The Narco-State of Afghanistan

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The Narco-State of Afghanistan

Deconstructing the nexus between drug trafficking and national security.

The Narco-State of Afghanistan
Credit: REUTERS/ Parwiz

Since the 1970s, Afghanistan has been pummeled and torn by wars and insurgencies. Over the course of these decades, numerous political systems and regimes were tested by the victors, installed but soon to be discarded or to simply vanish. No regime was able to effectively exert control over the entire country. Crumbling from within, power for most of these political or military regimes was limited to Kabul and some provincial capitals.

In the 1980s, in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Afghans rose up in armed resistance against the Soviet army and the Afghan communist proxy regime in Kabul. In the 1990s, the last communist regime collapsed after a UN peace settlement failed to transfer power to the CIA-supported Afghan Mujahideen. In line with Afghanistan’s tradition of tumultuous and violent transfers of power, the Mujahideen leaders failed to agree on a power-sharing arrangement and civil war soon broke out.

During the civil war, no one Mujahideen faction could fully bring Kabul under its control. Instead, the leaders and their sub-commanders started to establish their own fiefdoms in different regions of Afghanistan – battling one another over regional, partisan, religious and ethnic differences. Each fiefdom was created based on the leader’s ethnic identity and the location of his “solidarity group.” Like the ancient city-states, the local commanders of a certain Mujahideen leader would maintain security in the fiefdom, provide protection to its people, and manage its economic activity and justice system.

In each fiefdom, whether it was Hilmand province in the south or Badakhshan in the northeast, the commanders maintained their armed factions and financed their military operations against their regional rivals through the cultivation, processing and trafficking of narcotics – replacing the CIA-supplied bags of cash of the 1980s “holy war” against the Soviet army. During this period of mayhem, the drug industry flourished and these warlords turned into drug-mafia, linking up to organized crime and transnational criminals beyond Afghanistan’s borders in Central Asia, Pakistan and Iran. During the Taliban era, the Afghan drug industry became more organized and monopolized, with the proceeds used to finance the operation of the Taliban movement until a ban issued in 2000 by its leader Mullah Omar.

Following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan and removed the Taliban from power. As part of the U.S. military strategy, the warlords who had failed to resist the Taliban movement were reassembled. It was the 1980s redux, but this time they were provided with bags full of American dollars and U.S. aerial and military ground support to fight the Taliban. After the fall of Taliban in late 2001, these warlords were called the “heroes of Jihad and champions of peace.” Following the Bonn Conference, they became ministers, governors, commissioners and senior officers in the Interim Authority and Transitional Administration of Afghanistan. After the first “democratic transition of power” and the establishment of a newly elected government and parliament, the warlords filled key security positions, became members of parliament, and formed political opposition to the government. Over these years, they became rich on the largesse of the U.S. military and other contractors. They created construction and logistics companies that were contracted by the United States government agencies in Afghanistan. At the same time, and starting as early as 2002, they used their official positions in the government to immerse themselves in the cultivation and trafficking of narcotics drugs and other illicit economic activities.

There is no doubt that Afghanistan’s international reputation has been grievously harmed by the gravity of opium poppy cultivation and narcotics trafficking. Illicit drugs and its trafficking in Afghanistan pose a very real threat to the survival of Afghan state, and to regional and international security. The risks are not confined by the borders of Afghanistan. The opium cultivation and trade in Afghanistan directly finances the operations of international terrorism. In the wake of the NATO and U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan and the end of combat mission, if the Afghan government continues to disregard the extent to which its roots lie in the narcotics industry, Afghanistan will ultimately be a failed state, with most of the warlords – many of them incumbent government officials – recreating their 1990s regional narco-fiefdoms.

Villas, Guns, Uniforms and Toyota Land Cruisers

The threat of a drug industry in Afghanistan is palpable and disheartening. Over a 12-year period (2002 to 2014), the country has reportedly cultivated 1,868,000 hectares of land and produced a total of 69,200 metric tons of opium poppy. In 2013 and 2014, the cultivation and production of opium poppy in Afghanistan reached record levels despite millions of dollars spent by the international community on eradication, alternative livelihoods, and law enforcement programs.

In Afghanistan, many sub-national government officials, particularly law enforcement agents, in key strategic border provinces and border crossing points, are inextricably associated with drug trafficking networks and transnational criminals. Given Afghanistan’s precarious situation, the central government in Kabul does not have the ability to oversee and monitor these rogue elements either in provincial capitals or at border crossing points. Many of these government officials have been able to establish their own networks of protection and patronage at the epicenter of the Afghan government, making them immune from any types of incursions intended to eradicate corruption or bad governance in certain provinces. Consequently, they continue to be involved in drug trafficking. Some of these former or incumbent sub-national government officials are warlords, maintaining their own militia and armed groups in several provinces throughout Afghanistan. Over the past 13 years, the government has systematically failed to disarm their armed groups or to dismantle their drug trafficking networks; indeed, the government, for the most part, has facilitated their growth and strength. While Taliban and other anti-government elements provide protection to the farmers to cultivate poppies in those areas that they control, in many border provinces government officials and their networks have facilitated the trafficking of narcotic drugs from Afghanistan. Many claim that the involvement of senior government officials in the drugs is more serious than the Taliban’s own connection with drug cultivation and production.

Many respondents confirmed that most of the officials who are deeply involved in illicit drugs in key border provinces are attached to the Afghanistan Border Police, Afghanistan Customs Department, and provincial police headquarters. A number of other respondents also confirmed that many officials in the local court system were also involved in narcotic drug trafficking. The indirect interaction among the rogue government elements and their networks at the sub-national level, drug traffickers, warlords, and the Taliban insurgents inside Afghanistan has sustained a cycle of violence, extremism and corruption.

In the main “opium-cultivating provinces” in the southern and western regions of Afghanistan, some of the senior law enforcement agents who are heavily involved in the trafficking of drugs and illicit economic activities have been appointed through patronage-based networks linked with highly ranked Afghan government security officials at the national level. The relationship between these officials at the sub-national level and their patrons at the higher levels is sustained through a lucrative reciprocity. The officers share the substantial amounts of money that they make from drug trafficking and other illicit economic activities with their patrons and the patrons provide job security and protection from other foes inside the government machinery at the center. A senior Afghan police officer, in charge of the operations of specialized counter narcotics units in Afghanistan’s international airports and land border crossing points, confirmed to The Diplomat that in those provinces where drug cultivation and trafficking is extensive, you have to be part of a patronage network and involved in corruption to be appointed to a mid-level position:

“If you are to be appointed as the border crossing point commander in Spinboldak [a border crossing point in Kandahar province in southern Afghanistan], first you have to be involved in drugs, then you need to have friendly relations with the strongmen of Spinboldak and senior officials of the ministry of interior affairs and last but not least, you need to make sure that senior officials in Kandahar and Kabul get at least 50 percent of the illegal money that you make.”

During the past decade, senior government officials at the sub-national level and drug traffickers have managed to form and strengthen their own networks, stretching back to senior political officials at the center of Afghan state institutions (line ministries of the executive branch, judiciary, and parliament). Some police units and officers that were supported by the international community to fight drug trafficking either lost their jobs or were shifted to less important, administrative positions. One police officer who used to work for a counter narcotics intelligence unit in northeastern Afghanistan believed that drug-lords have the power to sack any government official or police officer involved in counter narcotics:

“In the northeast region of Afghanistan, I served as an officer in the provincial counter narcotics police unit. Based on a tip off from the international mentors my unit arrested an individual who was trafficking 10 kilograms of heroin and 15 kilograms of hashish. The next morning, I received an anonymous call. He told me that my unit had to release the individual and the contraband that we had seized otherwise I would be sacked within a week. Luckily, I was not sacked but within three days, was shifted to another unit in the counter narcotics police HQ. When I asked why I was shifted, they informed me that I was not productive in that province and that I was making trouble.”

Trafficking in narcotic drugs is not only limited to Afghanistan’s southern and western opium cultivation centers such as Helmand, Kandahar, Farah and Nangarhar. Drug trafficking, if not cultivation, is pervasive across the country. The drug traffickers and transnational criminals use certain provinces and regions as trafficking routes to international destinations. Substantial amounts of drugs are also distributed and later sold to Afghan drug users in almost all the provinces. There are systemic linkages between the mid-level drug dealers who sell drugs to Afghan users and giant trafficking networks with strong connections to transnational criminals and international drug trafficking networks. They continue to operate under the same systems of protection and immunity provided by regional warlords (former Mujahideen leaders) and their entourages (former village, district and provincial level commanders and loyalists of the warlord who were vital in controlling the fiefdoms during the 1990s). One drug dealer from Badakhshan province implied to The Diplomat that in Afghanistan a drug trafficker enjoys protection from both by the warlord and from government officials connected to that warlord:

“In our line of work, you should know the prerequisites before you indulge yourself into it [drug trafficking]. Even if you are a street dealer, you should be connected to someone powerful enough who can clean for you several cities from police officers and agents and buy you friends in the government. If you are in it without a strong patron, vultures will feed on you. I am well connected, my roots are buried deep in Kabul and therefore when I see the guys in uniform I don’t really care. They know me and I know them. They cannot even stop and search my car. I have been arrested several times with contraband but I have been released immediately after officers receive phone calls from the Ministry of Interior Affairs. My work is only limited to three provinces in the northeast region. To be able to do your work throughout the country, you need a different layer – a higher level – of connection. If anyone harbors thoughts of joining the business [narcotic drugs], money is not important but connections are.”

Afghanistan is divided into several geographical regions. In each region, there are several warlords who are either incumbent government officials or who were serving the government in highly ranked security positions. Almost all of these warlords, even in Afghanistan’s capital, have been able to maintain armed groups in their own fiefdoms (regions and localities where they have popular support based on ethnic ties, religious sect or language). Since the fall of the Taliban, the warlords have been able to install their cronies in key government positions at the sub-national levels in their respective provinces. These strongmen control both government institutions at the provincial level and the drug trafficking networks. Therefore, trafficking in narcotics first feeds into the government (pumping cash, guns and other valuables to corrupt officials linked directly to these gun lords) and then feeds off the government (drug money finances terrorism and other armed groups attached to warlords and powerbrokers, and is transmuting Afghanistan into a narco-state). A customs official in the western province of Herat confirmed the multiplicity of protection and patronage networks that each drug trafficker seem to enjoy:

“In the border crossing points and inland customs depots, we have officials who have zero experience and expertise in customs or border management. But they are appointed to manage illicit incomes from drug trafficking and other types of contraband. Police and customs officers who are assigned at the border crossing points make thousands of dollars a month. Once the director of customs tried to remove five of these officials, but instead the line ministry in Kabul fired the director. These people are connected to government officials, warlords who are incumbent members of parliament, warlords who have armed people at the provincial level, and warlords who serve as heads of provincial police headquarters and intelligence directorates. It’s like a snake with multiple heads. No one should step on one single head.”

Many studies and reports on the Afghan drug industry focus mostly on how the Taliban insurgency is linked to drugs in the vast swathes of lands that they control in the south of the country, or else look at the drug kingpins and their networks operating in the most insecure parts of the country where they cannot be pursued by national authorities or international agencies. With this limited scope, the studies naturally links drugs to insecurity. But in Takhar, a relatively peaceful and secure province in the northeast region of Afghanistan, there are huge drug trafficking networks smuggling substantial amounts of drugs to Central Asia. A police officer attached to the Afghan Border Police in Takhar told The Diplomat how these trafficking networks were operating with impunity in areas that are fully under the control of the Afghan government:

“There is always an irony and double standard when officials talk about drugs. They claim that drugs are cultivated and trafficked in the most insecure areas of the country such as Kandahar or Helmand. Therefore, the government authorities cannot interdict them unless they first defeat the Taliban. In Takhar province, there is a neighborhood with villas that houses Afghanistan’s most serious drug traffickers. Most of them are involved with serious organized criminals in Central Asia – particularly in Tajikistan. Takhar is peaceful and the whole province is under the control of the Afghan government. But still no provincial authorities can intercept these traffickers. The main reason for their impunity is that one brother is a trafficker and another is either a police commissioner or an army general.”

In most cases, Afghan law enforcement authorities have provided sanctuaries for drug traffickers and distributors and facilitated their businesses. In areas under their authority, senior police officers receive weekly and monthly payments from the dealers in exchange for the protection they provide in a specific police districts. In downtown Kabul, there are several shops selling heroin, hashish, and alcoholic beverages in broad daylight that have never been troubled by the authorities. One of the several drug dealers who owns a shop just a few miles from the police station confirmed that they pay substantial sums monthly so that they might operate with impunity:

“Once a month, I go to the district chief of police and personally hand him his money. Sometimes, when he needs it urgently he sends someone. I pay him and he protects me from other officers in the neighborhood. I have no problem in paying this amount of money each month because I have been able to do my business 24 hrs a day. I have no worries that my business will be closed or I will be arrested. It is very difficult, even if you are a powerful dealer, to ignore the district police chief and avoid paying him his stipends. In Kabul, each district police chief is a general and they are connected to powerful people. Therefore, they do not hide the fact that they receive money from us and we sell heroin, hashish, synthetic drugs, and alcoholic beverages. We usually have a big problem when the district police chief is transferred and a new guy replaces him. We have to close the shops until we find out who the new guy is and to whom does he belong and we can only reopen after we reach an agreement with the new guy.”

The involvement of government officials – or more specifically narco-officers – runs deep. Since 2001, they have become more organized and potent and they have the ability to directly threaten the national security of Afghanistan, particularly following the NATO and U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. In the Afghan security sector, the national police force is alleged to have close links to drugs and the illicit economy, in contrast to the Afghan National Army and National Directorate of Security. A senior officer attached to the operations directorate of Afghanistan Border Police suggested that in most instances traffickers themselves are appointed to senior police leadership positions:

“A serious trafficker who had been arrested and imprisoned three times by international agencies, only to be released by his patrons, has recently been appointed as the Afghan Border Police battalion commander to manage two key border crossing points in Takhar and Kunduz provinces in the northeastern region of Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, we say it’s like asking the wolf to be the shepherd for one’s cattle. Many officers within different police units reported that from the moment he took up his position, seizures of narcotic drugs have dramatically decreased in these two border crossing points and the other trafficking routes along Afghanistan-Tajikistan border. Several intelligence officers from different units have prepared lengthy reports on his background and his involvement in drugs but no action has been taken yet.”

Afghanistan and its nascent democratic institutions are being sucked into the vortex of the drug industry. The country’s national security remains highly fragile, with the Taliban insurgency pummeling Kabul and other key cities with waves of suicide attacks and other military skirmishes on the periphery while the political leadership struggles to maintain a national unity government. Warlords, drug kingpins, corrupt officials, and religious extremists who either spent substantial amounts of money to support one candidate during the presidential elections or simply jumped on the bandwagons of one of the ethnically divided camps, are busy arranging the appointment of their cronies to key government positions at the national and sub-national levels. This is further compounded by certain incumbent security officials who are using the status quo to expand their stakes in the narcotics trade.

Drug kingpins and traffickers are also using the vacuum created by the absence of international military at the sub-national levels to enhance the operations of their trafficking networks, processing and smuggling drugs with impunity. With limited interdiction measures available in key border areas, and given the cozy ties that exist between smugglers and security officials, illicit drugs in Afghanistan reached unprecedented levels in 2014.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that key counternarcotics institutions such as the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan and the Ministry of Counter Narcotics are facing budget deficits as their key international leave. These two institutions have been able to operate over the course of a decade only through Western funding. Both agencies are rife with clientelism (wasita, or connections), corruption, and nepotism. The Ministry of Counter Narcotics has yet to produce a draft National Drug Control Strategy that was intended to cover 2012-2016 period, while supporters of the Counter Narcotics Police are losing faith in its capability, especially given that its national counterparts are deeply involved in the drug trade.

Lump all these challenges together, and there is no doubt that Afghanistan qualifies as a narco-state. If the involvement of government officials is not curbed within the next few years, the fragile Afghan state will certainly fail and fall into the hands of narco-officers, drug cartels, and religious extremists such as Taliban insurgents, who will simply recreate their narco-fiefdoms. Already gangsters, crime syndicates, drug traffickers, and warlord-supported police are believed to be establishing national and international drug smuggling rackets.

The direct involvement of hundreds of senior and mid-level government officials in the drug trade pose a far greater threat to the national security and economic prosperity of Afghans than the Taliban insurgency does. Given the rise of new terrorist movements such as the Islamic State in the Middle East, the Afghan drug industry could end up financing international terrorism with dire implications for international security. The Afghan national unity government will need to act quickly and dramatically to curb the involvement of senior officials and regional warlords in the drugs trade. The fight should focus first on the Afghan government machinery: cleaning the key security institutions of the most corrupt government officials and traffickers. As a stop-gap measure, it is crucial that in the coming two or three years, the international community focus on assisting the new Afghan leadership in eradicating and dismantling the networks of corrupt government officials who are involved in drugs.

Najibullah Gulabzoi spent five years with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime working on numerous law enforcement capacity building projects with the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan. He has also been involved in the implementation of technical assistance projects on policy and program formulation in the Policy and Research Directorate of the Ministry of Counter Narcotics of Afghanistan.