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.
Allegations of NATO troops smuggling Afghan heroin have surfaced before. Last year, the Sunday Times in London reported that British authorities were investigating whether British soldiers in Helmand province and Canadian soldiers at KAF were smuggling heroin.
An Afghan drug dealer told the Times: “Most of our other customers, apart from drug lords in foreign countries, are the military.…So most of the foreigners who do these deals are the military.
“As I have heard, they are carrying these drugs in the military airlines.”
Canadian defence officials said at the time that they had no evidence of smuggling by Canadian troops.
A retired Canadian military police captain told the Straight in a phone interview that it is common knowledge that opium is available at KAF.
“Oh, yeah, that’s open source. It’s endemic across the country,” said Wayne Boone, now vice president of the Canadian Intelligence and Military Police Association and assistant professor of international affairs at Ottawa’s Carleton University, in a phone interview. “You’ve got Afghan nationals coming in and out [of KAF] with impunity and background checks focusing only on their loyalty. It does stand to reason that opium products may be brought in.”
Boone also said Canadian soldiers flying home from Afghanistan aren’t normally subject to thorough searches. “It’s not typical to search every bag unless there’s cause.”
The Afghan opium business also seems to have gotten an unexpected boost from Canada’s much-lauded $50-million project to rebuild Kandahar’s irrigation network.
Maloney said the signature project has helped opium producers irrigate their poppies. He said he warned Canadian officials about the risk at a meeting in Kandahar in 2005. He was told not to worry because Afghan farmers were to be weaned off opium with alternative-crop programs. But those programs didn’t work, he said.
Two former Canadian soldiers said opium use among Afghan police, soldiers, and translators was widespread and sometimes posed operational problems.
“We couldn’t take Afghans out [on patrol] because they were all rolling around in a ditch, too high to cock their weapons,” said Matthew Young, who served in Afghanistan in 2006.
“We tended not to rely on Afghans for our own security,” he said by phone from Edmonton, where he lives.
Grant Custer, a Canadian artillery captain who served in Afghanistan in 2008 and 2009, said some Canadian military units in Kandahar also experienced problems with Afghan translators who used opium. “We were told to watch out for that, especially if we took them with us. They just couldn’t do their job properly,” he said by phone from Hamilton, Ontario.
A Canadian military spokesman said he has no evidence that Canadian soldiers or Afghan translators smuggled heroin out of Kandahar.
“If something was wrong with Canadian employees, action would have been taken,” Lt.-Col. Chris Lemay said by phone from Ottawa.
Lemay also said NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), not Canada, was responsible for security at KAF. Asked about drug use by Afghan soldiers, he said: “Any allegations that they would have been under the influence and difficult to work with—sure, this is Afghanistan.”
He also acknowledged that opium producers could have benefited from the Canadian irrigation project but said that it was still worthwhile because it helped Afghan farmers.
An ISAF official in Kandahar emailed the Straight a statement saying ISAF “supports a drug-free work environment and the vast majority of ISAF personnel live up to these standards”.
The Afghan source working at KAF said base security hasn’t changed in the eight months since the Straight first asked Canadian and NATO officials about the smuggling.
This story was done in collaboration with the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting and was supported by a grant from the Open Society Foundations. The CCIR’s Bilbo Poynter contributed additional reporting.