Society /

Spotting the Afghan trucks trundling towards the frontier, Iran’s border guards will have felt little surprise. Deadly clashes with drug smugglers are commonplace – their war-torn neighbour is the world’s leading opium producer, with much of the substance passing through Iran on its way to the West. But this bust was different. Shisheh, the local name for methamphetamine, accounted for over half of the consignment. Afghan production of the notorious narcotic has exploded in recent years, intensifying the scarred state’s desperate drugs struggle.  

A staggering 850kg of meth was impounded by Iranian authorities during the border raid in April, the single largest shipment they’ve ever seized. It was the culmination of an extensive intelligence operation, and part of Tehran’s deepening war on drugs.

Ironic, perhaps, that Afghanistan’s burgeoning meth industry is rooted in this crackdown. As a shisheh production boom gripped Iran in the mid-2000s, Afghan workers were drafted in to man the makeshift ‘kitchen labs’. There, they learnt to mix pseudoephedrine – a key meth component extracted from consumer flu medication – with other ingredients. But strict Iranian restrictions on the sale of over-the-counter remedies soon curtailed production, forcing drugmakers to establish operations elsewhere. With a skilled up workforce and rampant lawlessness, Afghanistan was an obvious choice. 

But what the Taliban’s barren mountain fiefdoms offer in judicial scarcity, they lack in commercial pharmacies. And so Afghan meth makers have found a rather novel workaround – cultivation of the ephedra bush. Known locally as oman, this red-berried shrub is a natural source of pseudoephedrine. Plant-based production methods can halve the drugmakers’ costs, experts say, and so buckets of the stuff – soaking in water – can be found cluttering what were once solely heroin workshops.

Such is the demand, the price of ephedra has tripled in a year. Unlike opium poppies, the wiry bush grows best at high altitudes – and so whole mountain communities, previously sheltered from the narcotics trade, are being brought into the industry. In parts of Ghanzi, an area south of Kabul, the gathering of oman has become a daily job, supplementing household incomes by up to $125 a day. Experts believe the region can yield around two-and-a-half million kilograms of the plant in a single season, enough produce as much as 2,500kg of meth.          

For Taliban warlords, it’s a lucrative enterprise. Much like the heroin gangs before them, Afghanistan’s meth makers pay tax to the resurgent militants, who now hold sway over half the country. Desperate to cut off the group’s funding, Afghan authorities have upped their seizure efforts – where just a few kilos were impounded earlier in the decade, 180kg of shisheh was confiscated in 2018, with a whopping 650kg bagged in the first half of 2019 alone.

Militarily, the crackdown is intensifying too. In May, coalition warplanes bombed 68 meth factories in southwestern Afghanistan, destroying production equipment and killing workers. The sites were generating their Taliban overseers $7m a week, said American and Afghan officials – though analysts are sceptical.   

“[The reported loses] would have meant that each of these labs was producing almost 2.5 metric tons of powder each day,” said David Mansfield, a narcotics expert at the London School of Economics. “This would have required over 300,000 boxes of decongestants pills each day, or between 250 and 750 metric tons of ephedra based plant; a logistical impossibility given the size and nature of these labs”.   

Exaggerated or not, curtailment efforts will only ever be one part of the story. Taliban rule and endemic lawlessness may create the opportunity for drugmakers, but accelerating demand is what keeps them in business. Who precisely is buying the Afghan product remains unclear – but with an abundance of users and negligible domestic output, much of the stuff will doubtless end up in Iran. One country alone can’t account for the trade’s explosive growth, however. More likely than not, Afghan shisheh will be finding its way to Europe and the Arab world via well-trodden heroin trails.  

Afghanistan’s domestic market cannot be discounted, either. Beset with both a booming recreational scene and day-to-day dependency issues, the country is a facing a substance abuse crisis. The onset of meth is hitting existing addicts the hardest, experts say, exacerbated by a lack of understanding in official circles. 

“There is more and more methamphetamine in the country and it poses a problem for users,” said Martin Raithelhuber, a synthetic drugs expert at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “There is a lack of awareness among the treatment community and also the law enforcement community to deal with this issue, and to react properly – for example including methamphetamine into treatment guidelines and drug policy as a whole”.    

Afghan authorities need to catch up fast – with almost 200,000km2 of mountainous land fit for ephedra cultivation, their country’s shisheh gangs have no shortage of raw product. But such is the industry’s scale, domestic solutions alone will not suffice. If America’s Taliban peace talks founder – as it seems they have – illicit activity fostered by militants’ anarchic rule will endure. Similarly, crippled by US sanctions, Iran is struggling to curtail the movement of Afghan meth. If the two can’t settle their differences, penniless Tehran will have to dial down border operations. For those seeking to expand Afghanistan’s already diverse drugs portfolio, that’s good news. For everyone else, it’s a disaster.