US Troops told to ignore Opium Crop that is now more than 1/2 Afghan GDP
by : Philip Shishkid & David Crawford
Friday January 20, 2006 - 23:20
By Philip Shishkin in Faizabad, Afghanistan, and David Crawford in Berlin, The Wall Street Journal
The suspicious whirring of a motor came from somewhere in the dark skies above the river separating Northern Afghanistan from Tajikistan. Tajik border guards say they shouted warnings and then opened fire. What fell out of the sky was a motorized parachute carrying 18 kilograms of heroin.
It was a small drop in a mighty flood of Afghan heroin that is reshaping the world drug market. Once best known for opium, the active ingredient in heroin, Afghanistan has been working its way up the production ladder. Now it’s the world’s largest producer and exporter of heroin. Clandestine labs churn out so much product that the average heroin price in Western Europe tumbled to $75 a gram from $251 in 1990, adjusted for inflation, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
In Hamburg, Germany, a single hypodermic shot of Afghan heroin goes for just three euros, or about one-third the price a decade ago. "Even 13-year-old children have enough money to get into serious trouble," says Mathias Engelmann, a police detective in nearby Schacht-Audorf.
The business is also spreading disease and addiction in Central Asia and Russia, where traffickers have ramped up a smuggling route to the heart of Europe. Roughly a third of Afghanistan’s drug exports go through this so-called northern route, supplementing the more-established routes through Iran and Pakistan.
In Afghanistan itself, the heroin trade jeopardizes the nation’s fragile democracy, which is struggling to consolidate since U.S.-led forces ousted the extremist Taliban and their al Qaeda allies in 2001. The drug industry dwarfs honest business activity. In 2005, Afghanistan earned $2.7 billion from opium exports, which amounts to 52 percent of the country’s gross domestic product of $5.2 billion, according to UNODC estimates. "You probably can’t build democracy in a country where narcotics are such a large part of the economy," says John Carnevale, a former senior counternarcotics official in the first Bush administration and in the Clinton administration.
The heroin business has blossomed despite the continued presence of thousands of U.S. and European troops. Some Afghan officials have argued that foreign soldiers should take a direct role in combatting traffickers. But Western commanders have resisted, arguing that they don’t have the resources to broaden their mission. And they worry about alienating local civilians. "Our primary mission is a combat mission," says Col. Jim Yonts, a spokesman for the U.S. forces in Afghanistan. "We stay focused on our role of defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda."
In Afghanistan, people have grown poppies since ancient times, originally for purposes ranging from medical use as a painkiller to making cooking oil and soap. In the northeast Argu district of the Northern Badakshan province, heaps of dry poppy stalks — already emptied of opium — are piled on top of nearly every mud hut, serving both as roofing material and as firewood.
Industrial-size harvesting of poppies began to develop only in the early 1990s, after war and anarchy plunged farmers into persistent poverty. Poppy cultivation became an attractive alternative to conventional crops such as wheat, as heroin merchants used the booming harvests to meet the demand for the drug abroad.
By the late 1990s, the traffickers began to make even more money by converting opium into heroin inside Afghanistan, as opposed to letting foreigners do the conversion outside and reap the profits. By locating heroin labs close to the poppy source, they were also able to save on transportation of the bulky opium, say people in the business and counternarcotics officials.
In a hurried effort to curry world favor, the Taliban in 2000 used its repressive methods to practically wipe out poppy cultivation. But since then, farming of poppies and production of heroin have quickly risen beyond their heights of the mid-1990s. The post-invasion U.S. counterterrorism operations, mostly focused in the south and east of the country, had the indirect effect of making drug business there more difficult. So some heroin merchants expanded to poppy fields in the more secluded and peaceful north, setting up hundreds of hidden labs.
"Badakshan had a really long history of opium, but not of heroin, so people from the south went to set up factories there," says a man in his late 20s from the Eastern Shinwar district on the Pakistani border. He said he spent several months working in a Badakshan heroin lab in the backyard of a house rented from a local farmer. Cooks would drop opium into a barrel and heat it over a fire, then filter it through a simple flour sack. They’d let the purified opium juice dry in the sun. Sometimes using electric mixers, they would blend the product with two kinds of acid. "And what you get in the end is a beautiful thing — pure heroin," he summed up.
Heroin’s pervasive hold on the economy is on view in Argu, a town not far from the Tajikistan border. The main narrow street is lined with wooden shacks selling food, clothes and assorted necessities. Until a recent raid by Afghan special forces from Kabul, many shopkeepers acted as intermediaries in the heroin trade.
"Poppy farmers used opium as currency. They came to the Argu shops and exchanged their opium for wheat, for instance," said shopkeeper Haji Firouz, over melon slices in the office of the local police chief. "Then the heroin makers came to the shops, bought the opium, gave us cash, and we would buy more goods for the shops." Added Mohammad Nahim, the head of Argu’s counternarcotics squad: "The drug trade became so normal here that everyone is involved."
The Afghan government has eradicated some poppy fields, destroyed labs and offered incentives for crop replacement. The U.S. contributed $780 million to the effort in 2005, up from $100 million to cover the three previous years combined. In Colombia, by comparison, the U.S. has spent $4.5 billion over the past six years under its "Plan Colombia" anticocaine program.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai tapped local religious leaders to expound on the evils of opium and threatened provincial governors that they would lose their jobs if they didn’t reduce poppy cultivation. Those efforts had some effect. Total area under poppy cultivation fell to 104,000 hectares last year from 131,000 hectares in 2004. But excellent weather meant the actual opium yields remained virtually unchanged.
What’s more, farmers who switched to other crops say the government didn’t provide the help it had pledged. "The government promised cash, equipment, fertilizer, tractors, seeds, but they didn’t keep their promises," fumed Abder Rahim, a poppy farmer who now has a wheat crop riddled with diseases. This year, he plans to grow poppies again.
Afghanistan’s police and military are strained by confronting the heroin trade. In the provincial capital of Faizabad, the 12-person counternarcotics squad doesn’t have guns, radios or steady transportation. There are supposed to be 22 of them, but not enough officers could be found. "I can tell you, I’m really tired of this job," says Maj. Ghulam Muheddin, the 50-year-old squad leader, who received threats on his life and has been shot at. "I make plans to arrest people, and they find out in advance." Maj. Muheddin recently arrested a man named Abdel who carried several kilos of heroin. He was bounced among various police offices and soon released. The major lives on roughly $90 a month. A kilo of heroin here costs $900 and up.
Afghanistan’s long border with Tajikistan follows the Panj River through rugged mountain terrain that’s difficult to police. It’s the first step on Afghan heroin’s northward journey toward Europe. One night in mid-August, Tajik border guards at the Moskovsky crossing shot down the heroin-carrying parachute.
For nearly two years, the soldiers at this riverside outpost had been hunting for an elusive airborne contraption used to transport heroin from Afghanistan to Tajikistan — but could never bring it down. This time, they had intelligence about an upcoming flight, according to border guard officials.
The next day the machine was all laid out in the courtyard of the border guards’ barracks: a red, blue and white French-made parachute outfitted with a harness ring, a German-made motor, a small propeller, a plastic gas canister — and 18 one-kilo plastic bags of Afghan heroin. The harness ring was to hold a pilot, and the propeller to give him control of his direction after jumping from a mountain on the Afghan side. The soldiers’ bullets had pierced the gas tank, forcing an emergency landing, but the guards never found the pilot.
A few days later, border guards at the same post intercepted a water-borne heroin vehicle — an inner tube from a heavy truck with wooden boards laid on top for the smuggler to sit on. Shudi Nurasov, a skinny 37-year-old citizen of Tajikistan, was navigating the calm waters of the Panj with 20 one-kilo bags of heroin worth $24,000, each bearing a neat oval stamp reading "AZAD PRIVATE FACTORY. The Best of all Export. Super White." But his raft was greeted by armed soldiers when it beached in Tajikistan.
Wearing a glittery green skullcap and a dirty knee-length Afghan shirt, a bedraggled Mr. Nurasov told his story. A few months earlier, he’d befriended an Afghan man in a Tajik prison where he was serving a short drug-related sentence. The Afghan eventually entrusted him with the heroin, under a typical deal: Within a month, Mr. Nurasov would sell the heroin in Tajikistan and then pay his patron $16,000, keeping the rest.
Tajikistan stands as a stark example of how quickly and deeply this drug can wound a society. The northern heroin route through the country began spiking dramatically three years before the 2001 U.S. invasion next door, after the end of a brutal Tajik civil war that claimed more than 60,000 lives. The war’s damage, in a country that had been the Soviet Union’s poorest republic, drove the Tajiks further into poverty and dislocation. And then the Afghan heroin started flowing over the border.
"We never imagined that there would be heroin in Tajikistan," says Gen. Rustam Nazarov, who heads the country’s Drug Control Agency, established in 1999 with funding mostly from the U.S. "We weren’t ready." The number of Tajik drug addicts seeking treatment has increased eightfold in 10 years, according to government statistics, with half of that increase coming since 2001.
"This is worse than a nuclear bomb," says Batir Zalimov, a 36-year-old former heroin user who now works with recovering addicts. As in Europe, "the addicts are getting younger and younger," he says. These days, he says, there are users as young as 14 years old. When the first wave of heroin washed over from Afghanistan, Tajik youths had no idea how dangerous and addictive the drug was, especially when taken intravenously. "It was very prestigious, we saw drugs in movies," says one resident of the small drug clinic where Mr. Zalimov works, in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe.
The rise in shooting heroin has spun off a Tajik AIDS problem in the past five years, and 5,000 people are now estimated to have HIV. Eighty percent of all new cases are passed through dirty needles. Tajikistan has just negotiated its first-ever order of antiretroviral drugs.
Most heroin that passes through Tajikistan travels onward, through Kazakhstan to Russia. Last summer, Tajik investigators got a tip about a train-car with heroin departing from Tajikistan to a Russian town in Western Siberia. The train was eventually impounded in Russia. Hidden deep inside a shipment of onions in one car were 74 kilos of heroin packaged into round rubber containers made to resemble real onions.
In Russia, seizures of heroin reached 3.9 metric tons in 2004, the latest UNODC statistic, triple the previous all-time high in 2001, while street prices decreased in the same period. In Russia, which already has one of the world’s highest growth rates in the spread of AIDS, many of the new infections are passed through dirty needles.
What’s left of the contraband after the Russian journey pushes on to Western Europe through Poland and other Eastern European countries. European police and social workers say heroin fell out of favor in Europe in the 1990s, but the drug is making a comeback today.
When prices began to fall as production rose in the mid-1990s, addiction in Germany grew first among the immigrant community from Central Asia, say German police reports. Police statistics show double-digit annual percentage increases in the amounts of heroin seized in Germany as production rose in Afghanistan.
As Afghan poppy cultivation doubled, so too did the misery in Europe, with the deaths per year in the European Union rising from about 4,000 to over 9,000 during the decade. After poppy production dipped sharply in 2001, the number of heroin deaths in Europe also dipped in 2002. In Germany, drug deaths doubled to 2,030 in 2000 from 991 in 1989, then declined to 1,513 in 2002 as the effects of the Taliban’s poppy ban reached Europe. Since 2003 the death rates have fluctuated, but are highest in regions such as Berlin that are dominated by heroin imported along the northern route, according to German police data.
Ivan, a 23-year-old immigrant from Kazakhstan who asked that his last name not be used, recalls a party on Christmas Eve, 1999, when he and nine friends celebrated at a friend’s home in Leipzig, Germany. Among the gifts exchanged by the five couples that evening was Ivan’s first shot of heroin. "I just wanted to try it once," he said. Within three years, all 10 Christmas celebrants had tried heroin, and two were dead from overdoses, Ivan said.
Heroin has more of a stigma among native Germans, says Bernd Westermann, a social worker at a center assisting drug addicts in Berlin. "It’s been years since heroin was cool," he says. But German users often take heroin as a second drug to smooth the effects of ecstasy or cocaine.
Heroin from the southern and eastern routes through Iran and Pakistan also makes its way to Europe. Mr. Engelmann, the Hamburg-area police detective, says heroin is cheaper in northern Germany than in the south, in part because of cheaper smuggling costs along the route that leads to northern Germany. A German police report says better roads in the former Soviet Union compared to roads in Pakistan and Iran simplify the work of smugglers along the northern route out of Afghanistan. Russian crime organizations also take advantage of the high volume of trade between Russia and Germany to hide shipments of heroin in a handful of the thousands of trucks that ply the transit routes from Russia via Poland to northern Germany.
As the last step in the trail, some Afghan heroin is making its way to the U.S. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says Afghan heroin is increasing its market share in New York because Russian and Eastern European drug cartels can buy Afghan heroin on the northern route at a price significantly below the price of South American heroin.
As in Europe, the purity of heroin on American streets has increased and the price has fallen in stride with production increases in Afghanistan, according to UN and U.S. government statistics. Most of the heroin on the U.S. market still comes from South America. But Afghan heroin increasingly is being brought in by Pakistani, West African and Eastern European traffickers, says the Justice Department report. "It is often smuggled through Central Asia and Europe," says the report, and often comes in "via air cargo and express mail services."
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