Elections and 20-Man-Rule in Afghanistan
In 2006, Afghanistan harvested a larger illegal narcotics crop than any nation in modern history. Colombia, Mexico, and Burma together issue fewer drugs than a single Afghani province (Helmand, in southern Afghanistan). The U.S. rates the heroin-stained politicians of Afghanistan on a venality scale, hoping to work with “acceptably corrupt” officials (President Hamid Karzai falls short). Like the FARC in Columbia, the Taliban participate in and extract funding from the heroin trade. As the 2009 presidential election unfolds, opium remains the overwhelming political force in Afghanistan. The value of the election results may lie in their ability to help us calibrate the magnitude of the force.
But here I’m interested in a narrower question raised by magnitude: How do Afghani drug lords spend their absurd earnings? It’s an intermittently vexing problem. Control of the heroin trade is divided among about twenty drug lords, who split an annual take of (at least) several billion dollars. Afghanistan, though, has trouble absorbing spending on this order: The country’s per-capita GDP is $429, the lowest on the Asian continent. A world-class paucity prevails there—of luxuries to buy, professionals to employ, penthouse suites to reserve. The infrastructure situation makes leisure travel incommodious. (There is one golf course, the Kabul Golf Club, restored after the fall of the Taliban by its proprietors, who cleared landmines, Soviet tanks, and rocket launchers to make it playable. It’s a nine-holer.)
The first step in disposing of drug money is, of course, automatic: operating expenses are considerable. Afghan drug lords rule areas as big as Maryland and Switzerland. Their territories contain river systems and mountain ranges and endemic species. Drug lords maintain large private militias. Haji Jumah Khan, the now-imprisoned former overseer of Helmand Province, commanded 15,000 fighters.
Heroin producers also employ convoys of armed jeeps and SUVs and fleets of cargo ships. Interfering palms along trafficking routes must be oiled; highway robbers must be killed. And there is the pre-shipment labwork. Refineries are crude—mud huts staffed by local men, usually very high, presiding over plastic-drum vats of boiling chemical solutions—but expensive nonetheless. There has been a little cost spike recently as a result of intensifying NATO antidrug operations; producers have felt compelled to build labs into the backs of Toyota pickups for quick relocation.
Still, there is a lot of money left. Afghan drug lords sock it away in Dubai or Abu Dhabi, to which countries they travel with some regularity, for business and pleasure. They also fly to reliably corrupt regional destinations like Quetta and Kabul. But living abroad is unrealistic, even behind walls of payoffs in autocratic oil states. A drug lord is safest in his native stronghold, the best drug-empire management is on-site management, and many producers (I imagine) simply want to make their material success manifest in their homeland.
So Afghanistan’s drug lords import loaded Lexus Land Cruisers with tinted windows and video entertainment systems. They throw parties. Haji Jumah Khan’s parties were highly alcoholic, lasted all night, and featured prostitutes flown in from Russia. Mainly, though, they build stuff—they remake the country to accommodate their acquired appetites. The pioneering Khan bought a town (land, buildings) in southern Helmand Province and transformed it into a rejuvenating way-station for his drug runners, who could pause after their travails and walk, self-reflectively, along the shores of a big artificial lake.
“Narcotecture” is the term used in Afghanistan to describe what the drug lords build. The Sherpur neighborhood in Kabul has the greatest concentration of narcotecture, but the phenomenon is national. Square blocks are razed, ancient family compounds are razed, and narco-palaces, sometimes several on a single vast lot, go up. The mansions may have twelve bathrooms, four kitchens, and rooftop parking lots. Many are fenced and armored; all are guarded.
Stylistically, narcotecture is incoherent and dizzyingly busy. Residences are composed of clashing globe-spanning elements: Asian pagoda tiers and eaves curving to points, Greek temple columns, mirrored skyscraper glass, medieval-castle balustrades and parapets, Persian pillars and arches, arabesque wrought-iron balcony railings, confectionary plasterwork. Some are straight imitations: a White House is under construction in Sherpur.
Inside: three-thousand-dollar Italian chandeliers, basement swimming pools, neon lighting systems that saturate floors. One mansion, according to Monocle magazine, has neon floors in alternating colors: blue on the second floor, pink on the first floor, and a “tutti-fruiti mélange” in the basement.
These structures look down upon, usually, squalor, the condition in which most Aghans live. A private residence with fourteen bathrooms may occupy the same unpaved street as tin-sheet huts and bomb-wrecked, squatter-occupied buildings exposed to unchanneled flows of sewage.
The narco-palaces also look down upon, and displace, history. Herat, for example, features a lot of narcotecture, but also the enormous eloquent citadel built by Alexander the Great in 330 BC, a stand of minarets above the fifteenth-century tomb of Queen Gawharshad, empress of the Timurid Dynasty, and a medieval mud-brick souk whose tea shops line alleys designed for two-way camel traffic. There is talk of clearing space in central Herat for a shopping mall.
It’s hard to say how great a threat narco-culture and narcotecture pose to the cultural traditions and indigenous architectures of Afghanistan, to which every Afghan has a natural right. A few years ago, the reporter Declan Walsh interviewed a construction worker standing outside a half-built narco-palace. “The owners,” the man said, “are the ones who killed our people and drank our blood, but at least they are providing us with work.”
Another possible (if paradoxical) consolation: Narcotecture is, historically speaking, perishable. It’s hard to find good contractors and architects in Afghanistan. Out-of-plumb doors in the most princely mansions fail to close. The concrete used to make narcotecture foundations and facades is said to crack quickly, and sometimes to crumble within years of being poured. Construction quality in Herat is so anemic, one local architect recently said, that an earthquake would cause half the city to collapse.