Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Economy, Development, Environment

“As Easy As Growing Potatoes”: How formerly ‘poppy-free’ Ghor is at risk of becoming an important player in Afghanistan’s opium business

Obaid Ali 9 min

Ghor province has been considered poppy-free for a long time, but in the past two years opium production and drug trafficking have picked up sharply. With insecurity in the province on the rise, obstructing income sources and basic services, many of Ghor’s farmers migrated to neighbouring provinces like Helmand, helping in the local drug production and trade and eventually ‘importing’ this knowledge back home. In addition, Helmandi drug dealers use the opportunity to expand and develop their existing networks and smuggling routes through Ghor. In the third dispatch from this remote western province, AAN’s Obaid Ali and Christine Roehrs look at the dynamics that helped turn a previously poppy-free province into a safe haven for opium production and trade.

On a sunny morning in June 2013, a few police trucks and a bulldozer pulled up by a poppy field in Charsada district, Ghor province. Meticulously, the bulldozer started to flatten the plantation. A film team stood by and recorded the initiative. Shortly after, tens of thousands of poppy plants lay dead in the dirt and the police proudly told local reporters that they had eradicated ten hectares of poppy. The clip repeatedly ran on local state TV.

It would have been good news about the effectiveness of the local authorities fighting the increasing drug production in Ghor – if hadn’t come out via some inquisitive civil society activists (who talked to AAN but wish to remain unnamed) that the poppy plants had already been rendered worthless by a disease and that the policemen had actually paid off the owner to pull through with their ‘eradication’. They had apparently thought that it was an easy opportunity to vamp up their yearly report to the Ministry of Interior; if they had instead tackled an operational poppy field, the consequences would have been dire. Drug barons tend to respond harshly when they feel their business is threatened. Just recently, one Ghori policeman was killed and another two were injured trying to arrest opium smugglers (see here). Locals also describe cases in which other security forces, many of whom are said to have a share in the business, have threatened counter-narcotics officers.

It is an illuminating tale about the powerlessness of Ghor’s authorities. In two previous dispatches (see here and here) AAN has already reported about local warlords and insurgents gaining more influence and ruling most of the rural areas, affecting the population’s access to basic services, such as education. Also the local economy – never strong in this remote and mountainous province (a few details here) (1) and widely ignored by international development efforts – has increasingly fallen victim to shady businesses.

Over the past two years, a network of poppy cultivating farmers and drug traders has taken over larger parts of the economy in Ghor, as locals and Kabul based counter-narcotics officers confirmed speaking to AAN. For a long time, the level of expertise among Ghori farmers in poppy production had been rather low – resulting for example in widespread crop failure in 2003, 2004 and 2005 (see here, p 9) which, among other factors, had limited Ghor’s share in the business. Poppy production had actually only started in 2002, on a small scale, with the province contributing 2.9 per cent of Afghanistan’s opium cultivation area; in the following year, it increased to 4.7 per cent, but then went back to 2.6 per cent, with a spike only in 2007. A report by the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime (UNODC) and the World Bank from 2006 spoke of the “limited significance of the crop in Ghor”. In 2008, the province was even declared poppy-free. This continued until 2011. That year was the turning point. First, production was only slightly more than the official ‘poppy-free threshold’ of 100 hectares. In 2012, UNODC recorded 125 hectares being used for poppy cultivation (see survey here, p. 19) and Ghor lost its poppy-free status.

For 2013, local authorities such as provincial council members and counter-narcotics experts in Kabul indicate that poppy cultivation has again increased, sharply this time – and will do so further, along the countrywide development (the Pentagon “Report on Progress Toward Stability in Afghanistan” from July said that the “2013 poppy harvest is expected to expand considerably over 2012” due to better weather conditions and higher prices for opium; the UNODC will present the latest figures in its new opium survey next week). In Ghor, counter-narcotics officers have already recorded 264 hectares – “an increase of 111 per cent compared to last year”, according to the UNODC. On the organisation’s 2013 risk assessment map from April (see here, p 2), Ghor still appears as a province with “insignificant” opium production – but with spikes that high and security and humanitarian indicators likely to worsen further, the map may look different next year.

‘Micro-finance schemes’ for poppy farmers

A multitude of factors contribute to local cultivation of more poppy. One is that high levels of unemployment and underemployment and low wages combined with increasing insecurity drive Ghoris out of their home province to seek work in nearby provinces like Herat, Helmand, Kandahar and Farah, all of which are among the largest producers of opium. Many have worked for years as labourers in opium processing factories or as farmers’ helpers in poppy fields – bringing back to Ghor valuable knowledge about cultivation and trade, as already described in a 1999 UNODC report – An Analysis of the Process of Expansion of Opium Poppy to New Districts in Afghanistan (Strategic Survey No. 5).

In addition, drug dealers, as everywhere, make it attractive to cultivate poppy. They set up veritable ‘micro finance’ schemes for Ghori farmers, encouraging them to increase production. They pay in advance to buy seeds and for the labour, later on deducting the loans from the harvest’s worth. Traders from neighbouring provinces have apparently noted Ghor’s worsening problems with security. According to local journalists, they now come in increasing numbers, setting up deals for raw opium and encouraging farmers to produce for them. With them, the first mobile factories or labs to process raw opium are popping up across the province, something that had been unusual just a few years back.

Drug cultivation today makes one of the largest job markets in the province. According to Dr Latif Ghafuri, a provincial council member, it has increased particularly in the districts of Charsada, Dawlatyar, Tolak, Pasaband and around the capital Chaghcharan, mostly due to a lack of government oversight caused by aggressive illegal armed groups.

Ghor’s farmers are said to currently cultivate more poppy than wheat, a local aid worker reports. Although this statement might be exaggerated, there are some points to it. Poppy brings more money faster than the licit agricultural products, and it is easier to grow. A farmer can harvest 30 kilograms of raw opium from one hectare of land (few have this much land, though). According to local farmers, they get around 10,000 Afghanis (200 USD) for one kilogram – creating an income of around 300,000 Afghani or 6,000 USD from one hectare. In comparison, one hectare of wheat in Ghor brings 2,800 kilograms of wheat, with one kilogram yielding 24 Afghani (about 50 US cents). That means one hectare of wheat may only yield 67,200 Afghanis or 1,400 USD – less than one fourth of what poppy would bring. An additional disadvantage for Ghor’s licit agriculture is the lack of water resources (2) while poppy requires much less irrigation than wheat cultivation. Speaking to AAN, a local farmer from the Ahangaran area, 30 kilometres from Chaghcharan, said that most farmers he knew grew poppy because it was “as easy as growing potatoes, you just don’t need to do much”. A local aid worker, who wishes to remain anonymous, reports, too, that local strongmen force farmers to cultivate poppy due to the high demand.

Delawar Shah Delawari, the provincial police chief, emphasizes that his forces have eradicated poppy fields “in many parts of the province”. “We seized 300 to 400 kilograms of opium and arrested many smugglers”, he says. Maulawi Yusof Wakili, the head of the counter-narcotics department in Ghor, does not agree, though. He says that “poppy eradication campaigns have failed in Ghor, particularly due to the lack of cooperation among security forces”. According to UNODC, only six hectares of poppy were eradicated this year (as recorded so far); by the year’s end, the number of hectares eradicated will probably not even be as ‘high’ as it was in 2012 (which was actually also poor, with 11 hectares).

Ghor’s counter-narcotics directorate does not have personnel to conduct eradication missions; it relies on the cooperation of the police which should have assigned officers to this task. UNODC sources told AAN that Ghor has ten policemen in this specific unit – province-wide. Maulawi Wakili confirms that the “number is way too small to be effective”. He reports that security forces face threats, but he also complains about internal corruption. In addition, tribal affiliations among the ANP are often more important to officers than what their superiors say, which makes the formation of a united, effective counter-narcotics force difficult. According to him, only 166 kilograms of opium and one kilogram of heroin were seized in the first six months of the year, and only eight smugglers were arrested.

Sima Joyenda, a Ghor representative in the lower house of the parliament, also claims that the responsible local bodies have not taken enough action to prevent production and trafficking. “Instead, some of them cooperate with dealers and smugglers”, she says. There is a lot of talk in Ghor about high-ranking officials supporting and protecting drug dealers. According to locals, smugglers who are caught red-handed never spend much time in jail but are usually released quickly. Ramazan Qasemi, a provincial council member, adds that only a small portion of the opium seized is actually registered. And MP Joyenda describes how “people can buy opium in local bazaars like sugared almonds. This is why we have more and more drug addicts in Ghor.” A survey from 2005, conducted by the UNODC and the Ministry for Counter Narcotics, estimated that 17 per cent of the population in western provinces, including Ghor, Herat, Farah and Nimruz, were opium users and 14 per cent heroin users (see here). A report from 2009, with input by the Ministry of Health, spoke of a “dramatic” increase in the use of opium, heroin and other opiates all over the country (a recent New York Times article called this the “Growing Army of Addicts”). Although it does not include province-specific data, the same can be assumed for Ghor.

Safe routes, large warehouses

Ghor’s geography, too, makes it hard for authorities to fight drug cultivation and smuggling, as provincial police chief Delawari emphasizes: “Ghor is mountainous. Routes are hard to secure, and mountains provide plenty of opportunities for trading.” Ghor also has borders with eight other provinces, making access to other markets easy. While the opium production has been only picking up over the past two years, the “transit trade appears to have started around 1998 (according to some sources, cultivation also may have started then) and been established for dealing with opium produced in the northern provinces of Balkh and Badakhshan)”, writes Adam Pain for the 2006 AREU paper “Opium Trading Systems in Helmand and Ghor”. Locals describe a particular spike over the past five years, with the rise of the insecurity providing more ‘cover’ for traders. According to the UNODC, drug traders are especially active in the west of the province, in the districts Charsada, Dawlatyar, Dolina, Pasaband and Tiwara.

As a result, Ghor has become a safe transit route for opium trafficked from northern to southern Afghanistan, particularly to Helmand which is not only the largest opium producing province in Afghanistan – with 75,176 hectares in 2012 claiming 48 per cent of the country-wide cultivation – but is also likely the largest heroin producer.

The drugs transported south usually comes from the plantations in Faryab, Sar-e Pol, Daikundi, Bamyan and Badghis. Important stops on the way are the districts of Kohistanat in Sar-e Pul and Kohistan of Faryab, where the products are initially sold to dealers and stored in warehouses. From there, smugglers mainly use two routes through Ghor: the Murghab and the Ahangaran routes. Here, the presence of illegal armed groups and the Taleban makes trafficking even easier, as local security forces have given up patrolling. According to provincial council member Ghafuri, the drug smugglers often transport their wares using motorcycles, each bike carrying 50 to 70 kilograms. They first head towards Shor Abah in the Murghab district, then towards Dawlatyar, finally reaching the largest market in Ghor: the one in Kakori, in Pasaband district (most of which is under permanent Taleban control even after 2001). The second route for drug smugglers is through the Ahangaran area which borders the Kohistan district in Faryab province. From Ahangaran, smugglers travel to Taqa-e Temor, through Band-e Bayen on the border between the Chaghcheran and Dolina districts, finally also reaching Kakori. The town basically consists of opium warehouses and wholesale businesses and is mainly populated by smugglers. It is also known as a weapons market.

The last Afghan stop on the route is Baghran district in Helmand – another Taleban stronghold (this is where Mullah Omar reportedly escaped to first, from Kandahar, when the Taleban regime collapsed) (3) – and the starting point for a whole new journey outside Afghanistan, to the world’s markets. (4)

(1) According to a 2007 UN report, however, prior to the Soviet invasion and subsequent destabilizing events, Ghor was known “for excellent quality animal and horticultural products. Marketing was active with buyers coming from all parts of Afghanistan to buy products from the province. With the deterioration of infrastructure, out-migration, political and economic instability, and the recent drought, markets have diminished to a fraction of what they once were.”

(2) Although Ghor is crossed by three important rivers – Harirud, Farahrud and Murghab – the province faces serious water shortages in the summer season. In 2013, drought allegedly affected some ten thousand families, read more here. Ghor also “obtains limited benefits from these water sources on account of its steep V-shaped valleys with relatively small areas of flat irrigable lands on the rivers’ edges”, write the authors of the AREU report, “Opium Trading Systems in Helmand and Ghor”.

In Ghor province, on average, only 14 per cent of households use safe drinking water. One quarter of households travel up to one hour to access drinking water; see a World Food Program report here.

(3) Read more about Baghran here and here. The district was controlled by a Taleban commander named Abdul Wahed, better known as the Rais-e Baghran (the chief of Baghran) who switched sides to the government in 2005 “in return for $2m of aid for Baghran”, according to Mike Martin’s 2011 “Oral History of the Helmandi Conflict”. In 2008, however, and despite Wahed’s switching sides, the provincial NDS in Helmand considered Baghran “without government presence”.

(4) The Balkan route goes through Iran and Turkey to Europe. Another winds through Central Asia and the Russian Federation. The third one goes southwards from Afghanistan, either through Pakistan or again Iran. Additionally, a relatively new route has developed through the Middle East via Iraq (see a UNODC report from 2013 here).


cultivation Development drugs eradication Ghor heroin Ministry for Counter-Narcotics opium Police poverty province trafficking