Source: The Guardian
Date: 22 October 2001

Heroin oils Afghan war machine

Taliban mullahs tap feudal state's most profitable natural resource

Ian Traynor on the Salang Pass, Afghanistan


Just as dawn was breaking over the Afghan capital one day last month, Zafir, a greengrocer in Kabul's main fruit and vegetable bazaar, loaded up his clattering Russian-made Kamaz lorry with water melons and set off on a 72-hour drive.

A 32-year-old father of two, Zafir was on duty for the Taliban, playing a vital part in the billion-dollar dealing that keeps the Afghan war well-oiled.

He ferried his cargo north along bonebreaking mountain tracks and the searing heat of desert trails. On the checkpoints of the civil war, the bearded gunmen gave him a nod and a wink and ushered him onward.

Zafir kept behind the Taliban lines on his journey which ended in the Taliban-held northern capital of Mazar-i-Sharif where he dumped his lorryload of fruit.

The water melons were snapped up. But secreted among the large green globes for other customers was a cache of dozens of kilograms of high-grade heroin recently processed from the poppy harvest in a Taliban-run factory in the eastern town of Jalalabad.

The stamped 1kg cotton bags of snow-white powder, each one declaring its source and refining date, were passed on to the Taliban's central Asian trafficking mafia, hidden in new vehicles, and dispatched to two ex-Soviet republics two hours' drive from Mazar to the north and the west.

"The cars come back and forth. I just take it to Mazar and sell it on to the guys who come in cars from Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. I do it twice a month," Zafir explains.

From there the contraband wends its way up into the Urals in Russia, takes a left turn, heads for Moscow and St Petersburg before being smuggled onward to western Europe - 90% of the heroin injected in Frankfurt, Barcelona or Edinburgh originates in Taliban Afghanistan.

"Our dear friends, the Taliban commanders, they take the stuff from Kandahar and Jalalabad to Kabul," says Zafir, an alias agreed to protect his identity. "We take it on to Mazar and to Kunduz."

For the past five years Zafir has been a bit-player in the lucrative rackets that make millionaires of Afghan warlords and keep the Taliban fighters in guns, food, and fuel. "I've been working in the heroin business since the Taliban seized Kabul [in 1996]."

Brown-haired, blue-eyed in a turban, pale pink tunic, and black trainers, Zafir sweats anxiously as he discloses the details of the Taliban's heroin trafficking after agreeing to meet at a quiet spot in the mountains north-west of Kabul.

He nervously unwraps a black-and-white kerchief on the back seat of an old Russian jeep with blacked-out windows. Inside are several thousand dollars worth of the purest heroin. The white cotton bag inside sealed cellophane is stamped purple with the name of the refinery, the number 555, and the year 2001.

The packaging betrays a certain element of honour among thieves, with those involved easily traceable should the heroin prove to be sub-standard.

"This is from the Taliban factory in the Shinwar district of Jalalabad," says Zafir. "If it's not good, it can be sent back."

He offers to sell the kilo package. Until the Americans started bombing earlier this month, the going rate was $6,500 (4,500) a kilo, he says, a quarter of the price it would fetch in London.

Prices are falling. Zafir wants $5,500, with $500 for the commander on the Taliban checkpoint near Kabul. He has to pay on his return or produce the unsold goods. He also has to turn over the remaining $5,000 to his masters in Kabul and Jalalabad; later he receives a fee for his work.

"The partner pays me for what I sell. I can easily get rid of 100 kilos a month. That is half a million dollars worth at Afghan prices."

If cannabis and opium have always been an integral component of Afghan culture, it is the Taliban who brought heroin into Zafir's life and put the opium poppy at the centre of their mass exercise in primitivism, turning the flower into a key instrument in their endeavour to build a rudimentary and austere Islamic society modelled on eighth century principles.

In 1997 Zafir's neighbour in the Kabul bazaar, also a vegetable seller, made him an offer he could not resist. The neighbour, a Pashtun Taliban supporter, had relatives in Jalalabad in the poppy trade.

Local farmers were being allowed to take advantage of the relative peace imposed by the Taliban to boost opium poppy cultivation in the fertile valley running towards Pakistan, south of Jalalabad.

Poppy cultivation

The mud-coloured resin being extracted from the ripe poppies was being processed into heroin at a Jalalabad factory run by the Taliban. The relatives wanted retail outlets and couriers in Kabul.

"They asked me if I wanted to start taking the stuff north. It would be good money. So I agreed. It's a big income for them and little risk. A big risk for me and a little income. The Taliban are not good people. But on their territory I have to work with them," Zafir says. "We need to live in Kabul and you can only work in the bazaar if you have links with the Taliban. Otherwise they can kick me out. But now they trust me."

Zafir's career as a courier coincided with a huge expansion in the Afghan heroin trade which, in turn, coincided with the Taliban's assumption of power.

The heroin trade is controlled and heavily taxed by the Taliban in a country which has few of the attributes of a functioning economy: drugs, guns, farming, and smuggling are about all there is.

For the Taliban, needing to restock their war chest, the poppy is a rich source of zakat , the Islamic tax levied for the poor.

"They take taxes from the growers. They take taxes from the producers. They take taxes from the transporters," says Zafir.

By 1999, Afghanistan, a country acutely unable to feed itself, became the world's biggest producer of opium.

During his address to the Labour party conference last month the prime minis ter, Tony Blair, said: "The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets. That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy."

Three years after the Taliban captured Kabul, poppy cultivation and opium production had soared to 4,600 tonnes of opium a year, double the output of pre-Taliban Afghanistan and far outstripping its nearest rival, Burma, said the Vienna-based UN Drugs Control Programme.

Around 1m Afghans in a population of 20m were estimated to be growing poppy, thousands more were engaged in the processing and trafficking of the heroin.

The Taliban, meanwhile, used the social devastation accruing from the heroin trade to try to blackmail the west. If you recognise our regime, we will ban opium production, the Taliban offered.

They were rebuffed. But they banned it anyway. The UNDCP as well as two independent surveys conducted earlier this year concluded that poppy farming and opium production in Taliban Afghanistan was virtually nil last year and that the opposition Northern Alliance, holding only 10% of Afghanistan, was now the main source of Afghan opium. Zafir says the ban was mainly due to the acute drought of the past three years since the best opium is produced from well-irrigated poppyfields and that cultivation and production are being resumed, although the US air strikes have grounded Taliban aircraft used to transport opium and heroin around the country.

Zafir claims that most of the Taliban leadership is involved in the drugs business. "They're building factories, getting rich. It's all about money. Everyone's in it for themselves," he says. "I know it's a sin against humanity. But what can I do? I need the money, too. I just transport the stuff and sell it. I've never used it and I don't want to."

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