Article — From the December 2009 issue

The Master of Spin Boldak

Undercover with Afghanistan’s drug-trafficking border police

When I arrived in Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s restive Baluchistan Province, I found the city’s old bazaar shuttered in preparation for Ashura, an important day of mourning in the Shia calendar. In the past, Ashura had served as an occasion for sectarian fighting in Quetta, and so a cordon had been erected; I had to seek police permission, I was told, in order to photograph the procession. The following day, still dressed in Western clothes, I set off on foot from my hotel toward the courthouse. Perhaps because tourists have become a rare sight in this violent city, a Toyota Land Cruiser stopped just ahead of me and two men in the front beckoned to me. Their plump, clean-shaven faces were unthreatening, so I walked over to chat. When they learned I was a foreign visitor, they invited me for a sumptuous lunch, and later we drove around the city’s crowded bazaars and toured a restricted area of the military cantonment. I decided not to introduce myself as a journalist; they seemed to accept that I was simply a young traveler interested in poking around their rough corner of the world.

A few days later, one of the men, Jahanzeb, introduced me to his cousin, Sikander, who soon began taking me out around the city himself. As I had already discovered, Pashtuns are a frank and friendly lot with visitors, and one night, cruising around in the Lexus that Sikander used as a mobile office, he confided to me that he was shipping forty mon, or two metric tons, of opium once a month from the Afghan border town of Spin Boldak. The drugs were carried by a convoy, a few dozen heavily armed men in Land Cruisers, through the desert into Baluchistan and then into Iran. Although the police in Afghanistan and Pakistan were bribed to give the convoy safe passage, the Iranian police were not, and encounters with them out in the desolate borderlands often turned into violent, desperate battles. Once the convoy made it across the border, the opium was delivered to a group of Iranian Baluchis. Sikander didn’t accompany the convoys personally, but by organizing and funding the operation, he said, he was making between $125,000 and $250,000 in profits each trip.

At twenty-seven, Sikander was prematurely owlish, with shaggy coarse dark hair, a full mouth, and sly, almond eyes. His lanky frame moved with grace, and he handled guns and luxury vehicles with confident ease. Sikander’s father also was a smuggler, slain by rivals when Sikander was a child. But his family remained well connected with top police officials in Baluchistan, and they, together with his ties to fellow Pashtuns in Afghanistan, allowed him to carry on his lucrative operation.

The most important of Sikander’s connections was Colonel Abdul Razik, the leader of a tribal militia and border police force that extends across Kandahar and Helmand provinces—which produce 80 percent of Afghanistan’s opium, which in turn is nearly 90 percent of the world’s crop. Sikander was taking care to cultivate his relationship with the colonel. “I am growing a baby tiger,” he told me. “When it gets large, I will gift it to Razik.” At thirty years of age, Razik was the most powerful Afghan Border Police officer in the southern part of the country—a former child refugee who scrambled to power during the post-9/11 chaos, his rise abetted by a ring of crooked officials in Kabul and Kandahar as well as by overstretched NATO commanders who found his control over a key border town useful in their war against the Taliban. With his prodigious wealth, loyal soldiers, and connections to top government officials, Razik was seen as a ruthless, charismatic figure, a man who brooked no opposition to his will. I asked Sikander if he would take me to Afghanistan for a day to show me Razik’s operation, and he agreed.

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is a freelance writer and photographer based in Kabul and New York City.

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October 2019