Voices from Afghanistan

Voices from opium traders and transporters in two Afghanistan borderland provinces.

The following three key messages are from our research in two borderland Afghanistan provinces: Nangarhar and Nimroz.

1. Illicit trading networks are central to household incomes and survival in Afghanistan’s borderlands.

Afghanistan is not only a major producer of opium and heroin; it is also an important regional trading hub and corridor for both licit and illicit commodities. Just as there are many farmers that depend on growing opium poppy to survive, many transporters and traders also rely on incomes from illicit drugs for financial security. Such incomes help safeguard families and communities against economic hardship in a country that is affected by protracted armed conflict.

Illicit trading has helped many families survive protracted crises

Our research in Nangarhar and Nimroz – on the east and west borderlands of Afghanistan respectively – points to the centrality of illicit trade in securing incomes of families living in extremely violent and risky environments.

One farmer from Nangarhar recalled how money from the opium trade provided his family with a lifeline after being bombed during the Soviet-Afghan war:

During the communist regime, our village was bombed killing nine people; one of my cousins was also wounded. During that bombardment, our house was destroyed and 15 of our cattle were killed. All the pots, rugs and other items were destroyed. When the planes finished their bombardment and left the area, every person was looking for their belongings, which were buried under the soil…

My father had saved 54 seers of opium along with 80,000 Afghanis, which also went under the debris. While looking for our household goods, my mother found the box with 54 seers of opium and the cash. Our house was destroyed, but with this money we built a new house for ourselves.

Farmer, Khugyani District, Nangarhar, 2018

As this experience shows, not everyone who participates in the drugs business is a wealthy narco-trafficker. People often become involved as small-scale transporters because they have few other choices. In Nangarhar, following the Soviet withdrawal and descent into civil war, transporting illicit drugs across international borders provided vital income for poor families living in dire economic circumstances.

In 1993, one of my friends from Achin […] used to be a lieutenant in the Ministry of Defense but was also jobless at the time. This lieutenant had a cousin who was trading heroin in Abdulkhel, and [my friend] was taking the heroin to [northern city] Mazar-e-Sharif through one trader, and another trader helped transfer him to Moscow through Uzbekistan…

The lieutenant came to me and offered me a job helping him transport the heroin from Mazar-e-Sharif to Moscow […] As I was living in very tough circumstances I didn’t have any other option. To make matters worse, my widowed sister and her children were also living with me and I already faced losses in my shop and I didn’t have any means to provide for my family. When the lieutenant offered me [the job], I agreed.

Former shopkeeper and drug transporter, Ghani Khel, Nangarhar, 2018

Read this comic about Jangul’s life in Nangarhar province, on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

From helping his father in the poppy fields as a child, to smuggling heroin all the way to Moscow as an adult, opium has been a part of Jangul’s story – through conflict and desperation, and relative peace and security.

The risks and benefits of participation in the drug trade are distributed unevenly

The distribution of risks and benefits for those involved in the drug trade is strongly linked to their economic and social status. Transporters who are hired to move the drugs (as opposed to traders who buy and sell them) face particularly serious risks – something that is not always reflected in their pay.

For example, the above informant crossed multiple borders before arriving in Moscow and received a relatively small sum of money in return. Still, some transporters may accumulate enough to modestly improve their economic situation, as in the case of the following transporter interviewed on the Iranian side of the Nimroz borderlands.

With the first car that I rented I quickly wanted to make money. The first opportunity that I had I trafficked 3kg between Chabahar and Sarbaz. I was paid 6,000 tomans per month to do the legal transportation work, bringing freight from Sistan and Baluchistan here…

The owner did not know I was also trafficking opium on the side. These 3kg became my wealth. I came home, delivered the drugs, and went back as quickly as I could. This time I went for 6kg, then 12kg, then 24kg etc. My wealth continued accumulating. I built a house, I bought land. My economy started getting better. I bought a car – I bought a truck and trailer after three years.

Drug trafficker, Sistan-Baluchestan, Iran, 2019

In contrast to transporters, large-scale traders with access to more capital and political networks can, to an extent, insulate themselves from enforcement risks through layers of brokerage relations and pay-offs to top officials. These actors often use profits from drugs to invest in new enterprises or housing and trading portfolios in Jalalabad, Kabul, Tehran or Dubai.

There are these powerful mafia families in some of the cities around Tehran. For example, in [village X], they import large quantities of opium and heroin, up to one tonne at a time. You can easily conceal this on the lorries or pick-up trucks that come from Sistan and Baluchistan. Once it arrives there, they distribute to smaller dealers, a couple of kg here and there…

Meanwhile, they sit safe at home and take none of the risk – the risk is instead spread to the traffickers and to those who distribute on a smaller scale. They buy it from Baluchis often. They drop off the goods, and collect payment at a later date. This is how it usually works.

Drug trader, Tehran, Iran, 2019

Illicit and licit trading networks are connected

Many traders and transporters mix and alternate between a variety of licit and illicit goods. In Nangarhar, for instance, tea, cement and fertiliser can be transported along the same trading corridors and through the same networks as hashish and opium. Traders build up diverse portfolios to manage risks and seize new opportunities as prices, regulatory systems and conflict dynamics shift.

Downturns in licit activities may spur greater participation in drug economies. For example, in Nimroz individuals turned to drug trafficking during periods of severe drought, which affected agricultural production.

Conversely, restrictions on talc extraction and trading in the Asadkhel region of Nangarhar had unforeseen knock-on effects, including an uptick in cannabis cultivation. Reports that insurgent forces were benefiting from the talc industry led to the government crackdown, which negatively impacted many others, as described in this next testimony from a man from Achin district.

Currently, the business of talc at Asadkhel is stopped, and the reason is that contracts have not been made with the traders […] people of Asadkhel say that special force officials do not allow talc to be transported to Shadal bazaar. They asked for a contract with the Ministry of Mines, but the contracts have been stopped by the government…

This autumn, 80{83ecf5b61c3deac6f8cdad8e1c8bee36d10ac3107192903d905d6fe2d4e88cad} of harvesting plants [in Asadkhel] were cannabis. People also cultivated it in their houses. Most of the youth are unemployed. Some among them have joined the national army or left for Pakistan in search of work because the talc business, which provided employment opportunities to people, has stopped.

Key informant, Achin district, Nangarhar, 2018
Border DakMashkel way, Charbrujak district, Helmand river, Afghanistan. Photo by OSDR.

2. Licit and illicit trade routes continually shift in response to changes in regulation.

The borderlands of Nangarhar and Nimroz have always been ‘outward-facing’, with deep historical, social and economic ties to neighbouring countries and regions. However, the hardness and porosity of borders have constantly changed due to conflict dynamics, the regulatory power of state and non-state authorities, and the construction of infrastructure, including fences, customs posts and border markets.

These changes have had significant impacts on illicit flows of legal and illegal goods, with knock-on effects on the economic and social wellbeing of borderland communities. For example, hardening the border may increase price differences and the security premium on goods crossing the border, boosting incentives for smuggling. Changing border controls also creates more opportunities for powerful elites to profit by imposing informal taxes on illicit flows.

Border regulation, security and livelihoods

There are significant trade-offs between border security and borderland livelihoods. Iran and Pakistan have tightened their respective borders with Afghanistan, with Pakistan building a fence along its border with Nangarhar and Iran building a wall and ditch across the Iranian-Nimroz border. This has had significant consequences for local economies based on cross-border trade and connections. One ex-militia commander from Nimroz who had lived on both sides of the border described the negative impact of the wall on the livelihoods of young people in Nimroz, prompting many to turn to drug trafficking.

It has been eight years since the Iranians built a wall along the border and closed it. When this border was open, young people were busy trading and transporting business goods, but currently there are no work opportunities and youths can’t go for work to Iran as the Iranian government demands a passport and a valid visa to enter their country. So, they risk their lives to provide for their families and smuggle drugs in the night, which is their only source of income. The border police force young people to pay them money and the police search their houses and arrest them if they refuse to pay.

Ex-militia commander, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

In Nangarhar, a former customs officer talked about the changing regulatory arrangements at the Torkham border crossing and the different kinds of trade going on, captured in the next testimony.

In the past, the Torkham gate was sometimes open and sometimes closed for trade goods to be transferred across the border on both sides […] Currently it is closed for all of the tax-exempted goods that were traded over it in the past. Some of the transporters carry small bags of trade goods in their hands or on their backs to transfer them over the Torkham border…There are some children who used to carry these goods in their hands to Pakistan.

Former customs official, Torkham, Nangarhar, 2018
Catapult used for smuggling opium in Nimroz province, Afghanistan. Photo by OSDR.

Traders and transporters often adapt to border closures in creative and dynamic ways. Restrictions in formal crossings and the establishment of walls and fences have prompted the development of informal crossings in remote areas in both Nangarhar and Nimroz.

The Sasobi border crossing in Dur Baba district of Nangarhar is a prime example of a small-scale route that has grown more prominent as other major crossing points have become more restricted. Difficult to traverse by car, most goods are carried by mules or camels, which transport tax-exempted goods, narcotics, and other items over the border into Pakistan. In Nimroz, some small-scale drug traffickers have opted for a rather different method to export their product: catapulting it over the Iranian border wall.

I have an Iranian business partner and my cousins and other relatives are living in [X] village located on the other side of the border. It is so hard to do this business unless you have a business partner in Iran as I can’t go to Iran myself. We have contact numbers of the Iranian police who are guarding in the border and my business partner in Iran contacts the border police guarding in the check posts and border on the Iran side to set the perfect time with them for smuggling out opium…

The police call my partner to tell him the time, my partner calls me and I take the opium to the border where the Iranian border police open the gates built in the wall and I cross the border wall to hand over the opium to my business partner on the other side of the wall/border. Sometimes, we use a ladder to climb the wall and hand over the opium to my partner on the other side of the wall without letting the Iranian border police know about it…

The youths from our villages are cooperating with me while I am transporting the opium from the village to the border point. Smugglers also cooperate with each other and don’t take money for it.

Transporter, Zaranj City, Nimroz 2019
Car station preparing for transportation by camel and mule in Sasobai, Nimroz province, Afghanistan. Photo by OSDR.

Trust, brokerage and violence

Borderlands are ‘trading spaces’ in which social relations, local institutions and regulatory arrangements have adapted to the management and movement of flows. This has involved developing a complex infrastructure of logistics, transportation and warehousing; sophisticated systems for monitoring and responding to market information; organisations for managing and regulating labour; and financial systems that enable the flows of credit and capital.

All of these arrangements have been ‘stress tested’ and adapted to operating in a high-risk (and high opportunity) environment in which there are multiple sources of ‘friction’ linked to a fragmented geographical, political and social landscape.

In order for Afghanistan’s borderland trading systems to function, three things are key – trust, brokerage and violence. Trust underpins and ties together the networks that are necessary to move commodities through space and across borders.

Brokers are required to straddle the synapses and boundaries that divide social, political and economic systems and that create friction impeding the free flow of trade. These figures may mediate between government officials and the Taliban, or between Iranian and Afghan customs officers, or between human trafficking networks in Kabul and the provinces. They are both the connective tissue and the point of friction in trading systems.

During the last years of communist regime, my uncle with whom I was doing opium trade got killed in a mine explosion in Bahar village along with 12 other men when he was travelling to Pakistan to participate in a Jirga […] My uncle had a lot of experience in opium trade and he had lots of contacts with people but I had not enough assets myself. Moreover, I could not continue in the opium trade without the reference of my uncle, therefore, I left the opium trade.

Trader, Nangarhar, 2018

Violence is central to the regulation of both licit and illicit trade, given the absence of credible legal mechanisms to enforce contracts and mediate disputes. Endemic and unpredictable violence shifts incentives towards high-value, easily transportable and concealed commodities such as drugs. Geographically concentrated violence leads to a shift in the direction of trade flows.

Violence may be linked to the control of trade routes and the renegotiation of political settlements among local elites around the distribution of the proceeds of trade. Voices from Afghanistan’s borderlands challenge the commonly held idea that the drugs trade is exceptionally violent – they indicate that all trading networks function in the shadow of violence; coercion or the threat of coercion are central to the functioning and regulation of trade.

Vehicles which carry goods belonging to warlords cannot be stopped by anyone at any point. Whatever goods they carry, whether illegal or legal, no one can stop them. Also no one can search them as all of the security forces know about it in advance. Most often, such vehicles carry illegal goods or banned goods to transfer across the border to Pakistan. The anti-narcotics officers in the district don’t have the ability to stop it.

Civil servant, Nangarhar, 2018

Trading networks are subject to informal revenue collection at ‘choke points’, often dominated by state and/or non-state elites and violent armed groups. Evidence from Nangarhar and Nimroz suggests that these choke points exist along international border crossings, as well as along informal borders that exist between government and opposition-controlled territories. Local government employees, particularly army officers and customs officials, were frequently identified as key brokers in illicit trading networks, imposing informal taxes on the trading of illicit goods in exchange for facilitating trade.

Small-scale traders and transporters are vulnerable to exploitation and violence at the hands of government and opposition forces alike. This was particularly the case for transporters moving goods between Nangarhar and Pakistan, where traders reported being threatened and abused by local authorities, and even being coerced into transporting illicit goods.

Two years ago I unloaded the truck in the Ring Road area of Peshawar and then parked the truck to get loaded with cement. Two Pakistani police came to me and told me that their boss wanted to talk to me. They took me to their boss and made me sit on a chair. Their boss asked me why I was doing hashish business…

I said that I don’t know anything about hashish. They imprisoned me and made a case against me that I had 6kg of hashish. I spent four months in the prison and then I paid Rs. 50,000 to get released. I lost Rs. 200,000 during these four months and I still owe people Rs. 150,000. The Pakistani government was very cruel.

Cement transporter, Sherzad district, Nangarhar, 2018

Opposition forces also act as important trade brokers in both provinces. Although the Taliban taxes traders and transporters informally, they often play a helpful role in providing additional security for transporters operating in remote areas.

I drive to Dak once or twice a week and I see Taliban there, but they don’t cause trouble to ordinary people and they help the public by preventing thieves and providing security.

Transporter and people smuggler, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

However, many traders in Nangarhar described a culture of fear precipitated by the Taliban and other non-government armed groups operating in their areas. In Ghani Khel district of Nangahar, traders reported being harassed by three different armed groups operating in the area, often threatening them with murder and kidnapping if they refused payment:

I receive calls from different phone numbers asking me for money, but I don’t know if they are Taliban or thieves. I haven’t paid them any money yet, but I am scared to get killed by the Taliban…local police are sometimes coming to my shop as well and they are asking for food and money, and I give them Rs. 3,000-4,000. I don’t know whom to complain to as government employees and Taliban are both thieves […] security is at its worst, every trader has armed guards for keeping himself and his property safe.

Trader, Ghani Khel, Nangarhar, 2018

We don’t know what party to pay money to. It is a bad situation and we don’t know enemy from friend. We go home early in the evening, we are not even safe in our houses and we guard our homes during the night.

Trader, Ghani Khel, Nangarhar, 2018

3. Increased trade flows have had positive and negative impacts for people living in frontier boom towns.

Frontier boom towns emerge in border regions where trade flows converge. These places become magnets for traders, migrants, state officials and speculators, with the promise of new opportunities, windfall profits and tax revenues.

The fortunes of these towns wax and wane according to a number of factors, including shifts in regional geopolitical contexts, changes in the prices and availability of commodities, attempts to regulate trade, and conflict.

Boom towns are often linked with a ‘twin’ settlement across the border, which develop a symbiotic and mutually reinforcing relationship: for example, Jalalabad-Peshawar on the Afghan-Pakistan border in Nangarhar, and Zaranj-Charbarhar straddling the Iranian-Afghan border in Nimroz.

Boom towns are places of opportunity, investment and rapid growth

Ziranj, the capital of Nimroz province, emerged as one such boom town following the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Over the past two decades, processes of rapid accumulation linked to licit and illicit trade have been accompanied by significant investments in housing and public services in the city.

The wider province has also benefited from increased trade links between India, Iran and Afghanistan, which has led to more domestic and international investment in roads and other infrastructure in the region.

Many positive changes have been made to the lives of people and they have become more educated [since 2001]. My life has also changed, my daughter is a teacher and she is getting paid, I have a salary as well […] We currently have access to facilities such as telephone, internet and televisions, we always use them and update ourselves about what is happening in the world and it is a positive change in our lives.

Education manager, Kang District, Nimroz, 2019

As regional trade links in Nimroz have deepened, revenues from illicit drugs in the post-2001 era have also contributed to private investment, resulting in the expansion of economic and social opportunities.

The residents of Zaranj city have become wealthier as some are involved in narcotics, some have opened shops in the city, and some have jobs in government […] During the Karzai regime, my sales went higher as there were more development programmes, construction, and people were buying more electrical materials from my shop. I was making a good profit that made my life better and I extended my business and investment.

Electrician and trader, Kang District, Nimroz, 2019

The growth of frontier boom towns comes with costs and trade-offs

The rapid expansion of these towns has been accompanied by considerable trade-offs for people living in the area and for the wider economy. Boom towns may be unruly and insecure places, where control of trade depends on access to the means of violence. In Nimroz, a new class of elites profiting from trade flows have gradually grown in power, associated with large-scale corruption, land seizures and rising inequality.

The wealthy people in Nimroz province are living in Zaranj city and the majority of these people are Jihadi commanders, government officials, landlords and drug traders.

Education manager, Kang District, Nimroz, 2019

The value of land in Zaranj city has risen as the city has been mapped and government officials who usurped land have sold it at high costs […] Drug traders and government officials involved in this business have also become wealthy but the poor people are getting poorer by the day.

Ex-militia commander, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

While Nimroz has been a hub for the trafficking of drugs (into neighbouring Iran) cultivated in other southern Afghanistan provinces for decades, people-smuggling has grown in prominence over the last decade, attracting new types of smuggling networks from outside of the province.

In Nangarhar, Torkham has been a significant frontier town for decades, with its fortunes closely tied to the economy of neighbouring Peshawar. Trade has been the lifeblood of the local economy – boosting government revenues, providing a source of investment and supporting the livelihoods and welfare of the borderland population.

But the benefits are not equally distributed. Just as a small elite have gained from the trading boom in Nimroz, in Nangarhar a handful of well-positioned political players have profited from contracts linked to the military logistic pipeline supplying NATO forces that crosses through Torkham. Furthermore, small-scale licit and illicit trades are associated with high levels of violence, poor working conditions and exploitative working practices.

While the emergence of frontier boom towns may provide economic benefits to inhabitants, the wealth accumulated through trade is often transitory and ephemeral, with many elites investing profits in capital cities or outside of the country.

Additionally, the trade-offs associated with life in frontier boom towns may prove costly in the long run by damaging public legitimacy, prompting greater support for opposition forces. In Nimroz, borderland communities tended to be satisfied with the increase in investment and infrastructure from the central government. However, they had little to say that was positive about what they perceived to be corrupt elites, as well as rapidly growing inequality at the provincial level.

Our expectations from the central government have changed…Since he [Pres. Ghani] planned to build Kamal Khan Dam, the residents of Nimroz are very happy […]We don’t expect much from the provincial government as they are all corrupted and their priority is their own benefit.

Trader, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

One reason for the growing Taliban insurgency is corruption in the government…they are involved in bribery and they interfere in everything […] that dissatisfies the poor people and caused the Taliban insurgency to grow.

Transporter and people smuggler, Zaranj City, Nimroz, 2019

A note on methodology

The key messages for Afghanistan were drawn primarily from fieldwork conducted in seven districts of Nangarhar in autumn 2018 and in three districts of Nimroz in spring 2019.

In total, over 600 interviews with traders, transporters, customs officials and other key officials were collected in the two provinces. Fieldworkers interviewed traders and transporters associated with a wide variety of licit and illicit commodities, including opium, hashish, talc, fuel, fertilizer, cement, spare parts, and transit goods. The team also interviewed members of people-smuggling networks in Nimroz.

In addition to the interviews, ten life histories per province were conducted with individuals over 50 years old who could recall long-term changes in security, development and economic conditions of their respective borderlands. The field teams also made use of GIS imagery to identify research sites near the border prior to starting the fieldwork, and again during guided debriefing sessions after each round of fieldwork was completed.

Common themes and insights

Making sense of the life stories with common themes around agency and voice, violence and peace, and borders and boundaries.

Implications for researchers and policymakers

Life stories raise questions, provocations and pointers for researchers and policymakers.