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

Jerome Starkey
Tuesday 29 April 2008 00:00 BST

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.

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