Nimruz lies at one of the forgotten edges of Afghanistan, so forgotten that it is possibly the province generating the lowest amount of news per square kilometre. A most brutal and brazen episode of violence involving the police there offers AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini the occasion to report on the province and its main feature – its location as a hotspot for the international drug trade in Afghanistan.
Policemen argue with the owner of a car with blackened windows in a dusty Afghan town. The owner refuses to remove the tinted glass and drives home. A few hours after the altercation, the same policemen, this time wearing civilian clothes, attack the house of the car driver, but when faced with strong resistance from inside they flee, leaving one policeman dead and another injured. Subsequently, the provincial police commander, himself having donned civilian garb, leads an operation to kidnap a relative of the driver – and to summarily execute him. The father of the victim, who is an influential local elder, threatens to retaliate unless the state acts swiftly to punish those responsible. This is the bare outline of events that took place last week, on the afternoon of 16 August, in Zaranj, Nimruz’s provincial capital, at least in the form in which they were reported by a few media outlets (for example Tolo TV on 17 August). The real story behind it – which I shall come to later – is even more interesting.
You do not hear much about Nimruz province. People can stay for years in Afghanistan without happening not only to visit it, but even to hear anything more than passing comments about the province. Its remote position in one of the most deserted extremities of the country, its scanty population and the lack of international NGOs projects, indeed, the lack of any international presence at all, ensures the province gets thoroughly under-reported.
For a year now, Nimruz has been back in the clutches of the seemingly indestructible, local strongman, Karim Brahui, formerly commander of the Jabha-e Nimruz (a mujahed organization close to the Maoist SAMA) who was a governor before the Taleban took over in 1995 and again between 2001-2005. He seems to have been able to conciliate or eliminate all local opposition to his rule, and Nimruz looks consequently like a quiet backwater, at least on the surface. Only its northernmost tip, Delaram, is occasionally mentioned in the news – usually in relation to insurgent attacks on the ring road which passes through it. In fact, Delaram is closely linked to neighbouring Helmand and Farah, not only geographically and historically, but also in featuring the presence of a US military base and consistent numbers of Taleban.
But Nimruz consists of more than Delaram and its few dozen dangerous kilometres of ring road(*). This huge province shares long desert borders with Afghanistan’s most important neighbours, Iran and Pakistan, and its provincial capital is a strategic commercial hub for business with Iran.
The closeness of Iran is overwhelmingly felt in Zaranj, starting with the use of the rial as the currency of choice for all transactions. But the presence of the neighbour is reported in many other fields, first and foremost that of politics. Many locals would claim that Iran holds an undue influence over most of the authorities in Nimruz, including over some politicians from the region who are in Kabul. For example, the newspaper Hasht-e Sobh on 26 February published a letter sent from Nimruz to the Afghan Telecommunications Regulatory Authority (ATRA) of the Ministry of Communications, denouncing the alleged tapping of phone conversations in the province by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Even the provision of electricity by the Iranian state through an extension of the power line from the neighbouring Iranian town, Zabol, to Zaranj is not seen as a neutral arrangement locally(**).
The frontier with Iran rules all commercial life in Nimruz, and the richer neighbour’s economy has deeply penetrated this poor frontier province. Yet, Iran has been engaged in building a fence on large tracts of the border, covering at least the section going from Zaranj to the north of Kang. This small-scale replica of the fence Iran has been building further south, along its frontier with Pakistani Baluchistan, is meant to fight cross-border smuggling, especially of narcotics. However, locals report that the fence is proving effective only in obstructing the movement of refugees and migrants trying to leave Afghanistan, but is completely hopeless against drug traffic.
‘It’s a high fence, almost three meters high, but it is useless, because it has doors,’ said one local. ‘Iranian cars come in through these doors, and the narco-traffickers just need to fill these cars with the opiates to be smuggled.’ He added that the transactions obviously happen with the connivance of both Afghan and Iranian security forces. The involvement of local authorities in drug trafficking is reportedly the real reason behind last week’s killings in Zaranj, much more pertinent than an argument over illegally tinted car windows.
According to the same source, the provincial chief of police, Abdul Jabbar Pordeli, and the family of Abdul Ghaffur Zahuri (Nimruz’s Chief of Finance and Head of the Chamber of Commerce at different times), whose brother Sadiq was driving the indicted car and one of whose young nephews was reportedly detained and murdered by the police, lead two separate, bitterly rival drug smuggling networks. The involvement of security forces and state officials in drug trafficking is not a new development or a peculiarity of Nimruz province. In a more or less direct way, they only too often constitute a fundamental link in the trade. And in Nimruz, drugs are by far the biggest business(***). Smugglers get the narcotics, both opium and heroin (opium can be processed locally in small laboratories) from Delaram, Farah and, especially, Helmand, and transfer them across the border with Iran. If they do not enjoy the support of some local officials they move goods to remote areas to cross, as far south as Robat on the tripartite border with Pakistan. Usually, they just bribe the police on both sides and get through the main gate. The steadily increasing price of opium gives them a fair chance at doing this successfully.
How come then that the same policemen often proudly report successes in the fight against the drug trade, with catches of incredible size happening in Nimruz on a regular basis? Just to give a sample of the results of police efforts in Nimruz in the last months:
According to Afghan media reports, 11 kg of crystal heroin were confiscated from a truck driver at Pol-e Abrisham border crossing on 7 March 2011. The following day, around 1500 kg of opium and 25 kg of heroin were discovered in Khashrod district. In early May, police chief Pordeli announced the seizure of around 500 kg opium, 86 kg of crystal and 26 kg of heroin in Zaranj itself. Six police officers were also arrested for drug smuggling in the province during March, while the same charge was brought last month against the Khashrod district governor. He was sentenced to twenty years along with two of his sons, who were both officers in the local ANA reserve division (one was actually its commander – read here).
The reason for this apparently schizophrenic behaviour on the part of local policemen appears to be that, with a little bit of effort and organisation, seizing drugs can be more lucrative than simply shipping them beyond the border. Local smugglers themselves are reported to be passing on the tips to their uniformed accomplices, as to where and when to effect the search, and then a 10 percent of the confiscated drug is sacrificed on the pyre in front of the media – along with a 90 percent opium-like substance cheaply purchased in Iran to substitute for the missing ‘real stuff’. The opium thus saved is later sold directly by the local smugglers/policemen, who can justify the loss to the original owner back in Helmand as due to a police operation, and retain the full profit of the enterprise. Of course, framing a taxi or truck driver once in a while lends more credibility to the whole set up.
Let us be clear, drug trafficking in Nimruz has existed for the last two decades at least, and so have narco-lords, corrupt policemen and – often powerless – honest ones. Probably, the most significant recent change, with a devastating impact, is the ever increasing number of local drug addicts (see a Pajhwok report here). The main problem reported to AAN though is that most of the provincial government officials seem to be onlyinterested in the drug trade, not pursuing any interest in other public affairs nor reacting to the dangers of Taleban infiltration from neighbouring Helmand.
Until now, insurgents do not have a firm foothold in the central area of the province. It is rather the northern Khashrod district where they are stronger(****). However, they have shown the will and the capacity to strike heavily at the heart of Zaranj, when for example, on 5 May 2010, six suicide bombers managed to enter government premises and kill, among others, the member of the provincial council and women rights activist Gul Makai. Also, it is not clear the extent to which militant groups are benefiting – along with corrupt state officials – from the drug trade. Profits from the Helmand poppy crops are known to ultimately finance the Taleban, but more sophisticated business networking aimed at the direct purchase of weapons coming through Iran in exchange for drugs seems to be established. This could involve the more or less opportunist cooperation of trans-border militant groups like Jundullah.
But even in the absence of a direct Taleban push or enterprise, the relation between government and population is growing strained as a result of the lack of attention to the region’s problems on the part of local and central authorities. According to local reporting, in some districts like Khashrod or Chakhansur, many of the insurgents loyal to the Quetta shura proceed from neighbouring Helmand or Farah province – but they are becoming increasingly effective at recruiting local youth. At the same time, there is indigenous mobilization with both Pashtun and Baluch dwelling in remote areas arming themselves and starting ‘Taleban’ fronts in order to prevent external armed groups from encroaching on their territory. They may not attack Afghan or (the occasional) foreign forces yet, as locals confirm, but their mere existence does not bode well for the future of any effective government presence in Nimruz.
(*) Nimruz province actually centres on what is left in Afghan territory of the historical region of Sistan, after this disputed area was divided between Persia and Afghanistan, by a British boundary commission, in 1872-73.
(**) Iran is accused of hampering the development of projected dams on the Afghan side and the related production of hydro-electrical energy, to avoid a reduction in the flow of Helmand river water to its side, and to keep selling electricity to the Afghan state. Furthermore, the dependence of the province on Iranian electricity, it is argued, could turn into a tool of political pressure on locals. When Iran stopped the energy supply last month – due to a domestic power shortage – life in the hot summer of Nimruz became next to impossible, causing the price of ice in Zaranj to rise to record levels, said reporters (read article here).
(***) The brand new Delaram-Zaranj road recently completed with Indian money and engineers against all political and security odds to connect the Afghan ring road to the Iranian port of Chahbahar has not brought significant improvements or affluence to local petty traders. Most of the goods in fact transit only through Zaranj on their way to Kandahar or beyond. Also, the two recently inaugurated bazar-e moshtarak (weekly markets accessible for Iranians and Afghans to trade freely) seem to provide only further opportunities for drug smugglers, rather than helping, legal trade.
(****) Their overall commander seems to be the old Taleban governor of Nimruz from the time of the Emirate, Mulla Rasul. Originally from Spin Boldak, he ran the province from 1996 to 2001 with a distinctively personal touch: having married a local woman, he felt compelled to move the provincial capital from Zaranj to her native village of Ghorghori, relocating in the process all the trans-border traffic and the administrative paraphernalia to the tiny hamlet of adobe houses lost in the middle of the desert east of Zaranj. He is now rumoured to be based in Farah, but has nominated a local deputy active mainly in Khashrod, especially in his beloved Ghorghori area.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020