Quality Drugs, by the Kilo

Three years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, the country's narcotics industry is booming. Last year, 87 percent of the world's opium originated from the Afghan trade, and the United Nations has recently warned that the country - trading about US $2.8 billion in drugs - is becoming a "narco-state." And thus, despite the West's tough talk about eliminating the poppy crop, production and distribution still thrive. In this Sydney Morning Herald piece, a reporter reveals exactly how simple it is to make a deal in one of Afghanistan's bazaars. In Ghani Kael, a hub for the country's illicit trade, opium sales subsidize the local economy. From this on-the-ground insight into the economic impact of narcotics trading, it is clear that national and international authorities may be hard-pressed to find a compelling and financially rewarding alternative. – YaleGlobal

Quality Drugs, by the Kilo

Anyone can do a deal in the opium bazaars of Afghanistan. Paul McGeough finds it easy to buy into the drug trade
Paul McGeough
Thursday, January 13, 2005

Looking for top grade opium? Then try the opium bazaar at Ghani Khel, near Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. It's like the Magic Pudding - the authorities make regular raids and announce the "closure" of the bazaar, but it just keeps bouncing back.

A week before our visit it had been "closed". But we were able to pull in, put down $US250 ($325) and drive away minutes later with a 750-gram block of the stuff that looked more like a leaf-wrapped cow pat. There also was a nonchalant invitation from the trader to come back if we wanted more.

"How much can you supply by tomorrow morning?" I ask. "How much do you want?" was his arch reply.

More than three years after the US-led invasion the cultivation of opium poppies is exploding in Afghanistan.

Western rhetoric about wiping out the crop has done nothing to dampen the Afghan determination to grow, trade and smuggle raw opium or the even more manageable heroin which is distilled from opium.

The traders simply talk less about business and when they do, they do so anonymously and insist that no pictures be taken.

My supplier in the Ghani Khel bazaar is a case in point. At 26 years he is, in the estimation of my Afghan translator, "a good-looking, well-dressed boy". He's the kind of bright youngster who might have been expected to fall in as one of President Hamid Karzai's foot-soldiers in the new Afghanistan. Instead he laughs in the face of what the authorities promise will be a fearsome anti-drugs campaign and he marvels at the trade's economic efficiencies.

And he believes in vertical integration - he's a poppy grower and an opium trader.

Others among the 60-odd opium dealers in the battered bazaar stock their shops and stalls to at least give the impression that they are selling other produce. But the 26-year-old refuses - his shop is filled with a pungent opium odour and today he has about 10 kilograms on display. When a villager wanders in, casually carrying a three-kilogram cow pat as though it was the laundry he was dropping off, the trader asks if he wouldn't mind waiting while he tends to his "international" clients.

But he's not rushing to clinch our little deal. He casts around, looking for a good one among the cow pats, discarding some that are rock hard before lighting on one that is still gooey inside. How could he vouch for the quality? "Take a small piece and put it under your tongue," he said, before opening the bidding at 19,000 Pakistani rupees per kilogram (about $US300).

We demanded a discount and it took a good 15 minutes to talk him into knocking a miserable 300 rupees from the price - less than $US5.

Recent raids by the Afghan authorities have stopped the opium trade in Ghani Khel and at other bazaars in the area - but never for more than a day.

The trader explains: "Before the raid I was moving 700 kilograms a day. It quickly came back to 150 kilograms a day and now I'm back up to 170 kilograms to 180 kilograms per day. I know lots of people in security and in the police, so I don't have to worry about any government campaign or about what the Americans might do."

Typically, visiting an Afghan bazaar is an underwhelming experience. But Ghani Khel is riveting because of the comparison of its drugs riches with the potatoes poverty in other districts.

Non-narco markets are clogged with donkeys, carts, barrows and puny produce. But here it's four-wheel-drives, Corollas and motorcycles. Shoppers walk out, arms laden with grain and greens. There are palatial service stations and mosques.

Butchers in other districts are lucky to average one customer an hour, but here people queue for meat and the wad of notes from which the Ghani Khel butcher extracts their change is so fat, he is almost embarrassed.

Elsewhere, Afghan children as young as eight are forced to work in shovel gangs, filling potholes in the tracks that serve as intercity highways at the same time as they beg for a few Afghanis from passing motorists. But in Ghani Khel they queue to buy sweets and balloons on strings. Some even wear wristwatches. And though they can't see over the dashboard, here they get to drive the family car while their counterparts elsewhere are lucky if they get to use the family donkey for errands.

Ghani Khel is a 30-minute drive east from Jalalabad, the capital of Nangahar which is the biggest opium-growing province in liberated Afghanistan. This is where much of the drug money enters the local economy, but getting anyone to admit that is not easy.

Here, too, the bazaars are laden with produce and consumer goods. The trade is brisk. You can buy a set of new mag wheels or a rare parrot in a cage, but the standout luxury indulgence in the city's streets is the number of people who, like in a Tokyo street scene, wear surgical face masks to reduce their dust intake.

Tractors, not oxen, work the surrounding fields and the streets are clogged with a fleet of Corollas that would make any Toyota shareholder blush.

Many of the traders in the city's warrenish money market wear pin-striped waistcoats. Apart from the dollar value of some of the deals they push through, that's the end of any similarity with Wall Street. Here they wear the pyjama-like shalwar kameez under their pinstripes and most do their trades by mobile or satellite phone, sitting cross-legged on the carpeted and cushioned floor of shoe-box-sized "offices" that are open to the alleys.

Behind them are ancient safes, the brass fittings on which have been buffed to a high sheen from constant opening and closing. Beside them are small glass-fronted cabinets stocked with dusty bricks of Afghanis and Pakistani rupees and wads of crisp greenbacks.

Locally the dealers are called hawaladars, and the rate at which they bellow on the phones and dip in and out of those safes and cash cabinets is as good a readout on the local economy as the business section of The New York Times.

An essential aspect of the hawala exchange system makes it a criminal's delight - no records are kept, so there is no paper trail for nosey-parker investigators who might venture this far from the beaten track; the trades are based on pure personal trust; funds are released on the production of pre-agreed codes; and it takes only six to 12 hours for a heroin dealer anywhere in the world to know that his money has been received and his shipment is in transit.

Needless to say, none of this is revealed during a visit to the office of Malim Ruhullah, the Bollywoodly handsome head of Jalalabad's hawala dealers' association. As his sons deal with street clients, counting notes in a blur before handing them over in bricks so big that one of the punters tears his shalwar kameez as he stuffs one into his pocket, he stonewalls on the very idea that opium might be the oxygen in the blood of the local economy.

"Growth has been very positive," he says, just as an inscrutable Swiss banker might. "But individual hawaladars don't reveal their throughput, so we don't have an exact idea but we have a very strong economy."

A visitor unaware that Ruhullah and his colleagues process much of the district's estimated $US500-million-a-year opium earnings might be moved by his claim that very few locals benefit from drugs.

It takes a while before he will accept that irrespective of who pockets the money, the province pulls about that much from the drug trade annually. Immediately, he looks almost saintly as he claims: "But you see, just one human life anywhere in the world is worth more than $US500 million, so we would prefer to stop growing opium."

He lets that thought go before arguing that it would be difficult for the local economy to absorb the loss of $US500 million a year and he wonders if Afghanistan's new allies might be agreeable to making up the shortfall.

Then again, he doesn't see the opium crop being eradicated any time soon. He concludes his case for an industry that is difficult to sell: "I can't agree with people being forced to stop cultivation overnight - it has to be a step-by-step solution."

The Herald disposed of its opium in the furnace at a Jalalabad hotel.

Copyright 2005 The Sydney Morning Herald. Reprinted from the 14 January 2005 edition.