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Afghanistan: Poppy, Heroin Trade Flourishing As Government Fails To Provide Alternatives

Despite a ban by the Afghan government, poppy cultivation and heroin laboratories are an open secret in many Afghan provinces. Afghanistan re-emerged as the world's largest opium producer last year, with more than 3,400 tons harvested.

Prague, 16 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Gulnoor Bahman, an Afghan journalist and a member of the country's Independent Human Rights Commission, says many villagers in Afghanistan's Badakhshan Province are aware of the region's heroin laboratories, as well as the location of secret coves on the Omu River where drug traffickers transfer their illicit goods to neighboring Tajikistan.

In one case, Bahman says, villagers decided to take matters into their own hands: "Recently, there was a conflict between residents of Shahr-e Bozorg district and a local commander, Mullah Muhammad Nabi, over a so-called drug-trafficking cove in the Owez area, on the Omu River bank close to Tajikistan's border. Residents of the Dowung village destroyed the cove and attacked its guards, saying it has been tarnishing the villagers' honor. Mullah Muhammad Nabi distributed some 400 weapons to his men, and they attacked the village. There was a bloody clash. They killed two villagers, wounded a third one, and restored the cove."

With results like these, Bahman says most villagers prefer simply to ignore the drug processors and traffickers.

Bahman, who is based in the region, tells RFE/RL that government agencies in Badakhshan, including the police, are powerless when it comes to the fight against drugs. He says Badakhshan's security forces recently arrested a major drug smuggler. However, under threats and pressure from a local commander, the chief of the security service released the trafficker.

Both the authorities and local residents turn a blind eye to the drug trade, according to Bahman. "Government institutions in Badakhshan have been making an effort to control drug trafficking, but it is impossible. Drug smuggling in the area continues in full swing. Illicit drugs are being smuggled from the Owez village of Shahr-e Bozorg district, in Khohon, Darvoz, Ishkoshim, Zebok, Shugnan and other border areas. In these areas, drug trafficking is not even considered a crime. Opium is being bought and sold openly," Bahman says.

Abdulhai Elohi, the chief of the state Commission for Drug Control, does not deny a possible connection between drug traffickers and local commanders.

"We don't deny that factories exist, but they must be functioning secretly," Elohi says. "However, we do not have information about commanders who report to the government, to the Defense Ministry, being involved in drug producing. But if there is something going on secretly, we cannot deny it."

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that poppies were cultivated on some 75,000 hectares across the country in 2002. Nangarhar Province in the east and Helmand Province in the south are Afghanistan's major opium producers.

In a country where annual incomes barely reach $170, farmers can earn up to $6,500 a year from opium production.

According to the UN anti-drug agency, the gross income from Afghan opium sales exceeded $1.2 billion last year.

It is believed that for many years Afghan opium and heroin were a major financial source for the former Taliban regime, as well as for the Al-Qaeda terrorist network. Afghan authorities say the eradication of poppy fields is not an easy task and that poppies cannot be uprooted simply by authoritarian or military means. Opium is the only source of income for many farmers, and they are not ready to destroy their poppy fields unless they receive compensation or alternative methods for making a living.

Elohi from the Afghan drug control commission says Afghanistan lacks the funds to provide such assistance to farmers. "Today, I received a report from the Ministry of Agriculture that says that some provinces asked [the government] to send saffron, caraway seeds, and mushrooms to farmers to cultivate instead of poppies. We don't know where and how to provide this replacement for the farmers," he says.

Helaluddin Helal, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister, tells RFE/RL that Afghanistan will not be able to eliminate the illicit drug trade unless powerful warlords and all illegal groups are disarmed.

"I hope that irresponsible armed people will be disarmed. It would pave the way for the rule of law. The police would have more power to establish law and order in the provinces. Local police forces or the central police, the Interior Ministry, which is responsible for the fight against drugs, will have more opportunities to fight drug trafficking. As long as local commanders rule the provinces, we cannot prevent [drug trafficking] properly," Helal says.

Afghan anti-drug authorities insist that without international cooperation, Afghanistan is not capable of fighting drug trafficking, which is controlled by powerful international crime syndicates.

According to Elohi, it will take years of effort to eradicate Afghanistan's poppy fields and destroy opium stockpiles and heroin laboratories.

In the meantime, Afghan opium and heroin are making their way westward through Central Asia, leaving behind thousands of addicts and contributing to increasingly high rates of HIV/AIDS in the region.

Avaz Yuldoshev, the spokesman for Tajikistan's anti-drug agency, tells RFE/RL that last year some 7 tons of drugs, including 4 tons of heroin, were seized on the Tajik-Afghan border, and that the figures for this year have dramatically increased.

"In the first five months of 2002, nearly 1,770 kilograms of drugs were seized in Tajikistan. In the first five months of this year, we seized 4,680 kilograms," Yuldoshev says.

Yuldoshev says drug smuggling into Tajikistan has increased over the past 18 months, despite the presence of international forces in Afghanistan.

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.