BAKWA, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s fastest-growing drug industry operates from desert outposts in plain view.
One of its most bustling hubs, five hours west of Kandahar, can only be reached by miles of dirt tracks that lead to a row of dusty shops topped with Taliban flags. Wholesalers like Abdulwadood work openly here, moving dozens of kilos of methamphetamine every week.
In the middle of his crowded shop, he casually tosses a half-kilo bag of long glassy shards onto the carpet. Its street value in Europe is tens of thousands of dollars. Abdulwadood will sell it for about $250.
“Every year, sales and production just increase and increase,” he said, speaking on the condition that only his first name be used to discuss the illicit drug industry. Behind him the rest of his stock was piled in a corner. He expected to sell the roughly 20 kilos of shisha — the Afghan term for meth — in just a few days.
For decades, the country has been a global hub for opium production, estimated to supply 80 percent of the world’s opiate users. Now its meth industry is growing at breakneck speed, stoking fears among Western experts and officials that, under the Taliban, Afghanistan could become a major supplier as demand rises globally.
Hundreds of meth labs have appeared in Afghanistan over the past six years, according to independent experts, former government officials and drug traders. And more are being built each month as the country’s economic crisis forces Afghans to find new sources of income. The vast majority of meth produced is for export, but an increasing number of Afghans are turning to it as their drug of choice.
The sudden boom in meth production came after drug traffickers discovered a potential bonanza in a native plant called ephedra — known here as oman — which grows wild and is a natural source of the drug’s key ingredient.
Sellers at the meth bazaar in rural western Afghanistan have long been free to ply their trade. The previous government largely turned a blind eye, said Abdulwadood, and the Taliban have taken the same approach since coming to power. Though Taliban fighters sometimes inspect the market, they have not tried to shut it down.
“The only reason we are in this business is because there are no other jobs,” Abdulwadood said. “Of course, if the economy gets worse, more people will start producing shisha.” – Susannah George and Joby Warrick