Afghanistan's wild west

Afghanistan's wild west


In the ruins of Farah's ancient citadel, addicts huddle in the cold, smoking opium.

The city offers a prime example of Afghanistan's nexus between Islamist militancy, crime, opium and Kabul's feeble grip on power.

Residents say problems escalated after foreign troops withdrew in early 2013 and locals in Farah's most lawless areas say the breakdown in order is complete.

. FARAH, Afghanistan. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Taliban insurgents control half of the region bordering Iran, government officials estimate. In one district, Khaki Safed, the sacked local government chief refuses to step down.

“There are four administrations in Khaki Safed,” said Benyamin Akhunzada, a bearded farmer in his 50s. “One is the governor. Another is Afghan local police. Another is the Taliban. Another is Daish,” he added, using the title popular in South Asia for Islamic State.

“These four administrations are harassing locals. None of them serve the nation, but just take advantage,” said Akhunzada, speaking in the provincial capital, also named Farah.

. FARAH, Afghanistan. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

An Afghan farmer works on his poppy field on the outskirts of Farah. A poppy grower ends up with 9-13 lbs of opium to sell after he has handed over a portion of his produce each year to rival armed groups in the form of "taxes.”

He sells what is left to smugglers, who this year paid 9,450 Afghanis ($165) per kg of the plastic-wrapped gum.

. FARAH, Afghanistan. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Asif Nang, Farah's incoming governor, said he was struggling to impose his writ on unruly districts.

“Security is a priority,” he said at his heavily fortified compound in Farah city, guarded by dozens of men.

“I focus most of my time at the district level ... but unfortunately, due to the weak management of governors' offices, we have a lot of work to do.”

. FARAH, Afghanistan. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

"Overall [opium] is a point of concern ... for all Afghans, but the government will fight against it," a military commander said.

"We are not concerned about small groups like the Taliban or Daish, who hide themselves in mountains or caves. We will fight to the last drop of blood against those who are against our law and people."

Locals are less sanguine about the threat of Islamist violence in Farah. They worry a new band of militants led by former Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Raziq Mehdi may emulate the Islamic State's atrocities in the Middle East.

Farmers from Khaki Safed describe the local "Daish" unit led by Mehdi as having 30 to 100 members who wear black and cover their faces. They travel in pick-up trucks armed with mortars, AK-47s and PK heavy machine guns.

. FARAH, Afghanistan. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

Complicating efforts to bring the district under control, Khodaidad, pictured above, its newly appointed chief, has been unable to take up his post because his sacked predecessor refuses to leave, saying if he does, Khaki Safed will fall into Taliban hands.

For now Khodaidad operates from Farah, a cluster of busy shopping streets and modest homes that has enjoyed a construction boom which locals link to the drugs trade.