Afghanistan has long been infamous for its opium poppies, but law enforcement agencies across the world are warning of a new boom in the Afghan drug trade fueled by methamphetamines.
Turkey’s TRT World reported Wednesday the meth boom in Afghanistan is driven by falling opium prices, a crackdown in Iran that drove many Afghan meth cooks to return home, and the discovery that meth precursor chemicals can be extracted from ephedra, a plant that grows in the central highlands.
Drug trafficking from Afghanistan was recognized by U.S. military planners as a major strategic threat at the beginning of American military involvement after the September 11, 2001, jihadist attacks. Drugs are a huge source of income for the Taliban, to the tune of over $200 million a year, so poppy fields and opium labs were targeted by U.S. airstrikes in an operation called “Iron Tempest.”
The U.S. spent some $9 billion trying to shut down the Afghan drug trade to no avail. Opium production is up, with more money flowing into the Taliban’s coffers and more corruption among Afghan government officials.
Part of the problem is a large number of rural Afghans work in the poppy fields, and some of them are controlled by tribal warlords allied with the U.S. According to Afghan officials, the only thing that ever really put a dent in the drug trade was when the Taliban’s one-eyed clerical leader, Mullah Omar, briefly decided drugs were bad and threatened to kill anyone who harvested them.
The Taliban rediscovered the joys of selling heroin after the U.S. invaded a year later, and Afghanistan is now providing about 90 percent of the world’s supply.
In 2019, foreign naval forces and border patrols began seizing large quantities of methamphetamines mixed in with the usual heroin shipments. The Afghan meth trade is growing fast, roaring out of nowhere to rival the heroin trade in only two years.
Ephedra was the golden ticket for the meth cooks returning from Iran, who told researchers they managed to cut their production costs in half by using the plant instead of smuggling cough syrup into Afghanistan from Iran and Pakistan.
Hundreds of meth labs reportedly popped up across the country, often operating in civilian areas that made them impossible to target with military operations. Poor Afghan households discovered they could make money by extracting ephedrine from abundant ephedra plants and selling the precursor chemical to meth cooks.
A billion dollars worth of product reportedly surged out of the labs, swept through the most squalid slums of Afghanistan, and began flowing to overseas customers, following well-established smuggling routes that run through Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia, and eastern Africa.
Indonesian officials said on Thursday they seized 2.5 tons of crystal meth from Afghanistan shipped through Malaysia. The drugs hauled in by police raids in three cities were valued at $82 million.
Taliban spokesmen insist they are not profiting from the drug trade or taxing smugglers because they are too busy fighting the Afghan government and the devilish foreign interlopers who support it. International law enforcement agencies say this is a lie.
An Afghan drug smuggler told the BBC in November that the Taliban absolutely does tax the drug trade, raking in millions of dollars. When the smugglers asked how the supposedly pious Islamic zealots could justify profiting from drugs, the Taliban told them, “We’re in the middle of a war, so it’s ok, but when the right time comes, we will ban it.”
TRT World reported that Afghan drug trafficking to Iran is increasing, including meth, which can reach Turkey and Europe after passing through Iran. Meth abuse in Pakistan is reportedly exploding, especially in provinces that border on Afghanistan. A Pakistani doctor said meth has become “a veritable epidemic among the younger generation.”
Researchers ominously noted that Afghanistan’s meth industry has developed production capacity far beyond what could be consumed in Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan, so the deadly product is beginning to surface across South Asia, Africa, and Australia. They glumly observed that drug supply chains are just about the only ones that were not seriously disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“International buyers know [meth] can be made easily and cheaply here, the chemicals used are not controlled, and this ephedra plant is everywhere,” Afghan counter-narcotics chief Khalid Nabizada told Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) in early April.
C&EN noted that, as with heroin, Afghanistan is one of the few places on Earth where drug farmers can harvest vast amounts of chemical-producing crops without having to worry about interdiction. A rather large quantity of ephedra plants must be harvested to produce a single kilogram of methamphetamine; in Afghanistan, thousands of dirt-poor farmers living in mud huts can grow the plants in vast fields and use simple implements to produce the ephedrine they sell to meth labs.
According to top researcher David Mansfield, the biggest problem faced by the Afghan meth industry is that they are producing so much of the stuff that sale prices in regional markets are cratering – but those low prices and tremendous production advantages could also help Afghan meth spread even further, as it becomes competitive with drugs from China, Eastern Europe, and Mexico.