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Afghanistan: The Making of a Narco State

After 13 years of war, we haven’t defeated the Taliban, but we have managed to create a nation ruled by drug lords.

Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan is named for the wide river that runs through its provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, a low-slung city of shrubby roundabouts and glass-fronted market blocks. When I visited in April, there was an expectant atmosphere, like that of a whaling town waiting for the big ships to come in. In the bazaars, the shops were filled with dry goods, farming machinery and motorcycles. The teahouses, where a man could spend the night on the carpet for the price of his dinner, were packed with migrant laborers, or nishtgar, drawn from across the southern provinces, some coming from as far afield as Iran and Pakistan. The schools were empty; in war-torn districts, police and Taliban alike had put aside their arms. It was harvest time.

Across the province, hundreds of thousands of people were taking part in the largest opium harvest in Afghanistan’s history. With a record 224,000 hectares under cultivation this year, the country produced an estimated 6,400 tons of opium, or around 90 percent of the world’s supply. The drug is entwined with the highest levels of the Afghan government and the economy in a way that makes the cocaine business in Escobar-era Colombia look like a sideshow. The share of cocaine trafficking and production in Colombia’s GDP peaked at six percent in the late 1980s; in Afghanistan today, according to U.N. estimates, the opium industry accounts for 15 percent of the economy, a figure that is set to rise as the West withdraws. “Whatever the term narco state means, if there is a country to which it applies, it is Afghanistan,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies illicit economies in conflict zones. “It is unprecedented in history.”

Even more shocking is the fact that the Afghan narcotics trade has gotten undeniably worse since the U.S.-led invasion: The country produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000. How did all those poppy fields flower under the nose of one of the biggest international military and development missions of our time? The answer lies partly in the deeply cynical bargains struck by former Afghan President Hamid Karzai in his bid to consolidate power, and partly in the way the U.S. military ignored the corruption of its allies in taking on the Taliban. It’s the story of how, in pursuit of the War on Terror, we lost the War on Drugs in Afghanistan by allying with many of the same people who turned the country into the world’s biggest source of heroin.

Nowhere is this more apparent than here in Helmand, where nearly a thousand U.S. and coalition soldiers lost their lives during the war, the highest toll of any province. Helmand alone accounts for almost half of Afghanistan’s opium production, and police and government officials are alleged to be deeply involved in the drug trade. But the Afghan government’s line is that poppy cultivation only takes place in areas controlled by the Taliban. “There’s no opium in the nearby districts,” Maj. Gen. Abdul Qayum Baqizoi, who was the provincial police chief at the time, tells me. “The opium is in the faraway areas, and they’re not safe for you to visit.”

However, on my second day in town, I meet a 28-year-old soft-spoken teacher named Hekmat. He says that he can take me to relatively secure areas in Marjah, just outside Lashkar Gah, where poppy is being grown. His family is involved in the business, he says. And anyhow, he’s free – the students have gone to work on the harvest.

The next day, Hekmat and I cross the broad torrent of the Helmand River and head west, along a smooth stretch of paved road that was once a dirt track studded with roadside bombs. It’s hard to imagine now, but Marjah was once the site of one of the fiercest battles of the war, when, in 2010, the Marines air-assaulted into the Taliban-controlled area, braving gun battles and tangles of IED traps amid the mud-walled compounds and orchards. Today, the area is peaceful, the kind of green, flat farmland where you can watch a tree scroll slowly across the horizon as you drive, or a faraway thunderhead mount. The weather is hot, and the air has the nectary scent of early summer. Marjah is crisscrossed by irrigation canals; their banks, bushy with vegetation, sprout pump hoses that shoot down like drinking straws. Half-naked kids plunge from the mud embankment into the cool brown water. 

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A soldier in the Afghan National Army’s 6th Kandak walks through a poppy field during a joint patrol with the U.S. Army’s 1st Battalion, 36th Infantry Regiment near Command Outpost Pa’in Kalay on April 5th, 2013. Andrew Burton/Getty

“This area was all controlled by the Taliban until the Marines came,” says Hekmat. He smiles fondly. “It was great when the Marines were here.” The Americans spent freely, showering the locals with cash-for-work projects and construction contracts, and outfitting a local, anti-Taliban militia that employs child soldiers and imposes a levy on opium fields. We pass a wide scar of cleared ground that had once held a Marine outpost. “But now they’re all gone.”

Originally an empty stretch of desert west of the Helmand River, Marjah was developed into farmland by a massive irrigation project that began in 1946 and drew support from USAID, as part of the Cold War competition for influence against the Soviets. Nomadic tribes from around the country were resettled here, and its fields became fertile with wheat, melons, pomegranates – and, with the arrival of the wars four decades ago, opium poppies.

Pulling off onto a dirt road, we thread our way between the high mud walls that enclose each family compound here and come to a stop. Hekmat’s paternal uncle, Mirza Khan, wearing a robe and a neatly trimmed beard, greets us warmly. Behind him is a field of dull-green poppies, the end result of the tiny black seeds he and his family sowed back in November. “I’ve been planting this since the time of the Communist revolution,” he says.

Mirza Khan’s son is standing amid the chest-high stalks, in his hand a lancing tool, a curved piece of wood with four shallow blades on its tip. Lancing is laborious and delicate work; he moves one by one to each bulb, cradling it with his left hand and drawing the blades across it in a diagonal stroke with his right. “You can’t press too deeply, or otherwise the bulb dries up after just one lancing,” he explains, his hands flicking deftly among the poppy heads. “We’re able to come back and lance each of them four or five times.”

The bulbs are lanced in the afternoon, and the milky sap seeps out through the night, thickening and oxidizing into a dark-brown hue. In the mornings, the nishtgar go from bulb to bulb scraping off the sticky resin with a flat blade, which they wipe into a tin can hanging around their necks. Fifteen workers can harvest a productive hectare within a week. When you consider that Helmand alone has at least 100,000 hectares under cultivation, you get a sense of the vast amount of manpower that must be mobilized.

Over the next two days, Hekmat drives me around, visiting the poppy fields. On one three-acre plot, we find half a dozen men at work, overseen by a bent, white-bearded old farmer named Hajji Abdullah Jan. I ask him why he’s not worried about getting caught in a secure, government-controlled area like Marjah. “The government has been distracted by the elections,” he says, referring to this past spring’s presidential contest. “And anyhow, they’re corrupt.” He and the other farmers I speak to say that they were paying around $40 per acre in bribes to the local police. “Next year, I’ll plant twice as much,” he says, regarding the field with satisfaction.

Marjah had been largely poppy-free since the arrival of the Marines, due to eradication campaigns and the flood of cash the Americans pumped into the economy. Now that foreign aid has dried up and the government’s interest in punishing farmers has waned, people like Mirza Khan and Abdullah Jan followed simple economic logic: Wheat prices were too low to be profitable, so this year, all over Marjah, poppy was being planted.

Back at Hekmat’s house, I ask his uncle Mirza Khan if he’ll show me the results of his harvest thus far. He returns with a polyurethane bag the size of a soccer ball and hefts it onto the carpet. He unwinds a thick rubber strap, and a sour, vegetable odor fills the room. Inside is a mass of raw opium, with a rich brown color and a moist texture, like pulped figs. It’s about 10 pounds, a half-acre’s yield. “If I’m lucky, I might get 60,000 kaldar for this,” he says. That’s about $600.

“Do you know how much this is worth on the streets of London?” I ask him. He shrugs, and I make a quick calculation. Ten pounds of opium can be refined into a pound of pure heroin. Cut it to 30 percent purity and sell it by the gram – that’s 1,500 grams at a hundred bucks a pop. “This is worth over $150,000.”

That’s a 25,000 percent markup. We stare at each other for a moment, and Mirza Khan gives a chuckle. He shakes his head in amazement. A future hundred grand sitting in the living room of a guy who doesn’t have plumbing, electricity or furniture. Someone between him and that junkie is clearly making a killing.

From the farmers’ fields at harvest time, Afghanistan’s opium was beginning a journey that would span vast global webs of traffickers, corrupt officials and powerful militant groups. Back in the provincial capital of Lashkar Gah, I arrange an interview with a drug smuggler, who insists on meeting in a neutral location; the city is calm, but threats lie close beneath the surface, both from internecine drug-mafia disputes and the Taliban. 

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Afghan men weed poppy fields in the Saraw Valley in Charchino District, Uruzgan Province, Afghanistan, January 26th, 2013. Kate Geraghty/Getty

At a little teahouse on a quiet street, I’m ushered into a small back room whose walls and carpets vie in griminess, and I am introduced to a stocky middle-aged man with a skullcap and beard. I’ll call him Sami. He tells me that he’s from the district of Garmsir, near the Pakistani border. When war with the Soviets broke out, he fled the country, along with millions of other Afghan refugees. He grew up in a camp near the border town of Chagai, in Pakistan. After finishing 11th grade, he got work as a driver and began to ply the route from Garmsir to -Chagai, smuggling opium through the desert wastes. “There are more than a hundred ways through the desert,” he tells me. “The police checkpoints are in one, and the rest of the desert is free for smugglers.”

Afghanistan is landlocked, and its borders leak opium like sieves into five neighboring countries. In recent years, the northern route to Russia and Europe via Tajikistan has gained importance, but the southern route through Balochistan still accounts for the largest portion of opium that leaves the country. From there, it is smuggled into Iran, and then onward to the Balkans, the Persian Gulf and Africa. Most of it is destined for Western Europe.

The Balochistan border area between Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran is one of the most remote and lawless places on Earth. Two hundred thousand square miles of desert and dune seas are broken only by spindly granitic eruptions; the ethnic Baloch and Pashtun tribes that control the area are heavily armed and have been involved in various kinds of smuggling for centuries. Some are nominally cooperative with the state, while others are engaged with a bewildering mix of insurgent groups: secular Baloch rebels who seek independence from Pakistan, Sunni anti-Iranian groups and a wide array of Islamist militants, including the Taliban. It’s a natural haven for illicit activities.

At the center of this world is Baramcha, a smuggling hub on the Afghan side of the border in the Chagai Hills, 150 miles to the south and free of government control since 2001. It functions as a kind of switching station for much of the opium trade. The harvest by farmers like Mirza Khan is consolidated by local traders into larger shipments – ranging from a few hundred pounds to several tons – and sent to Baramcha, where it is purchased by Pakistani and Iranian smugglers who carry it abroad. The big deals are conducted between trusted parties, with money sent via the informal money-trading system known as hawala, which is also a linchpin in global money-laundering circuits. One side pays the hawaladar,who gives you a phone number and a code that, used at a corresponding hawaladar a country or continent away, lets the recipient claim the money. The accounts are settled later.

Baramcha is jointly controlled by the Taliban and a handful of powerful smuggling families, pre-eminent among them that of Hajji Juma Khan, a drug baron who was arrested by the DEA in Jakarta in 2008. Today, his relative Hajji Sharafuddin presides over the smugglers of the town, while the Taliban enforces security. “The Taliban has a court there to resolve people’s problems,” says Sami. “The security situation is good for the people living there.”

Baramcha was once just a collection of mud-walled compounds, but these days you can find late-model Land Cruisers driving past concrete mansions – this despite sporadic raids and airstrikes by U.S. and Afghan forces. The area is so remote that raiding teams would have to refuel their American helicopters in the desert using fuel bladders parachuted out the back of a cargo plane. “There’s an area of town that we used to call Hajji JMK Village,” says a member of Afghanistan’s elite commando units who has hit the area a number of times with Marines and British special forces. “It’s like a Sherpur in the desert,” he says, referring to a neighborhood in Kabul notorious for its gaudy “poppy palaces” built by the country’s warlords. “They had everything out there: generators, appliances, fancy cars. We used to take ice cream out of their freezers.”

During the raids, he tells me, Baramcha’s inhabitants would flee across the border to Pakistan, where Pakistani forces would line up and stand guard until the Americans left. “The drug smugglers and the ISI are tight together,” he says, referring to Pakistan’s intelligence service. Sami makes similar claims about Baramcha’s leadership. “They have houses on the Pakistani side,” he says. (The ISI denies any connection to smugglers or the Taliban.)

The U.N. has estimated that the Taliban makes hundreds of millions of dollars from taxing opium and other illicit activities. But that’s only a fraction of the $3 billion that Afghanistan earns from the drug trade. To find the biggest beneficiaries of opium, you need to go from the poppy palaces in Baramcha to the ones in Kabul.

The United States’ alliances with opium traffickers in Afghanistan go back to the 1980s, when the CIA waged a dirty war to undermine the Soviet occupation of the country. Though opium had been grown for centuries in Afghanistan’s highlands, large-scale cultivation was introduced in Helmand by Mullah Nasim Akhund-zada, a mujahedeen commander who was receiving support from the ISI and the CIA. USAID’s irrigated farmlands were perfect for cash-crop production, and as Akhundzada wrested control of territory from the Communist government, he introduced production quotas and offered cash advances to farmers who planted opium.

When Afghanistan descended into a civil war in the Nineties, the Akhundzadas rose as the province’s dominant warlords, only to be forced out in 1995 by the rise of the Taliban. Though the fundamentalist movement strictly prohibited drug consumption, the support of wealthy opium traders was crucial to its early success. 

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In 2000, Taliban leader Mullah Omar banned opium. AP

In the summer of 2000, the country’s fundamentalist leaders announced a total ban on opium cultivation, “a decision by the Taliban that we welcome,” as former Secretary of State Colin Powell said. It remains a mystery why the Taliban’s reclusive leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, made the call. But the Taliban enforced his decision with their customary harshness. In Helmand, those caught planting poppy were beaten and then paraded through the village with their faces blackened with motor oil. The following spring, the only significant opium harvest was in the corner of the northeast that was still controlled by the Taliban’s rivals, the Northern Alliance. Opium production fell from an estimated 3,276 tons in 2000 to 185 tons in 2001.

Then history intervened. After the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the Bush administration, seeking a “light footprint,” partnered with anti-Taliban warlords, including the Northern Alliance, to take control of the country. In its quest for vengeance, the U.S. allowed figures accused of being involved in grave civil-war-era human rights abuses to come to power; these included people like Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, whose rival mujahedeen factions shelled Kabul to rubble and who would later become the country’s vice president and a leading member of Parliament, respectively.

These were the first in a series of decisions that helped revive the Afghan opium economy in a drastically expanded form. Within six months of the U.S. invasion, the warlords we backed were running the opium trade, and the spring of 2002 saw a bumper harvest of 3,400 tons. Meanwhile, the international community and the Afghan government paid lip service to counternarcotics, with the latter adopting an official strategy that fantasized about opium production being reduced by 75 percent in five years and eliminated entirely within 10.

Hamid Karzai, who had been plucked from obscurity to serve as president, was busy cementing, with U.S. acquiescence, a political order deeply linked to the opium trade. In the north, he wooed the Northern Alliance commanders as partners; in his southern homeland, he appointed Sher Mohammad Akhundzada as governor of Helmand, the nephew of the now-deceased Mullah Nasim, the same guy who had first introduced large-scale poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. “Narco corruption went to the top of the Afghan government,” wrote Thomas Schweich, who served as a senior U.S. counternarcotics official in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2008. “Sure, Karzai had Taliban enemies who profited from drugs, but he had even more supporters who did.” (Spokesmen for both Karzai and current President Ashraf Ghani declined to comment for this story.)

These were boom times for Helmand’s drug smugglers. In Lashkar Gah, I meet a man I’ll call Saleem, a former smuggler who started his first heroin lab in 2002, as a way of moving up the value chain and expanding his margins. With his pendulous gut and cherubic, rosy-cheeked face, Saleem looks like Santa’s drug-dealing little brother. “Opium takes up a lot of space, and there’s less profit,” he says, explaining his decision to go into the manufacturing business. He and others in the opium trade seemed to inhabit a separate world from the war, one where money was all that counted. “I have worked in the government-controlled areas, as well as the Taliban-controlled areas,” he says, laughing. “In some places, we could see the Taliban’s checkpoints from the factory. When we were in the government’s areas, we paid money to the local officials.”

Saleem sold his heroin to Iranian traffickers in Nimroz, a large, mostly desert province to the west of Helmand whose economy rests almost entirely on opium. Like other smugglers and Afghan law-enforcement sources that I spoke to, he describes a system where the police and local government officials were an integral part of the chain, to the point where the police would often transport drugs on his behalf, especially over the final, most dangerous stretches, where the Iranian border forces were waging a bitter war against smugglers. “We would talk to someone in the government, and that person would take the drugs to the border, where the Iranian smugglers had their own person waiting,” Saleem says. 

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Hamid Karzai, second from right, is met by his half brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, left, in Argandab district of Kandahar province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan on October 9th, 2010. Allauddin Khan/AP

For the first five years, there was little risk involved. Business was good. But international embarrassment was growing over Afghanistan’s booming opium production. Law enforcement agencies like the DEA were starting to build up their activities in Kabul. The British, who were set to take over Helmand as part of NATO’s- expanding mission, insisted in 2005 that Karzai’s pick for governor, Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, be removed, after a British-led team raided his compound and discovered nine tons of opium and heroin. (Akhundzada claimed he had seized it from smugglers and was going to destroy it.) A confrontation was brewing between the drug-enforcement community on one side, and Karzai and the Afghan government on the other. But a third force would soon enter the debate: the Pentagon’s generals, who weren’t going to let concerns over drug trafficking derail their troop surge.

Atelling characteristic of the Afghan narco state – and of narco states in general – is how often the fox is selected to guard the henhouse. One drug courier from Helmand was caught with a letter of safe passage signed by the head of Afghanistan’s counternarcotics police, Lt. Gen. Mohammad Daud Daud. A convicted heroin trafficker, Izzatullah Wasifi, was appointed by Karzai as the head of an anti-corruption agency. “Karzai was playing us like a fiddle,” wrote Schweich, the U.S. counternarcotics official.

In the opium-rich south, in addition to Akhundzada in Helmand, Karzai relied on his own half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, to run the crucial province of Kandahar. Wali, who was dogged for years by allegations that he played a central role in the south’s drug trade – and who was assassinated in 2011 – insisted on his innocence and, in public at least, U.S. officials claimed there was no hard evidence. But on trips to Helmand and Kandahar, I am told by U.S. and Afghan sources, along with individuals involved in the drug trade, that Wali presided over a system where corrupt officials were appointed to key positions in return for protection payments. “It’s the way organized crime works,” says a former Justice Department official with extensive experience in Afghanistan. “I don’t want to know as long as I’m getting my cut.”

“The main police checkpoints in the south on Highway 1 were controlled by Ahmed Wali,” an Afghan police official tells me, referring to the road that connects the country’s provinces. “Say 20 partners get together to buy a ton of opium in Jalalabad. Between them, they all have connections to the chiefs of police and governors in each of these districts. They send an agent to the checkpoint who pays off the commander and lets him know which truck to allow to pass.”

But even as the scale of the Afghan narco state was becoming apparent, President Obama’s surge in 2010 brought a new set of rules. The arrival of tens of thousands of troops and billions in spending might have been a golden opportunity to address the opium problem. Instead, the opposite occurred. The irony of the surge was that the military repeated the same collaborations with the warlords as it had done under the Bush-era light footprint. Whereas the excuse before was that there were too few troops, now it was that there were too many.

Obama had given the military just four years to get 100,000 troops in and out of the country, defeat the Taliban and build a lasting Afghan army and police force. On the ground, American commanders’ short-term imperatives of combat operations and logistics trumped other advisers’ long-term concerns over corruption, narcotics and human rights abuses, every time. Notorious figures like the president’s brother Ahmed Wali were thought to be too crucial to the war effort to be held accountable or replaced.

“Drug control wasn’t a priority,” says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, who was head of the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2013. “Limiting casualties was, and if that meant engaging in unholy alliances with actors of diverse plumage, such was the case.”

According to U.S. officials, a sort of informal bargain was struck at the interagency level: The DEA, the FBI and the Justice and Treasury departments would not pursue top Afghan allies who were involved in the drug trade. Instead, the focus would be on Taliban-linked traffickers. Investigations and prosecutions were to be put on the back burner for now. “They’re DEA agents – they want to go out and capture people,” says the former Justice official. “The people who got that message took it smartly. There’s time – you can wait. The evidence doesn’t go away.”

In the meantime, the DEA and the FBI would try to work through the Afghan system by establishing several specialised units within the Ministry of Interior’s counternarcotics police. The Afghan personnel were handpicked by their American mentors. They answered directly to Daud’s replacement, Gen. Baz Mohammad Ahmadi, a canny political operator who some nicknamed the “Teflon Chameleon” for his ability to sense just how far up the chain of command his teams could target. “I call it the Icarus phenomenon: They know how high they can fly before the sun melts their wings,” says the former Justice official.

Initially, that meant busting midlevel officials who had pissed off their political patron. But last year, Ahmadi and his U.S. advisers trumpeted the arrest of Hajji Lal Jan, whom officials describe as one of the south’s biggest drug traffickers. Originally from Helmand, Lal Jan allegedly made payments to Afghan officials and Taliban commanders alike as he transported vast shipments of opium out of the country. “He was a well-respected businessman, very close to prominent families in Afghanistan, but at the same time, in bed with the Taliban and providing them large amounts of money,” says a senior Western counternarcotics official. “There are a lot more Hajji Lal Jans here.”

Lal Jan was notorious enough to be formally sanctioned as a “foreign narcotics kingpin” by Obama in June 2011, but he had been living openly in Kandahar city, allegedly under the protection of Karzai’s brother. “Wali’s death freed space to take him down,” the official says. According to U.S. and Afghan officials, as well as court documents obtained by Rolling Stone, in the fall of 2012 several drug traffickers fingered Lal Jan as their boss. On December 26th, 2012, Lal Jan’s home was raided by an Afghan police commando unit. Lal Jan escaped, however, and was on the run when he allegedly made a call to the governor of Kandahar, Tooryalai Wesa. “Wesa said he would call Karzai and find out what was happening, and that he should wait,” says an Afghan official involved in the investigation. “The surveillance team was monitoring Lal Jan’s phone and was able to pinpoint his location and arrest him.”

Lal Jan was flown back to Kabul, where a behind-the-scenes struggle occurred over his fate. “It took quite a conversation with Karzai to persuade him to allow the prosecution to go forward,” says the senior Western counternarcotics official. “Kandahar Gov. Wesa and a slew of elders pled Lal Jan’s case.” (Wesa says that Lal Jan’s case was handled entirely by the courts and declines to comment further.)

Lal Jan was taken to the Criminal Justice Task Force, a U.S.-and-coalition-funded unit that consists of a special prosecutorial team, judges, a court and a prison. Located in a fortified stretch of terrain near Kabul’s airport, it is supposed to be insulated from political pressure and security threats, but Lal Jan’s influence was felt nonetheless. According to officials familiar with the incident, a group of men was able to get inside, confront a prosecutor and offer to balance him on a scale with his own weight in stacks of $100 bills. He had them thrown off the compound. The prosecutors, who often face retaliation from the powerful men they arrest, were shaken. “I don’t know if I’ll make it home alive to my family each day,” one of them tells me.

After a trial, Lal Jan was convicted of narcotics trafficking and sentenced to 20 years in prison. His arrest was held up as an example of the U.S.’s successful counternarcotics program, and evidence that the Afghan government was willing to take steps to curb narco trafficking. “That case was briefed at the White House when Karzai went to visit in January 2013, as one of the major accomplishments of the counter-narcotics effort,” says the former Justice Department official. He laughs at how premature their optimism was. “We expect that if it’s going to be corrupt, it’s going to be corrupt right now. But they’re patient.”

Instead, what happened next, according to Afghan and U.S. officials, shows how deeply drug money has penetrated the highest levels of the executive and judicial branches of the Afghan government. On appeal at the Supreme Court, Lal Jan’s sentence was reduced to 15 years. After an order from the Presidential Palace, Lal Jan was transferred to Kandahar, where, on June 4th, a local court ordered him set free, using a provision in Afghanistan’s old criminal code, which provides release for “good behavior” for sentences less than 15 years. Lal Jan immediately fled to Pakistan. “The president issued an order to re-arrest him,” says the ex-Justice official. He shakes his head. “That was pretty cynical.”

If you understand the Afghan government as a narco state, then the fact that opium production has actually increased –while the U.S. spent billions on counternarcotics efforts and troop numbers surged – starts to make sense. A completely failed state – Afghanistan in 2001 – can’t really thrive in the drug trade. Traffickers have no reason to pay off a toothless government or a nonexistent police force. In such a libertarian paradise, freelance actors – like Saleem, the heroin cook – flourish.

But as the government builds capacity, officials can start to demand a cut. It’s not that there’s a grand conspiracy at the center of government, but rather that, in the absence of accountability and the rule of law, officials start to orient themselves around a powerful political economy. Big drug barons with links to the government take over the trade. People who don’t pay, or who fall out with government officials, might find themselves killed or arrested.

In this light, U.S. counternarcotics programs, which have cost nearly $8 billion to date, and the Afghan state-building project in general, are perversely part of the explanation for the growing government involvement in the drug trade. Even the newly rebuilt Afghan Air Force has been investigated by the U.S. military for alleged trafficking. In many places, the surge had the effect of wresting opium revenue from the Taliban and handing it to government officials. For example, in Helmand’s Garmsir District, which sits on key trafficking routes between the rest of the province and Baramcha, a big Marine offensive in 2011 finally pushed out the Taliban and handed the district back to the Afghan government. The result? The police began taking a cut from those drug routes. “There are families, as in Mafia-style, that have the trade carved up between them, and when some outsider tries to get in on it, they serve him up as a success for drug interdiction,” one Western official who worked in Garmsir told me. 

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Stock piled drugs – opium, heroin and hashish – seized by Afghan counter narcotics police are held in the Police headquarters waiting to be destroyed. Paolo Pellegrin/Magmum

Of course, ordinary Afghans also suffer from the country being the world’s biggest opium producer. Heroin addiction rates – which had historically been low – have more than doubled in recent years. In Lashkar Gah, you can buy a hit of heroin for the equivalent of a dollar. The U.N. estimates that around 1 million Afghans are addicted to drugs, which, at 8 percent of the population, is twice the global average.

The U.S. government, for its part, acknowledged that there are no quick solutions at hand. “The U.S. interagency is developing an updated counternarcotics strategy for Afghanistan,” says Jen Psaki, the State Department’s spokeswoman. “These are long-term efforts that build the foundation for eventual reductions in opium harvests.”

Brookings Institution’s Felbab-Brown, who has studied Afghanistan’s opium economy, cautions that it will take decades to reduce cultivation, short of using draconian eradication campaigns that would further immiserate the rural poor. “That’s both physically impossible and morally reprehensible,” she says. “The human security of large segments of the Afghan population is dependent on poppy.”

Moreover, illicit economies have a way of enduring. In Myanmar, while opium cultivation was successfully reduced in the Golden Triangle (thanks in part to rising competition from Afghanistan), the area has since become a hub of methamphetamine production. Indeed, both meth production and consumption, which have established footholds in Iran and Pakistan, are beginning to show up in Afghanistan. “Crystal meth is the last thing this country needs,” says one Western counternarcotics official.

“The illicit economy poses a greater danger for Afghanistan than the Taliban,” says the U.N.’s Jean-Luc Lemahieu. Ultimately, though, opium is the world’s problem. Afghan farmers earn less than one percent of the value of the global opium economy. Opiate use is rising worldwide, and the U.S. in particular has experienced a sharp jump in consumption. An estimated half a million Americans are addicted to heroin, and though most of it comes from Mexico, there are fears that Afghan opium could feed the growing demand. “We aren’t seeing much in America yet,” says the former Justice Department official. “But it won’t be long before the Mexicans get hooked in with them. These people are entrepreneurs.”

Like the coal and cotton towns of the American frontier, Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, was built on poppy. Today, the opium barons who’ve made their fortunes over the past decade are trying to consolidate their positions in society, investing in more legitimate ventures while handing off their trafficking activities to younger relatives. Behind every institutional pillar, there is a whiff of drug money. Two recent construction projects – a university and a cottonseed-oil plant – allegedly have connections to drug kingpins.

Indeed, during my time there, I get the impression that Helmand is not so much a province with an opium problem as it is an opium problem with a province. “This year, they wanted 10,000 hectares eradicated in Helmand,” says Lt. Col. Mohammad Abdali, head of the province’s counternarcotics police. “Do you know how many we eradicated? Six-hundred ninety-seven. It’s a joke.”

On my last day in Helmand, I decide to pay a visit to the dasht, the vast desert areas that border the province’s fertile zones and extend out into Pakistan and Iran. If you fly over these areas, you’ll see enormous swaths of land that, once barren, are patched with green fields of poppy. They are now largely controlled and taxed by the Taliban, who, with the Marines gone, are getting increasingly bold in their confrontations with the Afghan army.

Accompanied by the police, we drive out from the town of Gereshk, until we stop amid the poppy fields and compounds that have sprung up in the past few years. We can see the faint smudge of mountains to the north, the start of a band of rugged terrain that goes up into remote districts that the Taliban have governed for the past decade. If the Afghan government starts to lose its grip, Helmand will be one of the first places to fall. “This is the Taliban’s area, they can plant as much as they want,” says a young, sandy-haired lieutenant named Lalai, waving into the distance.

An aged farmer comes out of the nearest compound, walking hand in hand with a small boy, as if the presence of a child might placate the armed strangers who have come to his field. He has a lean face and his skin has been darkened by the sun, in contrast with his snow-white beard. It takes me a minute to notice that his right eye socket is empty.

Why has he come to farm in the desert? They were landless and destitute before, he says. He borrowed a couple thousand dollars from a local notable, the gas-station owner down the road, in order to afford fuel and fertilizer. But he says he’ll be lucky to break even and repay the loan. There is an unspoken plea in his voice, but we haven’t come to destroy his crop. “I probably won’t plant poppy next year,” the old man says, glancing anxiously from face to face. “I have definitely learned my lesson.”

Between the impoverished farmer on one end and the desperate junkie on the other lies a tangled chain of criminals, politicians and drug warriors – the product of a world where drugs are illegal and addicts are plentiful. And with all the corruption and greed that have created the Afghan narco state, it’s hard to imagine the country any other way.

This article originally featured in issue #760 (March, 2015).