taliban profits from drugs on a smaller scale by extorting money from drug smugglers and opium farmers. Afghan government officials “protect the Taliban” explains Lemahieu. “Parliament makes all the right statements that the international community wants to hear. And at night they are negotiating, perhaps not directly, with people who are considered their enemy.”
In the 1990s, leaders of the Northern Alliance, known as the mujahedeen, fought against the Taliban. They financed their jihad with heroin. Afzal Rashid, a former senior advisor to the Afghan Finance Ministry, says after the US invasion in 2001, the warlords moved to Kabul and continued their drug dealing under protection of the Karzai government and the U.S. They have government positions,” Rashid says. “The Ministry of Interior is corrupt in their relationship with the drug dealers.” U.S. military and intelligence agencies work with corrupt Afghan officials as part of an alliance against Al Qaeda, explains Rashid. “When we talked to them about” fighting drugs, he says, Army officers said, ‘That’s not part of my mandate.’ I’m sure they looked the other way. They probably knew there were other things these people were doing, but they ignored it.”
Many Afghans look at the heroin trade as a problem only impacting foreigners. After all, the vast majority of the heroin is exported, mostly to Western Europe. But the widespread availability and cheap cost of drugs inside Afghanistan has led to a steep increase in domestic addiction as well. Today, eight hundred thousand Afghans — seven percent of the population — are addicted to heroin and other illegal drugs. That’s also a sharp increase from five years ago, according to 2010 UN figures.
Afghans now understand “that everywhere poppy exists, there is addiction,” Dr. Sardar Wali tells me. Dr. Wali runs WADAN, a drug rehabilitation clinic in Kabul. Despite the increased addiction, Dr. Wali notes that opium cultivation has dropped over the past two years. “The government announced twenty two provinces are free of opium cultivation,” he says. “If this lasts, we are optimistic.”
The Afghan government has cracked down on opium cultivation for the past two years. The U.S., Canadian and other NATO officials have promoted crop substitution as a means for farmers to make profits without growing illicit crops. But the UNODC indicates that the main reason for the drop in heroin production is the low prices farmers now receive for raw opium. Prices are low because of a current glut in the market. If that price goes up, however, so will illegal production.
Back at the farm outside Jalalabad, farmer Ebad says he will keep raising vegetables and apricots so long as they are profitable. But he offers a cautionary note. “If in the future, the price of opium goes up, I will plant it again.”