A large meth industry has rapidly emerged that could eventually rival the country’s massive opium trade, adding yet another dimension to Afghanistan’s spiralling drug crisis.
In early April, a French naval vessel seized a combined shipment of methamphetamine and heroin in the Arabian Sea. It was the second such incident in under a month, and pointed to an alarming new development in the global drug trade.
For many years heroin has been trafficked from South Asia along the so-called ‘Southern Route’, one of the world’s major smuggling highways which transports drugs from Afghanistan to Pakistan and then on to Africa across the Indian Ocean.
But, in 2019, something changed: naval forces started intercepting large amounts of methamphetamine shipped together with heroin in the same cargo. October 2020 saw the largest meth seizure of its kind on record.
Afghanistan has long been known as an opium producer – 90 percent of the global heroin supply originates there – but not as a source of meth; a dangerous, highly addictive stimulant that is mostly produced in Mexico and South East Asia.
Now, thanks to new research, it is becoming clear that a large meth industry has rapidly emerged in Afghanistan in recent years which could eventually rival the country’s massive opium trade.
This, at a time when international forces are set to withdraw by September and the beleaguered Afghan government might collapse, making it even easier for drug traffickers to operate.
The US and its allies have pumped billions of dollars into countering narcotics in Afghanistan, but the drug economy is now far bigger than it was at the beginning of the war two decades ago.
Meth production – previously unheard of in the country – adds yet another dimension to Afghanistan’s spiralling drug crisis.
Iran used to be the main source of meth in the region, but government pressure and tighter regulation of precursors resulted in a shift to Afghanistan. US sanctions also led to a collapse of the Iranian currency, making it more expensive to import chemicals.
Meth ‘cooks’ who had produced the drug in Iran, moved back home, bringing their skills with them. Opium prices fell in 2018, partly owing to overproduction. Many Afghans had to find an alternative source of income.
A key moment came with the discovery that ephedrine, a meth precursor, could be extracted from the ephedra plant, which grows in Afghanistan’s central highlands. This made meth production cheaper than it would be using imported materials.
Meth is usually categorised as a “synthetic” drug made using chemicals, such as ephedrine, which can be extracted from over-the-counter medicines. But ephedra-based Afghan meth is “semi-synthetic”, because its precursor is derived from a plant.
David Mansfield, an independent researcher on illicit economies who first uncovered the use of ephedra with colleagues in 2018, told TRT World that, “It is far cheaper to get plants from the mountains than import cough syrup from Iran and Pakistan.”
Afghan meth cooks informed Mansfield and his team that they had initially relied on medicine from Pakistan as a source of precursor material, but that had been too expensive and they “halved production costs” by using ephedra.
The wholesale price of meth in Afghanistan was around €237 ($286) per kilogram last year, compared with €2,537 ($3,062) per kilogram recorded in Myanmar in 2019. Prices are so low that they could even harm the industry, according to Mansfield.
The rise of Afghan meth production was highlighted in 2019, when the US dismantled 68 meth labs and reportedly refrained from targeting a further 32 suspected labs due to the risk of civilian casualties.
Several months ago US intelligence reportedly uncovered “dozens” of meth labs “producing drugs with a street value in the West of over $1 billion”.
Mansfield and his team conducted fieldwork in the districts of Bakwa and Khash Rud, where, using informants and satellite imagery, they located 329 suspected ephedrine labs. Their findings were documented in a report last year for the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA).
He is now concluding additional research in Khash Rud, where 119 potential facilities have been identified so far. His findings will be released in the summer. “We are aware of labs in other areas but have not had [the] chance to investigate further,” Mansfield said.
The Taliban derive significant income from ephedra and meth, but drug revenues have in the past been exaggerated and the group earns much more from taxing fuel and transit goods, according to Mansfield.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid denied that the group was taxing meth and its ingredients, saying “We have no ties with drug crops grown by the civilian population, do not tax it and cannot take action against it because we are engaged in a war.”
The internationalisation of Afghan meth
As evidence of meth production in Afghanistan mounts, the issue is receiving growing attention from the international community. It was mentioned repeatedly at a side event on synthetic drugs at the United Nations Commission on Narcotics Drugs in April.
Martin Raithelhuber, an illicit synthetic drugs expert at the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told TRT World that “We are concerned about this being a new trend and an additional problem that Afghanistan has to deal with.”
“Meth has been on the upswing around the world,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, Director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors at the Brookings Institution. “The fact that it has moved to Afghanistan is in some ways very consistent with global trends.”
The use of ephedra to produce meth is “very significant”, Felbab-Brown told TRT World, but comes with possible downsides. The plant can only be grown at certain times of year and in specific places, and is vulnerable to climatic conditions.
An advantage of purely synthetic meth is “that one doesn’t need to control large territories” to harvest plants, she said. “All that’s needed is the basement of a house.” Laboratory manufacture is also less labour-intensive than ephedra-based production.
The surge of Afghan meth appears to be fuelling a domestic substance abuse crisis. And there are signs that the drug is being trafficked abroad. The pattern of meth seizures in neighbouring countries points to Afghanistan, Martin Raithelhuber said.
Trafficking to Iran is increasing, according to a new report by the EMCDDA. Between March and November 2020, Iran seized ten tons of meth, nine of which apparently came from Afghanistan.
From Iran, meth could be moved across the porous northern border with Iraq or along established opiate trafficking routes to Turkey and onto Europe. Seizures in Turkey rose significantly in 2019-20, according to UNODC.
Pakistan is another destination. The country reportedly has a large and growing consumer market for the drug, according to articles in the Pakistani media and sources in drug treatment centres.
“There is a huge, rampant use of ‘ice’ - crystal meth - right now,” said Syed Farhan Shakeel, head of corporate affairs and general secretary to the board of trustees at the Alleviate Addiction Suffering (AAS) Trust, an institution based in Karachi.
In Peshawar, near the Afghan border, there is a “big, big crisis” of meth abuse, according to Parveen Azam Khan, founder and president of the Dost Foundation, a local treatment centre. “There has been a veritable epidemic among the younger generation,” Dr Khan said.
Neither Pakistan’s Anti Narcotics Force nor its Ministry of Interior would confirm or deny that large amounts of meth were being trafficked from Afghanistan. The Afghan government did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment.
A US State Department official said that “We continue to provide support to the Afghan government’s efforts to counter the illegal drug trade, including combating methamphetamine trafficking,” noting that specialised units seized 646 kgs of meth in 2020.
Afghan meth production likely exceeds what can be consumed in Pakistan and Iran, suggesting it is trafficked elsewhere. “It made little sense that Afghan drug producers would build this capacity to produce meth if there was no market,” Mansfield told TRT World.
And, indeed, there are signs of Afghan meth penetrating more distant markets. Seizures of the drug in Indonesia and Sri Lanka were traced back to Afghanistan. Chemical sampling of meth seized in Australia revealed it had been made from a plant, likely Afghan ephedra.
New research by the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime (GITOC) also shows that Afghan meth has started moving along established opiate trafficking routes to Africa, where it arrives in Mozambique or Tanzania and transits overland to South Africa.
South Africa has long been known as a meth market. But its domestic production declined in the mid-2010s and meth was sourced instead from West Africa, particularly Nigeria, where the drug was produced with technical support from one of the Mexican cartels.
But GITOC has revealed a new supply chain originating in South Asia. “Meth produced in Afghanistan is being smuggled through Pakistan and via traditional heroin maritime trafficking routes to eastern and southern Africa,” its report states.
Multiple informants confirmed the influx of potent Afghan crystal meth, comparable in quality to the ‘Mexican meth’ manufactured in Nigeria. Chemical analysis provided further evidence that the drug came from Afghanistan.
The pandemic has not caused long-term disruption to the Afghan narcotics trade. The pattern of meth seizures shows that “the manufacture of the drug in Afghanistan has continued” according to UNODC.
In Africa, “meth supply chains have experienced little disruption during the COVID-19 pandemic,” according to GITOC’s report. “As this research has demonstrated, prices have declined throughout 2020.”
The heroin trade has also survived the coronavirus. Deborah Lyons, head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), recently informed the Security Council that opium poppy cultivation had increased in 2020 “by over a third”.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan could lead to a further surge in drug production and trafficking. Even if peace talks produce a new government capable of cracking down on the narcotics trade, it will be difficult to achieve lasting results.
Many Afghans depend on narcotics for their livelihoods and would likely suffer if a ban was imposed. In 2000-2001, the Taliban prohibited opium poppy cultivation, triggering a humanitarian crisis.
While the US war might be ending, Afghanistan’s drug trade is here to stay.