Illicit Drug Trade Fuels Afghan Economy

November 20, 2006 at 6:25 PM EDT

ALEX THOMSON, ITV News Correspondent: The farmers of southern Afghanistan say it’s been the best opium harvest in decades. Ahmed Ollah is a small farmer, just a couple of acres. Some have a couple of hundred put out to poppy, year in, year out. And with 18 family members to support, he’s desperate for the opium cash. It will keep them all for the coming year.

AFGHAN OPIUM FARMER (through translator): We don’t have any other income, nor do we have any other jobs. Also, the government doesn’t provide any other options. If we had an alternative, we wouldn’t have been growing opium.

ALEX THOMSON: The government wants to provide people with alternative crops, but Habib, Ahmed’s brother, says the profits on things like wheat are hopeless.

AFGHAN OPIUM FARMER (through translator): The way things are right now, the margins on growing wheat on such a small area of land wouldn’t even cover the fuel costs of the machinery, so there’s no alternative. And if the smugglers are happy with the product, we have ourselves a deal.

ALEX THOMSON: Many, many people have themselves a deal. Right now across the country, the agents of the big smugglers fan out to the growers large and small. Mansour Khan’s one of the biggest smugglers, and his agents come to see Ahmad, to cut the deal on which his family will survive for the coming year.

AFGHAN OPIUM FARMER (through translator): We have some opium here.

OPIUM PURCHASER (through translator): Show me what you have.

AFGHAN OPIUM FARMER (through translator): Do you like the quality?

OPIUM PURCHASER (through translator): It’s OK, but it’s not quite dry.

AFGHAN OPIUM FARMER (through translator): That’s the best we could get, considering the bad weather. It will be good if it sells, because we really need the money.

OPIUM PURCHASER (through translator): It’s not really what I’m looking for, but considering your desperate situation, I can make you an offer.

ALEX THOMSON: Ahmad has 800 kilos of opium. He wants $50 a kilo. Mansour Khan’s agent offers $35. Ahmad counters with $40, and they settle on $37.

Successful crops offer employment

Mansour Khan
Opium Smuggler
I know it's illegal, but the fact is that we employ about 300 workers who, again, are responsible for the well-being of their families, so the life of many people depends on this business.

ALEX THOMSON: And here is where Mansour Khan lives. He's one of the country's larger opium exporters. Heavily armed guards surround the compound. Inside, the staff are enjoying a spot of cockfighting and a wager or two. Mansour Khan's delighted to welcome our team.

Confident, apparently invincible, his vast business isn't just a part of the community; it is the community. No signs of any government attempts here to eradicate the business.

MANSOUR KHAN, Opium Smuggler (through translator): I know it's illegal, but the fact is that we employ about 300 workers who, again, are responsible for the well-being of their families, so the life of many people depends on this business.

ALEX THOMSON: And the business is good.

MANSOUR KHAN (through translator): I've spent a bundle on this house. It's for my guests who need somewhere to stay.

ALEX THOMSON: As the tour of the villa unfolds, he says the government's not providing any alternative to opium. If it did, people would probably take it. But to make this business work, critics say he's cooperating with the Taliban.

MANSOUR KHAN (through translator): It's a total lie. They're making excuses. We have no connections with the Taliban whatsoever, and we are in this trade because we have to be.

ALEX THOMSON: He has smuggling operations across a vast area of Afghanistan, from Herat in the west around to Kandahar in the south. Often lucrative, sometimes lethal.

MANSOUR KHAN (through translator): Since most of our business is through Iran, we have to be flexible and use the whole border. That means operating from Herat down to Kandahar. We cannot have our own people everywhere, but we have local support in all these areas who are very loyal, even if it comes to clashes with security forces and people get killed.

But don't get me wrong: It's not just us who die. They also pay the price, because we are armed, too.

A dangerous journey

Smugglers in Eastern Afghanistan

ALEX THOMSON: So confident is Mansour Khan, he's invited our team to film two smuggling operations. The first, leaving very soon, will be a convoy of four-by-four vehicles. There's a final briefing for the smuggling team.

MANSOUR KHAN (through translator): I tell you, be careful during your journey. Before you go, check your cars properly and make sure there are no problems with them. Once you set off, it's a long journey, and there are no mechanics on the way.

Let me know if you are late or in any trouble, but never mention my name to anyone. Even if you want to get in touch with me, don't use your own telephone. Use only a pay phone to find another way. I'm warning you: The security forces are aware of things, and they're watching.

ALEX THOMSON: A toast of vodka for the road, and it's time to move. Outside, they're already loading up sacks of opium into the vehicles. According to Mansour Khan, without this trade, Afghanistan is ruined. "Tell that to the people who say we shouldn't do this," he says.

They head out west towards the frontier with Iran. It is a long, hot and dusty drive. Even through isolated villages, there is no stopping. All the while, the guards on watch, Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades at the ready. And several times, shots are exchanged.

"It's just the local police wanting bribes from us," the smugglers say. "We've paid them already. We're not paying again."

Finally, hours later, the light's getting low, and they reached the rendezvous with the scout. But there's no sign of him. They try calling up on the radio. It works, but the scout has bad news about the route up ahead.

SMUGGLER (through translator): How is the security up the road?

SMUGGLING SCOUT (through translator): It's dangerous.

SMUGGLER (through translator): Catch up with us fast.

ALEX THOMSON: Our team asks, "Are we close to the Iranian border then?"

SMUGGLER (through translator): Yes, it's over there, down there in that direction. It's the first Iranian post. Unfortunately, you have to get out of here now, because it's too dangerous.

ALEX THOMSON: At this moment, the scout finally appears in person.

SMUGGLER (through translator): How is the route?

SMUGGLING SCOUT (through translator): It doesn't look good.

SMUGGLER (through translator): Shall we go another way?

SMUGGLING SCOUT (through translator): Yes, you should.

SMUGGLER (through translator): Turn the car around, boys. Let's go through another route.

ALEX THOMSON: They said later the consignment of about 800 kilos of opium did get across into Iran with no problems. But back at his base, Mansour Khan has another smuggling run already set up in the coming days. It's the busiest time of year. He has convoys going almost continuously.

Smuggling across the Iranian border

Drug Smuggler
We use camel caravans... Because it is a good disguise. People on the road think we are nomads who are changing their grazing. That's common in this area.

ALEX THOMSON: Early in the journey, a hazardous river crossing, avoiding a nearby bridge complete with police post, another expensive consignment over the fast-flowing Helmand River in broad daylight. Tricky when you're shouldering a rocket-propelled grenade.

Waiting on the opposite bank, a camel caravan. The smugglers are quite happy to be asked about their trade.

JOURNALIST (through translator): So where are you heading to?

SMUGGLER (through translator): We are delivering to southeast, to Iran.

JOURNALIST (through translator): And how long are you on the road for?

SMUGGLER (through translator): It takes about three to four days.

JOURNALIST (through translator): And so how are you going to transport this?

SMUGGLER (through translator): We use camel caravans.

JOURNALIST (through translator): Why?

SMUGGLER (through translator): Because it is a good disguise. People on the road think we are nomads who are changing their grazing. That's common in this area.

ALEX THOMSON: This caravan, just one operation of many from one smuggler amongst scores. Hundreds of teams like this in four-by-fours or by camel, a key part in the industry which provides Afghanistan with the majority part of its gross national product.

Destroy this industry, and, quite obviously, you dismantle their national economy. So the caravans continue to plod their cargoes towards Iran and Pakistan.

The boss, Mansour Khan, knows Afghan opium is premier quality, fetching 30 percent more than opium from other countries. Get it right, and there's serious money to be made. Get it wrong, and it's a long jail sentence or, quite possibly, being shot in an ambush with the Afghan or Iranian security forces.

Tomorrow, these men will meet scouts from the next section of the journey, and our team cannot go further. But for now it's time to rest up, build up the fire, and then a stroke of luck. One smuggler's found a straying sheep which is slaughtered for supper.

Their plans were well-laid. Like the motorized convoy, this consignment of about 400 kilos reached its destination. Two smuggling runs, 1,200 kilos of Afghan opium, potentially 120 kilos of heroin. Street value in Europe: six million pounds.