Though famed for its role at the heart of the global heroin trade, recent years have seen a huge increase in the production of methamphetamine in the mountains of Afghanistan. In a few short years, meth production in Afghanistan has grown to the extent that it may be supplying markets as far afield as South Africa and Australia.
Until recently, neighboring Iran was home to the most mature regional market for the production and consumption of methamphetamine. Use of meth alongside heroin has become increasingly common in Iran over the past decade. However, as research from David Mansfield and Alex Soderholm of the London School of Economics has brought to light, increased law-enforcement pressure and regulation of precursor chemicals in Iran has curtailed large-scale meth production in the country. Meth producers from Iran appear to have maintained a level of production by passing on the skills and knowledge for meth manufacture to counterparts in Afghanistan. This was a natural development as the necessary precursor chemicals – such as ephedrine – are now more widely available in Afghanistan.
At the same time, the area of Afghanistan under opium-poppy cultivation dropped sharply in 2018 and the estimated opium production fell by 29% on the previous year. These decreases, in particular in the northern and western regions, were attributed mainly to the impact of a severe drought. For opium-poppy farmers reliant on the crop as a significant contributor to their agricultural livelihoods, the new methods of producing methamphetamine became a lucrative alternative. As a result, an abundance of artisanal “meth labs” quickly emerged in these regions, large swathes of which previously had been dominated only by opium.
Yet the real breakthrough came when it became known that the ephedra plant – a common shrub known locally as oman that grows abundantly across northern and central Afghanistan – contained a naturally occurring form of ephedrine, one of the key precursor chemicals required to produce crystal methamphetamine. Ephedra has therefore become a game changer for Afghan meth production as it provided a secure domestic supply of the necessary precursor and significantly shortened the production supply chain, therefore substantially lowering overall manufacturing costs. As a result, Afghanistan has seen a surge in meth production, distribution and use.
In response to this sudden emergence of widespread meth production in Afghanistan, the US (under the banner of the International Security Assistance Force) embarked on a bombing campaign in May 2019. The intention of this initiative was to destroy many of the so-called “meth labs” which had spread throughout the poppy-growing region of the country and, unlike opium (an agricultural product), could remain an active, year-round security threat. The campaign was justified on the grounds that it aimed to deny a new revenue stream to the Taliban by preventing them from taxing these new drug-production facilities and their flows. However, this drew criticism from observers, who argued that the meth labs were not lawful military targets (and could in any case be reconstructed with relative ease) and that the estimated revenue denied to the Taliban had been vastly overstated. Opposition to the strikes also mounted after it was revealed that they had resulted in the deaths of at least 30 civilians.
While other cultures use the ephedra plant to create crystal meth, the scale of Afghanistan’s still emerging ephedrine industry surpasses any other previously documented, according to the EMCDDA (European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction).
The report’s researchers mapped out over 300 suspected ephedrine labs in just one Afghan district in the country’s southwest, Bakwa, using satellite imagery and information gleaned from interviews with Afghan drug producers in August. Dr. Mansfield said his team has also begun to identify meth labs elsewhere in the country.
Reports of Afghan-produced ephedrine being shipped to other provinces outside of Bakwa, “or being seized on the Afghan-Iranian border, suggest that production may be taking place in other parts of Afghanistan or in neighboring countries,” according to the study. “There are also increasing reports of methamphetamine connected with Afghanistan being seized further afield (e.g. Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Australia and countries in Africa).”
The EMCDDA discovered that methamphetamine production in Afghanistan is a simple, “two-tiered process” meaning even people in poor households have the ability to create ephedrine. The initial plant processors sell the extracted ephedrine on to more specialized “meth cooks,” who further refine the substance. The study’s researchers pinpointed ephedrine labs on satellite images in part by identifying the telltale byproducts of its processing nearby: dried ephedra crops and large quantities of wastewater.
Afghanistan’s Taliban terror group traditionally collects taxes on a wide range of industries operating within its controlled areas, and the newly booming meth industry is no exception. The EMCDDA estimated that the Taliban “could be earning in excess of $4 million a year from Bakwa district alone, depending on the quantity of ephedrine and methamphetamine being produced.”
The Taliban officially denies any links to Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade.
An Afghan drug smuggler told the BBC on condition of anonymity that the Taliban taxes both the farmers who harvest the ephedra crop and also those transporting the drug for sale.
“There are Taliban checkpoints everywhere, so you can’t hide it from them,” he said. ✪