Uruzgan province in central Afghanistan is fast becoming a major source of opium, and local informal powerbrokers are making millions of dollars from the trade.
The authorities appear powerless to act against major figures in the trade, who have occupied large swathes of land that in theory belongs to the state and are reaping huge rewards from the poppy trade, backed by small private armies.
Hajji Abdul Habib is a farmer from Shah Zafar village in the Darafshan Valley, northeast of the main provincial town Tarin Kowt, and has been growing poppy for years.
"I collect 12 kilograms of opium from one acre of land annually, and I sell it at 20,000 Pakistani rupees [200 US dollars] per kilogram," he said.
With his ten-acre plot, that suggests Abdul Habib is making 24,000 dollars a year. By the standards of the average Afghan, that is a lot of money. But compared with the bigger operators in Uruzgan, it is nothing.
Much of the production is taking place in Chora district, just 30 km northeast of Tarin Kowt, particularly in the Darafshan Valley, and in the nearby Mehrabad area.
IWPR looked into the activities of just one major landholder, who maintains an armed retinue and, according to locals interviewed for this article, pays off the Taleban so that he can operate unhindered.
A former militia commander, he says he serves neither the Kabul government nor the Taleban.
"I am a jihadi commander and a tribal elder of the Barakzai," he told IWPR, naming a Pashtun tribe strongly represented in his district.
The foundation of the “commander’s” business is 14 square kilometres of land in the Darafshan area of Chora. He says he uses about a fifth of the area to grow almond and apricot trees for himself, and leases the remaining 11 sq km out to local farmers, who grow opium poppy. He admits to growing some poppy on his own land as well
The “commander” goes around with a bodyguard of six armed men, and says that apart from them, "I only have 100 guards to protect my 3,500 acres of land, all of them equipped with Kalashnikovs or rifles."
An elder from a different tribe who has known him for years says the “commander’s” armed force really numbers around 300.
IWPR interviewed ten of these men and learned that the armed force was made up of roughly one son each from 300 families of the Barakzai tribe. In return, each families received housing and a lease of farmland.
Ahmad Shah from the village has joined the armed retinue, as has his 22-year-old son, while his two younger boys aged 14 and 16 years are growing opium on their plot .
Ahmad Shah takes his Kalashnikov even when he goes out to dig his land, saying of his patron, "I protect [his] land with my weapon, because he has given me both house and land."
Golab Khan, head of criminal investigation for the Afghan National Police in Uruzgan province, told IWPR "I am aware that [this individual] has armed men. The police have not given him weapons."
Asked why the police did not act to halt this unconcealed poppy cultivation, which is illegal in Afghanistan, he said that until 2011, government officials had been unable even to travel into Chora district because of the risk of Taleban attack.
The Taleban have a strong presence in Chora, as in much of the rest of Uruzgan.
Both the “commander” and the Taleban deny any financial transactions between them, but local people say the former is paying off the latter, calling it “zakat”, the tithe that Muslims are supposed to pay as part of their religious observance.
Hajji Abdulbari Khan Tokhi, a Ghilzai tribal elder from Chora district, alleged that this “zakat” was paid once a year, and together with other opium-derived funding was the only income source the insurgents had.
Tokhi said three Taleban commanders – Ghafur Mullah Wali Jan, Niazi Mullah Wali Jan and Mullah Taher – were operating in this part of Uruzgan, which comprised the Mohmand area of Chora district and the Darafshan, Roshan and Mehrabad valleys. Their men regularly collected “tax” from opium farmers, he added.
"Opium is grown over dozens of square kilometres in these three valleys. Everyone pays taxes to the Taleban, and the money may run into the millions of dollars in a year," Tokhi said.
Eyewitnesses say the “commander” pays his taxes in what one farmer described as sacks full of cash, but individual farmers pay in kind.
"The Taleban collect 4.5 kilograms of opium from each [4,000 sq m] plot, and good-quality opium costs 30,000 Pakistani rupees [400 dollars] a kilo," Tokhi said.
Criminal investigations chief Golab Khan appeared unconcerned at allegations that the “commander” was offering financial support to the government’s enemies.
"It’s his personal affair to decide whether to pay his zakat to the Taleban or somebody else," the police officer said.
Ownership of large tracts of land in Uruzgan, including many poppy-growing areas, is disputed, although the authorities have taken no action to reclaim belonging to the state.
In the case IWPR looked at, the owner acknowledged that his 14 sq km did belong to the Afghan state at one time, but insisted he was given the area by a local council set up when the mujahedin – the factions that had fought Soviet rule in the 1980s – captured Kabul in 1992. He says he has a certificate of transfer signed by members of the Uruzgan mujahedin council of the time.
Sardar Mohammad Aloko, the head of the provincial agriculture department, said documentation held in his office showed that the land was still technically state-owned and was therefore being illegally occupied.
Aloko showed IWPR documentary evidence he had cited when he raised the matter with President Hamed Karzai and the then agriculture minister back in 2003. But although he had written repeatedly to the presidential office, the ministry of agriculture, the Uruzgan governor's office and the provincial police, nothing had been done, he said.
Aloko said that if President Karzai could not exert his authority, “I cannot do anything, because [the individual] has weapons and I am afraid that he might kill me."
The misappropriation of land by strongmen in Uruzgan is a continuing issue dating back to the ungoverned chaos of the early 1990s civil war.
The head of the provincial department for state property in Uruzgan, Raz Mohammad, has held that job for the last decade, so he is well aware of the problem. He showed IWPR copies of 54 letters his office had sent to the police, the governor's office and the national agriculture ministry from 2004 through 2012 on the subject of illegal land seizures.
In 2010, for example, he passed the agriculture ministry a list of all the alleged offenders, including a provincial councillor and a member of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. Central government never pursued the matter.
Asked about the one landholder whom IWPR was looking at, Raz Mohammad said this man might well be “pocketing millions of dollars a year”.
“But if we calculate the total value of the state-owned land that’s been occupied in Uruzgan, we will be talking tens of millions of dollars," he added.
When IWPR took these concerns to Uruzgan’s provincial governor, Amir Mohammad Akhundzadah, he said he was new in the job – he was appointed in April 2012 – and there was thus no practical action he could take, even though he was aware of the case in Chora district.
Apart from contributing to the heroin trade and underlining the weakness of government, the use of armed clout to appropriate and use farmlands has other destabilising effects.
Farmers downstream of the “commander’s” landholdings say he has blocked the flow of the Sarab canal, which runs from a natural spring in the mountains to the north and should provide irrigation for the whole area.
Tokhi said the canal used to deliver water to 21,000 farmers, but now these people, from his own Ghilzai tribe, were left sitting on arid land, while the irrigation flow was diverted to the “commander’s” followers.
Ezatullah Latifi is an IWPR-trained investigative reporter in Uruzgan province, Afghanistan.
This report was produced as part of the Afghan Critical Mass Media Reporting in Uruzgan and Nangarhar project.