Drugs for guns: how the Afghan heroin trade is fuelling the Taliban insurgency

The heroin flooding Britain's streets is threatening the lives of UK troops in Afghanistan, an Independent investigation can reveal.

Russian gangsters who smuggle drugs into Britain are buying cheap heroin from Afghanistan and paying for it with guns. Smugglers told The Independent how Russian arms dealers meet Taliban drug lords at a bazaar near the old Afghan-Soviet border, deep in Tajikistan's desert. The bazaar exists solely to trade Afghan drugs for Russian guns – and sometimes a bit of sex on the side.

The drugs are destined for Britain's streets. The guns go straight to the Taliban front line. The weapons on sale include machine guns, sniper rifles and anti-aircraft weapons like the ones used in the attempt to assassinate the Afghan President Hamid Karzai last weekend.

"We never sell the drugs for money," boasted one of the smugglers. "We exchange them for ammunition and Kalashnikovs."

The drugs come mostly from Helmand, where most of Britain's 7,800 troops are based. The opium grown there is turned into heroin at factories inside Afghanistan, sold into Tajikistan and smuggled to Europe. The guns are broken down into parts, smuggled back into Afghanistan and delivered to the Taliban. One kilogram of heroin can buy about 30 AK-47 assault rifles at the bazaar.

Nato claims the Taliban get between 40 and 60 per cent of their income from drugs. The smugglers' claims suggest the real cost could be far higher.

The smugglers described a bleak village with no homes, hidden in the desert near the border. Inside open-air courtyards up to 300 shopkeepers sit in small booths. They act as agents of the Russian mafia who supply the guns and spirit the drugs away. The Afghans are agents of corrupt officials in their government, said a mid-level lieutenant Daoud.

Around them lurk Tajik prostitutes, selling themselves for a few scraps of surplus heroin. "They will do anything. They just want some heroin and we always have some spare," said another smuggler.

We interviewed three smugglers in the lawless border areas north and east of Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan, as well as a Taliban go-between who was visiting from Helmand.

Speaking from his headquarters in Kunduz province, Daoud said Afghan smugglers lug sacks of grade-A heroin across the river Oxus, which marks the Tajik border. They drive pick-ups as far as they can, take motorbikes where the cars can't go, and finish the journey on foot. "We leave early in the evening and get there around 9am the next day," he said. "There aren't even any tracks because we never ride the motorbikes to the same place twice."

The heroin is harvested from opium farms across Afghanistan and taken to factories in the remote Pamir mountains in the Badakhshan region, where it is turned into heroin. It takes about 15kg of opium to make 1kg of heroin, said Daoud. From Badakhshan it is brought west to Kunduz, for the trip to Tajikistan. The weapons follow similar routes, but in the opposite direction, south and east to the fighting.

"We are like a company," said Daoud. "We have some big sponsors who support us in the government."

A kilogram of the best Afghan heroin is worth £600 in Afghanistan. It is worth twice as much at the bazaar in Tajikistan. But rather than take cash, they take weapon parts, because they double their value in Afghanistan. An AK-47 assault rifle costs £50 at the bazaar. It is worth up to £100 in northern Afghanistan, and even more in the south and east where demand for guns is higher, because of the fighting.

The Taliban go-between said fighters in Helmand expect to get six AK-47s for 1kg of good quality heroin, a similar number of rocket-propelled grenades or a dozen boxes of ammunition.

British special forces have arrested or killed drugs smugglers linked to the insurgency, alongside a secretive unit of the Afghan army called 333, but the bulk of the International Security Assistance Force is handicapped by its mandate which does not include counter-narcotics operations, unless they can be linked to the insurgency.

The smugglers claimed they are "untouchable" because their bosses include cabinet-level officials in the government. British officials suspect senior government insiders are involved in the drugs trade, but they have struggled to get the support from Mr Karzai, or the evidence, to arrest them.

Opium production has soared since 2001. The head of British-led efforts to crack down on the crop, David Belgrove, said: "This proves what we and the rest of the international community have been saying. There's clear evidence that the drugs trade fuels the insurgency."

The commander of Nato forces in Afghanistan, the US general, Dan McNeill, pledged to take his mandate to the limit to target drug traffickers. But so far, the smugglers insist they are not feeling the pinch.

Violence last year reached record highs, and the Taliban have launched two attacks in Kabul this year. "The heroin is what lets us fight," said the Taliban go-between.

Voices
On the last day of campaigning before the polling booths open, the SNP leader has written to voters in a final attempt to convince them to vote for independence
scotland decidesIs a huge gamble on oil keeping First Minister up at night?
Arts and Entertainment
Rosalind Buckland, the inspiration for Cider with Rosie died this week
booksBut what is it like to be the person who inspires a classic work of art?
Life and Style
techApple has just launched its latest mobile operating software – so what should you do first?
News
A male driver reverses his Vauxhall Astra from a tow truck
newsThe 'extremely dangerous' attempt to avoid being impounded has been heavily criticised
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Messi in action for Barcelona
filmSo what makes the little man tick?
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: An undercooked end (spoiler alert)
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding
musicThe singer said 'the last thing I want to do is degrade'
Sport
Cesc Fabregas celebrates his first Chelsea goal
footballChelsea vs Schalke match report
Arts and Entertainment
Toby Jones (left) and Mackenzie Crook in BBC4’s new comedy The Detectorists
tvMackenzie Crook's 'Detectorists' makes the hobby look 'dysfunctional', they say
Life and Style
fashion

Olympic diver has made his modelling debut for Adidas

News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week