top of page
  • David Mansfield

An Industry and a Population Under Stress: Methamphetamine Production Under Taliban Rule

To those outside the country the Afghan methamphetamine industry seems to have emerged from nowhere. However, inside Afghanistan it is a very different story; one in which the methamphetamine industry first emerged in 2008 and subsequently became embedded over the last decade. It has already adapted in response to market shifts and various counter-narcotics efforts, first under the former Afghan Republic, and now most notably under Taliban rule. In fact, ephedra cultivation and ephedrine production were the target of the Taliban’s initial drug control efforts in December 2021; several months prior to their leader Mullah Haibatullah’s call for a nationwide drugs ban in April 2022. Since then, there has been a robust effort against the harvest and trade of ephedra and the production of its derivatives ephedrine and methamphetamine across many provinces; a campaign that has resulted in the closure of more than 700 labs.   

  

It is an industry that is now much more dispersed than it once was and has footprints in more than 82 districts in 23 provinces. While the industry still functions, it has been significantly disrupted, operating at reduced capacity with smaller more discrete labs, and at much higher operating costs. Prices for ephedra have risen almost five-fold since late 2021, and those involved in the industry fondly recall the days of the Republic when the “business was free” and they had greater throughput and earned higher incomes. In fact, efforts to prohibit the methamphetamine industry stand in stark contrast to the trade and processing of opiates which until relatively recently continued largely unimpeded, with relatively few lab or bazaar closures. Far from the methamphetamine industry surging in response to the poppy ban, as UNODC recently claimed, it has in fact faced stricter enforcement action.  At the same time, however, the Taliban’s inability to eliminate the methamphetamine industry through sustained counter-narcotics measures reveals just how uneven their rule is and how difficult it will be for them to mount a sustained ban on drugs production across Afghanistan.  


It has always grown here   

Most of Afghanistan’s poppy crop is planted in the fall and harvested in the spring. It is a cultivated crop, that requires considerable amounts of labour and is primarily grown in irrigated lower valleys at altitudes of less than 1,500 meters. In contrast, the ephedra plant from which Afghan methamphetamine is made, grows wild in the mountains at altitudes of more than 1,000 metres. It’s harvest begins in the summer and runs until the onset of winter and snowfalls.  

         

With 192,000 square kilometres of Afghanistan at an altitude of 2,500 metres and above, there is certainly no shortage of land where high-quality ephedra grows (see Figure 1). There is also a further 268,00 square kilometres of land between 1,000 and 2,499 metres where a lower quality of ephedra crop can be found.         


Figure 1. Area of three levels of elevation across Afghanistan


In Afghanistan most people know where the best-quality ephedra grows, and what to look for. Green in colour with a red hue, the highest quality grows in the colder more mountainous areas of the central highlands, in soils nourished by winter snow, and by rain in the spring and fall (see Figure 2). The lower quality crop is yellowy-white and is found at lower altitudes and is known to have a far lower concentration of ephedrine and is therefore less desirable (see Figure 3). 


Figure 2. Video of Ephedra growing in the central highlands


Figure 3. Low quality ephedra yellow in colour grows at an altitude of less than 2500m

Traders prefer to purchase ephedra from areas where the plants are largely in shadow, and not subject to much direct sunlight, as this also reduces the ephedrine content. Older “woody” bushes are to be avoided (see Figure 4). Far better a plant that has been harvested for consecutive years, smaller and grassy in nature, as it is the new growth that produces a steady supply of milky, sticky sap - another characteristic denoting quality (see Figures 5 and 6). Once harvested, ephedra that has been affected by rain, or made damp by snows is also of less value, limiting the amount of crop that can be stored at altitude over winter.        


Figure 4. Large woody ephedra bush in Ghor


Figure 5: Good quality ephedra is greeny-red in colour and grows at altitudes of 2,500m and above


Figure 6. Small grassy ephedra plant from Ghor


Harvesting ephedra is also not an easy task given its location. The rights over mountain crops like ephedra are shared by the surrounding villages, and every villager is said to know which part of the mountain belongs to their community.  For many years, most of those residing in the villages at the foot of the mountains ignored the crop, or used it primarily for household purposes, not recognising its potential economic value.


Those that did harvest the crop, typically burned it for household fuel, while nomads who travel to the central highlands in the summer to pasture their animals, used it for the treatment of “cowpox” and the care of animal skins. Only a few villagers recognised the medicinal qualities of the plant, making it into tea to counter tiredness, or stomach pain.   

     

The emergence of ephedra-based methamphetamine.

However, the mountain population’s lack of interest in the ephedra plant changed when those from Helmand, Kandahar, Farah, and other provinces started travelling in search of ephedra for methamphetamine production. The initial foray into the mountains in search of the crop began in 2016 when lab owners and cooks in the market hub of Bakwa, in the southwestern province of Farah, abandoned the use of expensive over the counter medicines (OTC) and switched to ephedra as the principle precursor in the production of methamphetamine (see Figure 7.)


Figure 7. Empty bottles of cold medicine


Evidence of the prevalence of ephedra in the production of methamphetamine in Bakwa mounted with a growing numbers of photographs, videos, and satellite imagery showing the detritus around ephedrine labs, including large soak tanks, grinding mills, bags of unused ephedra, and the large amounts of physical waste (sometimes converted into bricks of fuel for reuse – an advantage of the high diesel content and plant matter). Moreover, cooks and lab owners would talk of the clear economic advantages of ephedra-based production, reflecting on production costs that were less than half of those when using imported OTC (See Figure 8).   


Figure 8. Imagery of a large ephedrine lab in Bakwa in Farah in early 2022, with photogrraphic inserts showing some of the contents.

 

The ephedrine produced was then sold to those that made methamphetamine, known locally as shisha. In contrast to ephedrine production, this is a more skilled process, requiring more capital, time, and a much cleaner environment. With none of the waste associated with ephedra, and less bulky inputs, these labs were almost impossible to identify from the ground, or using imagery, although most were centred in Bakwa, as well as Bahramchar on the Pakistani border.  The knowledge required to produce quality crystals for the export market - white, firm, and large – was one that these cooks held particularly close: the price for those wishing to learn typically exceeded a thousand dollars and required as much as one year’s apprenticeship (See Figures 9, 10 and 11).  


Figures 9, 10 and 11. Methamphetamine crystals from a lab in Afghanistan


As cooks honed their skills and methamphetamine production expanded in the southwest, the demand for ephedra grew. Traders in Bakwa began to extend their reach beyond the immediate mountainous areas of Farah, Helmand, and the adjacent districts of Ghor, like Taywara and Pasaband. By 2018, traders were travelling further afield, purchasing ephedra in districts like Shindand and Farsi in the western province of Herat, as well as Waghaz and Khwajamauri in Ghazni in the southeast.  As, in turn, new areas of ephedrine production emerged in many of these districts, the search for new sources of ephedra also expanded in 2021 and 2022, reaching up through the central provinces to cover much of Ghor, alongside parts of Bamian, and Sar e Pul (see Figures 12 and 13).    


Figure 12. Ephedra production and trade links


Figure 13. Ephedrine and meth production and trade links


Consolidating the supply chain

The development of the supply chain for ephedra and ephedrine seems to have followed a similar pattern regardless of location in Afghanistan. Initially, traders from the south and southwest - generically referred to as “Kandaharis” or “Helmandis” – would arrive looking to purchase fresh ephedra at source in the nearby mountains. At this point the harvest in these areas would be limited, and only a few villagers – often the poorest – would travel into the mountains to cut and collect the crop intermittently over the course of the harvest season. Traders would then dry the crop and transport it in large trucks to ephedrine labs in other districts, most notably Bakwa in Farah (see Figures 14,15 and 16).   


Figure 14, 15 and 16. Ephedra being harvested, dried and transported from Ghor


Subsequently, as the supply chain developed, a division of labour emerged, and a class of local traders and transporters was created in the districts of the central highlands. More and more people from the villages also began to respond to the economic opportunities that a burgeoning ephedra market represented. The exchange value of the crop was highlighted when faced with few alternatives (especially following the collapse of the Republic in 2021), a much larger number of people (including women in some areas) from the surrounding villages dedicated greater amounts of their time to harvesting over the course of the entire ephedra season (which can run up to seven months in the lower areas).  

  

Once the crop was harvested and brought from the mountains, these local traders purchased the crop in the village from where they then transported it to a district bazaar, such as in Farsi, in the province of Herat or Lal Wa Saranjal, in Ghor, or another convenient trading point for onward travel. By this stage local traders purchased much of the crop already dried and cleaned in the village, with only a small amount purchased fresh at a much lower price; a function of the fact that as much as 60% of the weight of the fresh crop would be lost. In the district centre or other bazaars, a growing number of stores were established, where ephedra was then sold to large traders from the south and southwest (see Figure 17). As local ephedra traders would often generate little more than a few cents per kilogram in profit, the real money was made in supplying volume.


Figure 17. Farsi district centre and ephedra stores

 

Typically, the final stage in the development of the value chain was the arrival of the ephedrine labs. Again, it is the “Kandaharis” and “Helmandis” who are usually apportioned the blame for the appearance of ephedrine production in an area, often a year or two after the commercial trade in ephedra began. In fact, it is frequently claimed that these southern Pashtoons used the contacts they made in an area through trading ephedra, to then form a partnership with a local elite to establish a lab. While often terms such as “Kandahari” or “Helmandi” are symbolic of prevailing ethnic tensions ­– and can be used pejoratively – a substantial number of the cooks working in these labs are in fact Pashtoons who learned their skills in Bakwa as labourers, before being drawn to the mountains in part by the offer of higher wages.


Rarely purpose-built, these labs in the central highlands often operate only over the summer and fall, closing in the winter due to the challenges of “cooking” in the cold (see Figure 18). A house owner willing to vacate their property for four or five months could get as much as US$1,500 as a cash advance for the use of their home – an offer that can be hard to turn down in these remote highland areas where there are few income earning opportunities available.


Figure 18. Image of ephedrine lab in Ghor in winter


With the arrival of the labs, other services were needed, further boosting the local economy. Mobile milling services became common. Traders and truck drivers also diversified, no longer transporting ephedra to Bakwa or other locations, and bringing only food items or travelling empty on return.  Instead, they carried back caustic soda, sulphuric acid, xylene, salt, as well as other chemicals and equipment needed to produce ephedrine. As production took root the amount of business and journeys conducted increased four-fold as local suppliers serviced the labs with both local ephedra and the inputs from further afield.     

In turn, the emergence of ephedrine production in these more remote central highlands created new market hubs for trade and transport, thereby further increasing the demand and price of ephedra in the area, as well as in neighbouring districts and provinces. Within only a few years an entangled network of suppliers of ephedra and ephedrine was established that reached across an ever increasing area and greater number of communities (see Figure 19).   


Figure 19. Locations of labs in research areas 2019 and 2022

      

Striking at the market centre during the Republic

However, the story of the meth industry in Afghanistan is not simply one of unfettered growth across an increasingly large geographical area. In fact, there have been several efforts to contain production, each of which has prompted those in the industry to adapt and relocate their efforts in more remote areas - the so called “balloon effect”. Under the former Islamic Republic government, and then initially the Taliban, these efforts against the methamphetamine trade largely centred on Abdul Wadood bazaar and the desert areas of Bakwa and Khashrod that surround it; since this was the principal market hub of the industry, it was an obvious place to start.    


Abdul Wadood bazaar sits 18 kilometres to the southwest of Bakwa district centre. The bazaar grew in importance and size in parallel with the methamphetamine industry it supported. Containing only a few stores in 2017, the bazaar was almost seven times larger by 2019, by which time it was the central hub for the sale of ephedra and the chemical required in the production of both ephedrine and methamphetamine, much of which took place in labs, or “factories”, in the surrounding desert area (see Figure 20).


Figure 20. Imagery showing the growth of Abdul Wadood bazaar between March 2010 and August 2019


In the summer of 2021, imagery analysis identified as many as 448 ephedrine labs in a 2,000 square kilometre area around the bazaar, with the highest density in close proximity to Abdul Wadood (see Figure 21). By late 2021, following the fall of the Afghan Republic, and at the end of the harvest season, the bazaar was also awash with ephedra – an estimated 11,886 cubic meters, enough to produce 220 metric tons of methamphetamine. In practice, there was little clandestine about this trade during the Republic and the initial months of the Taliban (see Figure 22).


Figure 21. Lab density around Abdul Wadood bazaar in summer 2021


Figure 22. Imagery showing the volume of ephedra at Abdul Wadood bazaar from August 2019 to January 2022


It was on 22 April 2019 that Abdul Wadood first became the target of drug control efforts against the methamphetamine trade. That night  Afghan Republic forces, supported by United States Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A), raided the bazaar, destroying shops and burning a truck containing ephedra, the remains of which could be seen for months to come (see Figures 23 and 24). A few weeks later, on 6 May 2019 as many as 68 labs in the surrounding area were struck by USFOR-A as part of their aerial bombing campaign to deny funding to the Taliban. The resultant damage was extensive and the United Nations Assistance Mission  Afghanistan reported a significant number of people killed in the bombing, including civilians. 


Figures 23. Attack on Abdul Wadood bazaar on 22 April 2019


Figure 24. Aftermath of attack on Abdul Wadood bazaar

 

These attacks prompted lab owners and cooks to begin to look for new, safer areas, where they could set up shop. The most logical move was to edge closer to the source of ephedra, to districts like neighbouring Gulistan in Farah, as well as Kajaki, Nawzad, and Musa Qala in northern Helmand, where ephedrine labs started to appear not long after. More remote, these places would be harder for law enforcement to reach and offered the added advantage of reducing the logistical challenges and costs of transporting the bulky ephedra crop from the central highlands.


Another contender was the district of Shindand in the province of Herat. With strong tribal links to Bakwa, an important political centre for the insurgency, and a source of local (poor quality) ephedra as well as better quality crop from nearby Farsi, it too became an easy place for cooks and lab owners to relocate from 2019 (see Figures 25 and 26).


Figure 25. Imagery showing the evolution of a lab in Shindand, between 2017 and 2019


Figure 26. Imagery showing the evolution of a lab in Shindand, between 2017 and 2019


The Taliban picked up where the Republic left off

It didn’t take the Taliban long to move against the methamphetamine industry. In December 2021, the Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL) proclaimed a ban on the harvest of the ephedra crop across the central provinces of Ghor, Farah, Nimroz, and Bamian.


However, announced just after the end of the 2021 harvest season, and closely followed by a dramatic rise in the price of ephedra, ephedrine, and methamphetamine, this action was viewed by many as a cynical move. With the economy in ruins and high levels of unemployment, the ephedra harvest proved an economic lifeline to those in the mountains who had returned home following the collapse of the government, including former soldiers from the Afghan National Army.     

 

Immediately, the Taliban turned its sights on Abdul Wadood telling traders they could no longer sell ephedra in the bazaar, and that they had one month to clear their stocks. Sure enough, by the end of January 2022 the bazaar was emptied of ephedra, and it has remained closed ever since (see Figures 27 and 28).  


Figure 27. Imagery showing the continued cessation of ephedra trading at Abdul Wadood bazaar in November 2023


Figure 28. Area of ephedra mounds at Abdul Wadood bazaar from November 2018 to November 2023


Always looking for ways to circumvent the restrictions, lab owners in Bakwa began to purchase ephedra from traders in the mountains who then delivered directly to their door. In early 2022, ephedrine production in the area burgeoned, and imagery from the time showed large amounts of ephedra ready for processing, alongside significant amounts of liquid and physical waste, which denote a significant increase in processing capacity compared to previous years (see Figures 29 and 30).       


Figure 29. Imagery showing active ephedrine labs in Bakwa in January 2022


Figure 30. Imagery showing a scaled-up ephedrine lab in Bakwa between July 2021 and January 2022


Unfortunately for the lab owners and cooks, the grace period came to an end and on 17 September 2022, when the Taliban mounting a raid on Abdul Wadood bazaar, shutting it down entirely.  This move followed earlier warnings to local elders that the industry would not be tolerated and calling for all labs in the area to be closed. For all the cynicism, by the end of the September 2022, imagery analysis showed zero labs in a 320 square kilometre area around Abdul Wadood when as many as 187 had been detected in June 2020 and 125 much bigger labs in March 2022. Analysis of imagery from November 2023 showed the re-establishment of only three labs in this area (see Figure 31). 


Figure 31. Locations of ephedrine labs in close proximity to Abdul Wadood bazaar between June 2020 and November 2023 


These actions against Abdul Wadood bazaar also led to a rapid rise in the price for ephedra, and thereby the price of ephedrine and methamphetamine. By November 2022, methamphetamine prices were over US$ 600 per kilogram, three times what they had been when the Taliban first took over and a level from which they have rarely fallen since (see Figure 32).    


Figure 32. Ephedra, ephedrine, and meth prices

  

Widening the campaign to fit the scale of the problem

Whereas the Republic and its allies had restricted their effort against the methamphetamine industry to Abdul Wadood bazaar and the district of Bakwa, the Taliban had a larger geographic target in its sights. As early as 2019, the footprint of the methamphetamine had increased in response to market opportunities and the Republic and USFOR-A’s campaign against Abdul Wadood bazaar. A second wave of adaptation and relocation was inevitable following the Taliban’s clampdown on Bakwa in 2022, and if the authorities were serious about prohibiting the trade, they too would have to widen their efforts and go to the mountains where the industry was increasingly found.     


Reports indicate that over the course of 2022 and 2023 the Taliban destroyed as many as 292 ephedrine labs in 82 districts and 23 provinces, highlighting the industry’s expanded footprint and the reach of the campaign (See Figures 33 and 34). Moreover, multiple photographs and video footage showed the aftermath of some of these efforts, and offered further compelling evidence of the prevalence of ephedra-based methamphetamine production with images of dried ephedra, soak tanks, and waste.


Figure 33. Ephedra seizures between August 2022 and November 2023


Figure 34. Ephedrine labs destroyed between August 202 and November 2023


Amidst this campaign, ephedra became increasingly difficult to harvest and both the trade and those involved have had to go to ground. In many areas the crop was harvested at night and concealed and dried in the household compound, rather than outside as had occurred during the Republic. In some districts Taliban checkpoints positioned close to the mountains made it impossible to collect large volumes of ephedra each day and to transport it by pick-up or small truck to the village as had been the case before the ban. Instead, small amounts were collected, often by the young who were more able to find their way around the mountains at night and transport the crop by motorbike.     

  

Furthermore, the days of trading and transporting 15 metric tons of dried ephedra along the main highways and roads were over. Instead, traders looked to mill the crop at source, conceal it in a truck amongst other goods, and transport less than 500 kilograms at a time and at much higher cost than in the past.  For all the talk of prohibition increasing profits, most of those involved are nostalgic for the past when the “business was free”, and there were no restrictions imposed by the Taliban, meaning significantly larger volumes could be moved.


It is the same for those processing the ephedra plant into ephedrine and methamphetamine. Increasingly the crop is processed in the highlands as more and more ephedrine labs moved out of Bakwa following the Taliban crackdown in the district, and in view of the challenges of transporting the volumes of ephedra required. While rumours persist that some ephedrine production continues in Bakwa – at night and in the more remote desert areas to the south and west – satellite imagery suggests there are hardly any, with only 3 labs left in the 650 square kilometres around Abdul Wadood found in November 2023, compared to 225 in the same area in 2021; and even these are much more discrete enterprises than were seen in the past (see Figure 35).  


Figure 35. Locations of labs in the wider area around Abdul Wadood bazaar in 2021 and November 2023


In fact, the kind of dedicated “mega labs” that were seen across Bakwa in early 2022 have become a distant memory. Rather, wherever in the country that ephedrine is produced it is typically found in a household compound, sometimes exposing families to noxious fumes and waste (see Figure 36 and 37). The batches of ephedra used are significantly smaller and concerted efforts are made to conceal any waste to avoid detection.  Moreover, with much higher production costs (with both ephedra and ephedrine comprising more than 50% of the cost of producing ephedrine and methamphetamine, respectively), transaction costs, and far greater risk, it is an increasingly difficult business to be in, even for those with the right local connections.  

   

Figure 36. Imagery showing discrete ephedrine labs in Shindand, Herat in November 2023 


Figure 37. Imagery showing discrete ephedrine labs in Lal Wa Sarjangal, Ghor in November 2023


In October 2023 even further pressure was applied against the industry, following the announcement of a new drugs law agreed by Mullah Haibatullah which lay out strict penalties for those caught harvesting and trading ephedra, or who are involved in the production of ephedrine and methamphetamine. At the end of the season as increased restrictions have been put in place, ephedrine production has dispersed once again heading further up the mountains, into some of the most remote locations in the central highlands (see Figure 38 and 39).   


Figure 38. Suspected labs and stores in Lal Wa Saranjal, Ghor between August 2018 and November 2023


Figure 39. Imagery showing the location of suspected labs and stores in Dawlatyar , Ghor between June 2019 and November 2023

 

A game of whack-a-mole   

The efforts to restrict the Afghan methamphetamine industry is an exemplar of the game of whack-a-mole, whereby each attempt to solve a problem is only temporarily effective and leads to the problem reoccurring elsewhere. During the Afghan Republic, the methamphetamine industry was concentrated in Bakwa in the southwest, and those involved had little to fear from the authorities, despite sporadic counter-narcotics efforts. The trade of substantial volumes of the primary input ephedra, took place in the open for everyone to see, as did the processing of ephedrine and methamphetamine. While initial rather limited attempts to damage the industry by Afghan forces and their allies led to some dispersal of ephedrine production, the industry’s main productive capacity remained focused firmly in the southwest.


This changed dramatically following the Taliban takeover and the initial ban on the harvest of ephedra and subsequently a relatively robust effort to close the labs. The campaign began in Bakwa, prompting further relocation to the central highlands closer to the source of the ephedra crop. As the campaign reached into newly established areas of ephedrine production, the labs moved further up the mountains in a bid to escape. Two years on, the industry has dispersed over much wider and remote areas, making it even harder to police.

There is little doubt that the industry has been severely disrupted following the Taliban takeover, with those involved operating discreetly in the hope of avoiding detection and the possible penalties that this could entail. Costs have also risen dramatically, and with falling volumes harvested, traded, and processed, the incomes of those involved have fallen too. Market outcomes are increasingly uncertain, and there are few opportunities for the new entrants that were seen in the past roaming the highlands in search of new sources of ephedra and a local partner with whom to set up a lab. Even those with the right connections in one locality do not necessarily have them elsewhere, and remain vulnerable to shifts in government personnel, further raising costs and risks.          


Perhaps, the persistence of the industry in the face of these repeated efforts to prohibit it tells us more about opportunity cost in these areas than it does about profit. After all, once established in the central highlands each ephedrine lab creates over 780 person days of work over a five-month season and provides around US$5,600 in wages for those harvesting around 25 metric tons of fresh ephedra plant, with a further US$5,000 to the cook and labourers who process it. An additional US$1,400 would be paid for milling and transporting the plant, and this is all before the final product – the 300 to 350 kilograms of ephedrine produced – has left the area.


In the wake of the collapse of the Republic and the jobs that were lost, the methamphetamine industry provided an important economic cushion for many communities particularly those in the central highlands who had jobs in the government or security sector. With all the talk of providing alternatives to those cultivating poppy in the lower areas, it is also worth considering the potential for ever larger numbers of mainly young men departing for Iran in response to the Taliban’s far more robust efforts against the production of ephedrine and methamphetamine.    




David Mansfield has been conducting research on illicit economies in Afghanistan and on its borders each year since 1997. David has a PhD in development studies and is the author of “A State Built on Sand: How opium undermined Afghanistan.” He has produced more than eighty research-based products on rural livelihoods and cross-border economies, many for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, and working in close partnership with Alcis. David was also the lead researcher on the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s Counter Narcotics: Lessons from the US Experience in Afghanistan, covering the period from 2002- 2017.

Comments


bottom of page