Afghanistan's Kandahar Airfield an alleged heroin hotbed
Toor Jan was clearly nervous when he arrived at the guesthouse in Kandahar, Afghanistan. “If my boss found out I did this, he will shoot me,” the young heroin dealer told the Georgia Straight in an interview.
Toor Jan (not his real name) described last March how he sold large amounts of heroin to Afghan translators working at two NATO bases in Kandahar who, in turn, resold the heroin to NATO soldiers.
Toor Jan said he and his partner were selling from 270 grams to one kilogram of heroin weekly to the translators working at Kandahar Airfield—until recently headquarters of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan—and at Kandahar City’s Camp Nathan Smith, former home of the Canadian provincial reconstruction team.
It’s enough to get 2,700 to 10,000 users high. The street value in Vancouver would be $54,000 to $200,000.
It works out to about 14 to 52 kilograms annually, worth up to approximately $10.4 million. (Toor Jan said his boss employs two other teams of dealers who sell similar amounts of heroin to translators at the NATO bases.) In comparison, Canadian police seize only about 70 kilos of heroin in an average year in all of Canada.
Toor Jan said he had heard that some foreign contractors also buy heroin and are involved in smuggling it through Kandahar’s airport but that they “normally deal with other people, not with small guys like us”.
A Kandahar district official who has extensive knowledge of the heroin trade also said some foreign contractors and NATO military personnel are involved in trafficking heroin by plane to North America out of Afghan airports that are under NATO control.
“They have Afghan people who go through the process and purchase the drugs for them. Once it is acquired, they bring it to them, and they smuggle it to North America,” the official said in an interview in a Kandahar guesthouse. “They use the airports.”
(It is Georgia Straight policy to include anonymous sources in stories only in exceptional circumstances, such as when sources’ safety or employment could be jeopardized if their names were revealed. Wherever possible, their identities are confirmed with editors, and—to the extent possible—the Straight corroborates their information with named sources.)
The accounts give a rare glimpse into how some NATO personnel and contractors seem to have gotten ensnared in Afghanistan’s multibillion-dollar narco economy, which supplies 90 percent of the world’s opium, the raw ingredient of heroin.
Canada and other NATO powers have long been accused of turning a blind eye to a 15-fold increase in Afghan opium production since 2001 (according to UN figures) and cozying up to Afghan warlords and officials reputed to be involved with drugs.
But these new accounts suggest NATO’s presence helps fuel the gigantic Afghan drug trade.
The accounts are reminiscent of the Vietnam War, when U.S. forces befriended opium-dealing warlords in Southeast Asia and many U.S. soldiers became addicted to heroin, with some smuggling it back home.
A Canadian military historian said the notion that NATO soldiers are buying heroin in Afghanistan and smuggling it out is “completely plausible”.
“It doesn’t surprise me at all. That’s the way things are there,” Sean Maloney, associate professor of history at the Royal Military College, said by phone from Kingston, Ontario.
“In an environment like that, anything is possible.”
With between 200 and 700 daily flights, the Kandahar Airfield is the world’s busiest single-runway airport. The airfield/NATO base is the size of a small city, home to 30,000 NATO troops and contractors and, until recently, headquarters of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan.
The last Canadian troops left KAF on December 12 as the military assumes its new role training the Afghan army, mostly in Kabul, near the country’s border with Pakistan.
It’s easy to see how drugs could flood into KAF. A reporter from the Straight experienced only a cursory security check at KAF’s outer gate in a visit last spring. Inside is a large area housing thousands of Afghan and foreign contractors.
A second, more heavily guarded, gate controls entry to the NATO compound, but NATO troops and contractors can easily mingle between the two gates.
An Afghan source who works at KAF said Afghan contractors are widely known to bring in heroin for their own use and for use by NATO troops.
“It is dangerous and stressful work. They are in constant fear. So they use heroin to feel invincible and calm,” he said in an interview in Kandahar City.
He said some Afghan shopkeepers with stalls at the weekly base bazaar also bring in heroin.
“You’re dealing with a frontier town,” Maloney said of KAF. “I call it Deadwood.”
Maloney is an adviser to Canadian Forces chief of the land staff Lt.-Gen. Peter Devlin and has travelled to Afghanistan 10 times. The army has commissioned Maloney to write the history of its involvement in Afghanistan.
Maloney stressed that he was speaking as an RMC professor, not for the Canadian military.
He said KAF seems to have become an important new smuggling waypoint in recent years. The new route emerged as Afghan heroin barons sought to seize more profits by circumventing Pakistani middlemen who traditionally processed opium into heroin and smuggled it abroad through the Pakistani port of Karachi.
“They realized that with an airport [in Kandahar], they can cut the Pakistanis out,” he said.
Toor Jan said his Afghan translator clients smuggle heroin into KAF in their shoes. He said he charges them US$20 to $25 for a package of three or four grams of heroin (locals pay the equivalent of only about $6), which they resell to NATO soldiers for $40 to $50. (Each package would have a street value of $600 to $800 in Vancouver.)
“Since the foreigners are not allowed to drink liquor, they use heroin and other drugs,” he said.