Recent years have seen a massive upswing in the production of ephedra and methamphetamine from the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan. David Mansfield, the Organisation for Sustainable Development and Research and Alex Soderholm give a detailed account of how methamphetamine is produced from its precursor plant, oman, and distributed across Afghanistan and beyond into Iran and Pakistan. What we still don’t know, they write, is how far the trade goes, and just who is profiting from the business.
For the last three years, traders have been travelling to Taywara in the mountains of the central province of Ghor in Afghanistan to purchase a crop that had previously only ever been used for firewood. Growing wild in the mountains, the crop, known locally as ‘oman’, is a source of ephedrine which is the key precursor in the production of methamphetamine. Dried, threshed and packed this crop is then transported by truck to Farah in the south west, and possibly other provinces, to be processed into what has become increasing known as ‘sheesha’ in Afghanistan, and ‘shisheh’ in Iran – due to its ‘glass’-like shards that are crushed and subsequently smoked or injected.
It is not just the district of Taywara in Ghor that has witnessed this flourishing trade in oman. Traders are also purchasing the crop in the districts of Pasaband, Saghar, Sharak and Tulak in Ghor. Furthermore, previous research by LSE has shown that since 2018, traders from Farah and Helmand have been buying oman in a number of other districts as well.
This trade has evolved and flourished largely unbeknownst to both Afghan and international law enforcement communities. Seizures of methamphetamine in Afghanistan have been minimal until recently, and conventional wisdom has had it that the meth seized had been manufactured in neighbouring Iran, or possibly Pakistan.
Yet, the emergence of an increasingly mature and vibrant market for oman indicates there is a sizeable and flourishing methamphetamine industry in Afghanistan. With the oman crop grown across the mountainous areas of Bamiyan, Daykundi, Herat, Ghazni, Ghor, Helmand, Kabul, Uruzgan and Wardak, one has to wonder just how large methamphetamine production has become in Afghanistan and where it is all going.
From firewood to precursor
In the past, oman had few economic benefits. In Ghazni, small amounts of the crop were harvested and sold to stores in the provincial centre, where it was then sent on to India as a medicinal plant. In Guldara district, in the province of Kabul, it was used in local medicines for the treatment of gastrointestinal problems and kidney disease, while in Taywara the crop was used for no more than firewood until 3 years ago, to cook food and heat the home during the cold winter months.
Large Oman bushes in the mountains of Ghazni.
This was all to change with the infant methamphetamine industry that was developing in the deserts of south west Afghanistan. Prior to the discovery that oman could be used in the production of methamphetamine, the labs used decongestants in the form of syrups or tablets as their source of pseudoephedrine. Imported from Pakistan and Iran the cost of these inputs was high, so high that lab owners reportedly made losses when they came to sell the final product to Iranian traders and users.
It’s clear is that the discovery of oman significantly reduced the production costs for methamphetamine in Afghanistan; some lab owners say by as much as half. In doing so it created a boon for those in the mountainous highlands of Afghanistan, too cold and too dry for opium poppy and cannabis cultivation.
Fresh, dried and threshed
The oman harvest is not easy. Those involved must climb the mountains and move from one rocky outcrop to another, cutting and packing the crop as they go. Some agility is required, but there is no need for specific tools – this isn’t opium poppy- just a blade or sickle for cutting, a large bag and possibly a donkey to transport the day’s harvest back to the village.
One of the distinct advantages of harvesting a crop with such high demand is that the traders come to you – a helpful feature for those living high up in the mountains unfamiliar with such developed markets. Harvesting up to 45 kilograms per day in Taywara, an adult can earn around US$30 per day during the current harvest season, a significant downturn from 2017 when the price of oman was almost four times as high.
Typically, the crop is sold to traders from Bakwa and Gulistan in Farah and from Delarem in Nimroz, but a growing number of local traders and transporters that have emerged in Taywara itself. During the harvest season traders set up shop in the foothills of these mountains, purchasing anything from 100 to 300 kilograms of fresh oman per day.
Once the crop is purchased, the traders dry it in the open air for around 25 days before it is threshed. Packed in large orange or white bags and weighing in at around 70 kg, the oman is loaded onto trucks to be taken the 110-kilometre journey by road to Gulistan and then a further 90 kilometres to Bakwa.
From crop to crystal
The journey to the factories from the mountains in Taywara is arduous. The roads are particularly bad, and the round trip can take as long as 12 days. Only a fraction of the route could be considered under “government control”, and travellers risk being robbed by thieves along the way.
The demand for monies from various armed actors begins immediately in Taywara. Here, the Taliban charge a tax as the crop is loaded, the equivalent of US$0.07 per kilogram. Not much on a crop that is worth the equivalent of $3.20 per kilogram by the time it is sold in Bakwa. However, when levied on a load of 15 metric tonnes, it can earn the insurgency as much $1,000 per truck.
The next payments are further down the road in the province of Farah. There it is the turn of the Afghan authorities to take their cut, demanding anything from US$100 to US $150 per truck in both Parchaman district and in Delarem district in Nimroz.
Once in Abdul Wadood bazaar in Bakwa, the orange bags of oman are unloaded from the truck. The truck driver’s job is done, paid anything from US$1,125 to US$1,150 for the trip he can now take the long journey back to Taywara to collect his next load.
In Abdul Wadood bazaar, the oman traders once again take control of their crop. From their location in the open ground to the north of the main shops, the traders set up stall, selling the dried and threshed crop to the lab owners in the surrounding area. Here numerous trucks can be seen (including one torched during a previous raid by the Afghan authorities), surrounded by the tell-tale signs of orange bags, and piles of oman in both its dried and milled forms.
Once the dried oman crop is unloaded in Abdul Wadood bazaar it is sold to the meth labs
As time has passed lab owners have become more discerning customers of oman, and their cooks better at processing it. Now they expect to extract 12 kilogrammes of ‘F’, i.e. ephedrine, from 450 kg of oman. From 12 kilogrammes of ‘F’, they can produce 8 kilograms of methamphetamine. Conversion rates have improved markedly, and the owners will return and request a discounted price from the oman trader if the expected amount of meth is not produced. Once satisfied of the quality of the oman, the lab owner pays the trader, arranges for the crop to be milled into a flour-like consistency, and then hires a local driver to transport it to the lab for processing.
A downturn in the meth economy
All of those involved in the meth economy say it is not what it was. From those harvesting the oman crop in the mountains to those transporting the milled product from the bazaar to the labs, all of them talk of a fall in the price for their product or services over the last 12 months, most of them saying by as much as half.
The economic impact of this downturn is perhaps most apparent in Abdul Wadood bazaar, as this is a focal point in the meth economy and has experienced rapid growth over the last three years.
Most of the shops in this bazaar service the methamphetamine and heroin labs of the district and beyond. They sell precursors such as toluene, salt and caustic soda, as well as an assortment of equipment including plastic barrels and pots, presses and cloth for filters, there is a consensus amongst shop owners that there has been a reduction in trade over the last year, particularly during the last 6 months.
In fact, some shops have closed, and the tenants have returned to their villages in Helmand, Nimruz and other parts of Farah. Even those shopkeepers from Bakwa itself have all but shut their premises in the bazaar and now conduct any residual trade from their homes. Others continue to open their stores, conscious that there is still money to be made even if it is at less profit.
Almost all blame the dramatic fall in methamphetamine prices for the economic lull. In the last year the price per kilogram has fallen from US$700 to as low as US$250. The price of heroin hyrdochloride, “crystal” has taken a similar but not quite so steep trajectory, falling from US$2,765 to US$1,400, leading many to speculate the wider effects of the collapse in the Iranian economy and the significant devaluation in the Rial are really to blame.
The raids on Abdul Wadood bazaar have not helped. On 22 April the bazaar was attacked in the night by the Afghan authorities; shops were destroyed and trucks were torched along with the oman they contained. There were two further raids, the combination of which led to growing uncertainty amongst the traders in Abdul Wadood. To offset the risk of losing their capital, many shopkeepers elected to keep their inventory at home.
A meth lab in Bakwa, Farah still functioning despite a downturn in both oman and meth prices and recent interdiction efforts
Although there is a notable reduction in oman and sheesha prices from the previous year, business continues. Trucks of dried oman arrive each day in Abdul Wadood bazaar from multiple locations in the central highlands waiting to be unloaded.
Workers can still be seen in the bazaar milling the dried oman, and there remains a plethora of trucks plying the deserts of Bakwa delivering oman and other inputs to the numerous methamphetamine labs that can be found there. Furthermore, new labs are emerging even in the face of this economic downturn. The meth business is down but definitely not out.
Known knowns, known unknowns and totally clueless
Former US Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld, in looking to justify the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the failure to find a link between Sadam Hussein’s government and the provision of Weapons of Mass Destruction and terrorist groups famously talked of the things we know we know, the things we know we don’t know and a whole world of the opaque, where we have don’t have the faintest idea of just how ignorant we are. When it comes to the methamphetamine industry in Afghanistan there is much we have no knowledge of, and plenty that appears to makes no sense at all.
In fact, our research so far seems to raise more questions than answers. Upon realising that an ephedra-based crop was being used in the production of methamphetamine in September 2018 – after seeing oman soaking in plastic barrels in remote meth labs in Bakwa – we looked to develop a better understanding of what it meant for Afghanistan and the region. Tracking the crop back to the wholesale in Bakwa, and its origins in the mountains of Ghor and Ghazni, revealed just how widespread production had become. But there remains so much that we still don’t know.
The biggest unknown is the scale of the oman harvest and how much of it is then converted into meth. The research we have done so far has only scratched the surface and suggests there is significant productive capacity within Afghanistan. For example, a typical harvester in Taywara in Ghor will talk of working from 30 to 40 days over the course of the harvest season, alongside up to 12 other people from the same village. Harvesting up to 45 kilograms per day, one village could produce as much as 22 metric tons of oman per year, enough to produce 390 kilograms of meth.
In the district of Taywara alone, there are as many as 1400 villages located at the foothills of mountains of 2500 metres or higher – an altitude at which the crop appears to thrive. But we have no idea how many of these villages, and the villages in neighbouring districts and provinces where oman is also grown, are harvesting oman and bringing it down from the mountains to sell.
We are equally ignorant of the scale of the trade and its reach within Afghanistan. Those hired to transport the crop from Taywara to Gulistan and Bakwa report doing the round trip up to ten times a season and moving as much as 130 metric tons per year. The oman traders themselves claim even larger loads purchasing up to 180 metric tons of oman a season. But we remain completely ignorant of how many trucks and traders are to be found in the mountainous hinterlands of Bamiyan, Dai Kundy, Ghazni, Ghor, Herat, Kabul, Uruzgan and Wardak where the oman crop is grown. And it is worth recognising that just one 15 metric ton truck of oman is enough to produce around 265 kilograms of methamphetamine.
The same is true of number of methamphetamine labs and the scale of production. We know there are significant numbers – enough for USFOR-A to destroy 68 meth labs in one single day with a further 32 in the cross hairs omitted on the day for fear of civilian casualties. But we do not know how many labs continue to operate and what their productive capacity is. There are new methamphetamine labs emerging in other parts of Farah, highlighting the continued profitability of production even in the face of falling prices. But where else in Afghanistan might methamphetamine labs be found and how long is it before those in the mountains establish them there?
The biggest unknown is of course where all this methamphetamine is going. It is clear production in Afghanistan far exceeds the quantities being consumed there. In fact, it would seem to be far in excess of what we understand about consumption and production in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe.
Over the past decade, Iran has evolved into one of the largest methamphetamine markets in the region, whereby its consumption, and polydrug use of methamphetamine and heroin, has become increasingly prevalent over the past decade. The use of methamphetamine stretches across demographics but is particularly common among labourers and transporters working long hours, and also among youth and young adults who report using it for sex-related reasons in a country that has extremely punitive laws against pre-marital relations. In terms of methamphetamine supply, until recently, Iran was assumed to be the source of major methamphetamine production both for domestic consumption and export – albeit in small amounts. But efforts by the Iranian authorities has seemingly suppressed production there, as shown by the large reduction in dismantled methamphetamine labs over the past few years – from a high of 414 in 2013 down to 141 in 2017 according to the Iranian Drug Control Headquarters.
How far afield does Afghan meth travel?
There are several stories of knowledge-transfer by Iranian meth producers across the region, setting up labs in places such as India and Southeast Asia, and even in Japan. Our research has already shown the outreach undertaken by Iranian meth traders into Afghanistan as a way of securing supply in the face of greater restrictions on the diversion of pseudoephedrine, regulatory restrictions on over-the-counter decongestants, and increased law-enforcement pressure on kitchen labs. Iranian law enforcement have reported that meth production is easier to stamp out, by arresting users and forcing them to give up their suppliers – who are often much more closely linked to the production source vis-à-vis the long supply chain of opium and heroin that originates in Afghanistan, rendering supply reduction and law enforcement interventions more effective against suppressing meth production. Moreover, there are signs that the prevalence of Afghan meth might already be impacting on the Iranian consumer; consumers report a reduction in the purity and falling prices.
Pakistan is also a likely destination for Afghan meth. Sheesha has certainly become the drug of choice amongst the young and wealthy in the cities of Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar, and there are signs that methamphetamine has been smuggled from Pakistan out through the Makran coast, a route long used by those exporting heroin from Afghanistan. But like Iran, it has been assumed that much of the meth that is being consumed and smuggled from Pakistan is made in Pakistan or in Iran itself. India is of course another possibility in South Asia. With a prospering middle class, growing party culture and increasing transport links to Afghanistan and Iran it would seem a likely target. But where is the evidence?
Across the Middle East, there are several countries that are at risk of becoming importers of Afghan meth. Iraq and Syria have increasingly been cited as experiencing a rapid uptake in methamphetamine use, but that too has typically been assessed as having been produced in-country. Saudi Arabia reportedly consumes vast amounts of captagon pills and amphetamines, some of which have been found to contain methamphetamine. Yet, whilst ephedra can be used in its production, there is little to link what’s consumed there to production in Afghanistan. The Gulf states are another possible market, but they have seized little methamphetamine. And while in the past the Kingdom of Bahrain has made significant seizures of methamphetamine, seizing just over 1 metric ton in 2016, this was very much an anomaly and it was always assumed that the suppliers were not in Afghanistan.
And what of Europe? Official records indicate methamphetamine consumption is concentrated in the Czech Republic and the Netherlands, and both have productive capacity of their own. Why would those trading meth using well established contacts and methods source their product from further afield and from plant-based production? And how would consumers react to any perceived change in quality?
A review of what we do know about the market for methamphetamine in the region and Europe – which is admittedly rather limited – does lead us to the most challenging aspect of the rapid growth in the methamphetamine industry in Afghanistan. And that is, what is the need for the scale of the productive capacity that has developed there?
After all, the relative ease by which precursors in most meth consuming nations can be obtained, and the rudimentary chemistry required, suggests it might be easier to produce methamphetamine closer to where it is ultimately consumed. Are there enough consumers out there to absorb what is being produced from oman in Afghanistan? Will the lower production costs of ephedra-based methamphetamine help penetrate new consumer markets, possibly aided by the well-trodden smuggling routes for heroin? Or is what is occurring in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan a market anomaly that will be corrected, and in time oman will simply go back to being used as firewood, and no longer a source of revenue for drug traffickers, corrupt government officials and the insurgency in Afghanistan? Or is there possibly something about this development in Afghanistan where we aren’t even aware what we don’t know or even what questions to ask?
Note: This article gives the views of the authors, and not the position of USAPP– American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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About the authors
David Mansfield – Independent Consultant
David Mansfield is an Independent Consultant. He has been conducting research on rural livelihoods and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan for 23 consecutive growing seasons. He has a PhD in development studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, he is the author of A State Built on Sand: How Opium Undermined Afghanistan, and he is on the editorial board of the Journal of Illicit Economies and Development. David has also worked for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit since 2005.
Organisation for Sustainable Development and Research (OSDR) – OSDR are an Afghan non government organization based in Kabul. The core team at OSDR have worked together since 1983 and with David Mansfield on a wide range of research projects since 2003.
Alexander Soderholm – Policy Coordinator, LSE International Drug Policy Unit (IDPU), LSE US Centre
Alexander Soderholm is the Policy Coordinator of the IDPU. He holds an MSc in International Development and Humanitarian Emergencies from the LSE, and is currently an MPhil/PhD Candidate in Social Policy at the LSE Department of Social Policy. His PhD project is titled ‘Drugs, Livelihoods, and Development: The Role of Illicit Markets in Determining Development Outcomes’.