Dispatch

The Taliban Are Breaking Bad

Meth is even more profitable than heroin—and is turbocharging the insurgency.

By , an Australian journalist and author.
An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks
An Afghan security member pours gasoline over a pile of seized drugs and alcoholic drinks before setting it alight on the outskirts of Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan on May 28, 2019. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP via Getty Images

KABUL—The escalating war in Afghanistan is directly linked to the multibillion-dollar global trade in illicit drugs, as the Taliban seek to expand and consolidate control over the production and trafficking of narcotics and to diversify from heroin into methamphetamine, in what an Afghan counternarcotics officer called “a coming catastrophe for the world.”

Afghan and international counternarcotics experts said violence in Afghanistan has spiked in recent years alongside increased cultivation of opium poppies, used for heroin production, and ephedra, a plant that grows wild across the country and is being used to make methamphetamine. The officials described the Taliban as the world’s biggest drug cartel and said the group—which is fighting a fierce insurgency against the Afghan government—is using heroin transshipment routes to push methamphetamine into new markets in Australia, Asia, North America, Europe and Africa.

KABUL—The escalating war in Afghanistan is directly linked to the multibillion-dollar global trade in illicit drugs, as the Taliban seek to expand and consolidate control over the production and trafficking of narcotics and to diversify from heroin into methamphetamine, in what an Afghan counternarcotics officer called “a coming catastrophe for the world.”

Afghan and international counternarcotics experts said violence in Afghanistan has spiked in recent years alongside increased cultivation of opium poppies, used for heroin production, and ephedra, a plant that grows wild across the country and is being used to make methamphetamine. The officials described the Taliban as the world’s biggest drug cartel and said the group—which is fighting a fierce insurgency against the Afghan government—is using heroin transshipment routes to push methamphetamine into new markets in Australia, Asia, North America, Europe and Africa.

The relative costs of heroin and methamphetamine make meth an attractive diversification for the Taliban, who are said to earn around $3 billion annually trafficking opium and heroin produced principally in southern Afghanistan. Cesar Guedes-Ferreyros, the representative in Kabul for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said at least 85 percent of the world’s heroin is sourced to Afghanistan. In Australia, which alongside Japan is a major market for the Taliban’s new product, a kilogram of Afghan heroin is valued at around $250,000. By comparison, the cheaper-to-produce methamphetamine is worth $700,000 a kilo, experts said.

Taliban traffickers are opening new markets by including what one official described as starter packs of meth in heroin shipments. “They will send you in 100 kilograms of heroin and add 5 kilos of meth for free—there you go, give it a go. Just to get that user base started, and then they will start swamping you,” an international counternarcotics officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Increased e-commerce activity in the 18 months since the COVID-19 pandemic began had also given traffickers a route into new markets, he said, as the number of parcels arriving through national postal systems has exploded. “If you send 10 one-kilogram lots into Australia, and only one makes it through, you still face a massive windfall. It’s just money, the money is ridiculous, and it goes back to organized crime or the Taliban, who are organized crime,” the official said.

The Taliban have been rapidly expanding their presence across Afghanistan in recent months, in an offensive coinciding with the departure of U.S. and international troops, ending a 20-year presence that began shortly after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, which were orchestrated by al Qaeda from its sanctuary in Afghanistan.

Addicts wait at a drug treatment center in Kabul on Nov. 13, 2019, as part of a compulsory detox program launched by the government.

Drug users wait at a drug treatment center in Kabul on Nov. 13, 2019, as part of a compulsory detox program launched by the government. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP via Getty Images

The insurgents have knocked over districts, encircled and besieged cities, and taken over a handful of border posts, giving them potential control of huge and vital customs revenues on transshipment of goods to and from neighboring Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran, and Pakistan.

“Obviously, Afghanistan being a landlocked country, the ones who dominate these border passes have more effective control of international trade and taxation, and of course a way to neutralize the authorities and allow further exports of illicit products like drugs, and also incoming controlled substances like chemical precursors” used for refining drugs, Guedes-Ferreyros said.

The counternarcotics official said a recent seizure of 3.2 tons of precursors—chemicals used to convert the ephedra plant to methamphetamine—indicated “the capability to make between three and 30 tonnes of methamphetamine, which in Australia would be worth between US$2.1 billion and $21 billion.” The precursors cost about $200,000.

Afghanistan was already the world’s opium king. But now, cheaper-to-make drugs are giving the Taliban another way to fund their insurgency. A recent European Union-funded study found that Afghanistan has become a significant “producer and supplier of relatively large quantities of low-cost ephedrine and methamphetamine” that could rival output of opiates. The report found that one district alone, Bakwa in the northwestern province of Farah, with a population of 80,000, was potentially earning $240 million a year by processing ephedra plants.

While the Taliban’s control of opium production is widely known, drugs and other illicit activities such as exploitation of mining assets have barely been mentioned since former U.S. President Donald Trump struck a bilateral deal with the insurgents in February last year. He vowed to pull out U.S. troops, which President Joe Biden says will be complete by Aug. 31, and effectively gave the world’s biggest drug cartel political legitimacy. The leaders of the group are feted in regional capitals, removed from U.N. Security Council sanctions lists to enable them to travel, and are seriously considered as future partners in the Afghan government. Yet Afghan and international drugs enforcement officials say they are no different to the drug cartels that devastated Mexico and Colombia, and they refer to Afghanistan as a “narco-state.”

The Trump-Taliban deal also called for direct negotiations between the Afghan government—sidelined from the bilateral agreement—and the insurgents. The experts said that during this supposed peace process, counternarcotic operations have dropped off, giving the Taliban even greater impunity.

“The number of interdictions done last year, through the peace process, dropped off because it’s Afghanistan and you have to go in hot and heavy because you are going into defended compounds where you’re taking drugs off people. It looks like a military operation,” the international counternarcotics official said.

“So they restricted the number of drug interdictions you could do because you didn’t want to be seen to be contravening the peace process. It’s the reason why currently the Taliban are targeting some of the border crossings, to maintain the drug flow,” he said.

Counternarcotics efforts were already underresourced compared to counterterrorism, the experts said, even though the drugs fund the terrorism. As the war with the Taliban intensifies, resources are being diverted to battling the insurgents rather than fighting their source of income.

“Now we are fighting two wars—the war against the Taliban and the war on drugs, and we just can’t do both at the same time with the limited resources with have,” the Afghan counternarcotics official, who requested anonymity to speak without authorization, said.

Lynne O’Donnell is an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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