Afghangsters’ paradise

When I think of the Taliban, I think of Tony Soprano and his gang. They are more mafiosi than mujahe

In Helmand, they protect opium shipments, extort money from poppy growers and operate heroin labs. In Kunar, they smuggle timber and guns. In the Swat valley, they control emerald mines, selling gemstones on the black market. On both sides of the Afghan/Pakistani border, they run a brisk kidnapping racket, snaring wealthy local businessmen, diplomats and journalists from around the globe.

When people in the west imagine the Taliban, most think of bearded fanatics, battling from caves under the flag of radical Islam. Having studied their day-to-day activities for more than five years, when I think of the Taliban I think of Tony Soprano and his gang.

I am not suggesting that Mullah Mohammed Omar has developed a taste for Chianti, or opened a branch of the Bada Bing at his hideout in Pakistan. As a fighting force, the Taliban remain as determined as ever to drive western forces from Afghanistan, as proven by the rising Nato casualty figures. But examine how the Taliban fund themselves, and how they interact with the local community, and they start to look more like mafiosi than mujahedin.

It is hard to make sweeping generalisations about the post-2001 Taliban. There are three distinct factions of the movement on the Afghan side of the border, and a far more fractious set of local and regional extremist groups in Pakistan. However, there are broad similarities in the way these various organisations are structured and how criminal proceeds filter up the chains of command. The manner in which they interact parallels the often tumultuous relations between Mafia crime families, like the New Jersey and New York clans portrayed in The Sopranos. Sometimes they collaborate; sometimes they battle against each other.

Whether fighting or conspiring, it is virtually always about making money. Western military officials believe that as little as 5 per cent of
the insurgents are "true believers" in their cause. Most of the fighters are in it just to make a quick buck.

I traced the Taliban's criminal earnings from the poppy fields of Helmand to the moneychangers in Dubai. Far from the stereotype of a ragtag militia of Islamic zealots, I found Taliban forces operating within an elaborate criminal economy that was astonishing in its size and complexity. Al-Qaeda was part of the picture, too - protecting drug shipments as they left Afghanistan and playing a coordinating role between the various local and regional extremist groups operating along the border.

With the help of local researchers, I conducted interviews with poppy farmers, truck drivers and heroin lab workers who described how Taliban fighters protected and taxed poppy farms, opium convoys and drug refineries. I heard again and again from western troops in Afghanistan how they found huge stashes of heroin and opium every time they captured a Taliban hideout. In one recent operation in Helmand Province, British, US and Afghan forces seized 92 tonnes of heroin, opium, hashish, poppy seeds and precursor chemicals. It was the second-largest drug seizure in world history. "Narcotics trafficking and the insurgency overlap to a degree that it is almost impossible to separate them," an American special forces officer in Kandahar told me.

Since 2001, Taliban commanders have deepened their involvement in the opium trade, but powerful trafficking cartels still control the drug industry, now worth billions of pounds annually. In 2008, I tracked down Haji Juma Khan, the region's opium kingpin, to one of his homes in Quetta, Pakistan. I drank orange soda with his colleagues, who spoke openly about the multi-tonne heroin shipments he sent towards the southern coast. (Just three months later, western counter-narcotics agents lured Khan to Indonesia, where he was arrested and extradited to New York.)

On other research trips, I toured the Pashtun slums of the seaport Karachi, where colourfully painted trucks from Afghanistan rolled into gated compounds on the coast. I watched men in tiny wooden rowing boats load bundles on to larger dhows bobbing in the harbour.

I interviewed a former money launderer in a Dubai coffee shop, who explained how he made dirty cash clean with a few quick swaps on the unregulated hawala money exchange.

Over time, and hundreds of interviews later with people who worked in or investigated this criminal economy, it became clear to me that characterising the Taliban as Islamic crusaders had caused Nato commanders to underestimate their enemy. For years, many western officials - especially in Washington - ignored the economic miracle funding the Taliban's resurgence.

It is important to recognise that from one of the world's most remote and mountainous regions, where there is no major highway network, nor freight train service, nor even widespread literacy (much less BlackBerrys and wifi), Taliban insurgents and the drug traffickers with whom they collaborate have accomplished an astonishing feat: successfully integrating an agricultural product into the global economy.

From importing precursor chemicals to getting farm loans to thousands of small farmers to providing security for the shipments as they move across borders, co-ordinating and managing Afghanistan's mammoth opium trade is an organisational feat of the very highest order. In less than eight years, they have come to dominate the global market share, supplying more than 90 per cent of the world's opium.

In recent years, as the Pakistani Taliban have rolled across that country's north-west, I have watched the Taliban expand into various new moneymaking schemes, from extortion to good old-fashioned bank robbery.

Fighting this widening insurgency is going to be an immense challenge for the Nato alliance and the international community - not least because the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan are themselves so riddled with corruption. But a good start will be to define the insurgents as what they really are, and to protect local populations who are the victims of their criminal activity. These are not holy warriors fighting for Allah, but criminals after the almighty dollar.

www.gretchenpeters.org

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives

Biteback and James Wharton
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“It was the most traumatic chapter of my life”: ex-soldier James Wharton on his chemsex addiction

One of the British Army’s first openly gay soldiers reveals how he became trapped in a weekend world of drug and sex parties.

“Five days disappeared.” James Wharton, a 30-year-old former soldier, recalls returning to his flat in south London at 11pm on a Sunday night in early March. He hadn’t eaten or slept since Wednesday. In the five intervening days, he had visited numerous different apartments, checked in and out of a hotel room, partied with dozens of people, had sex, and smoked crystal meth “religiously”.

One man he met during this five-day blur had been doing the same for double the time. “He won’t have been exaggerating,” Wharton tells me now. “He looked like he’d been up for ten days.”

On Monday, Wharton went straight to his GP. He had suffered a “massive relapse” while recovering from his addiction to chemsex: group sex parties enhanced by drugs.

“Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army term”

I meet Wharton on a very different Monday morning six months after that lost long weekend. Sipping a flat white in a sleek café workspace in Holborn, he’s a stroll away from his office in the city, where he works as a PR. He left the Army in 2013 after ten years, having left school and home at 16.


Wharton left school at 16 to join the Army. Photo: Biteback

With his stubble, white t-shirt and tortoise shell glasses, he now looks like any other young media professional. But he’s surfacing from two years in the chemsex world, where he disappeared to every weekend – sometimes for 72 hours straight.

Back then, this time on a Monday would have been “like a double-decker bus smashing through” his life – and that’s if he made it into work at all. Sometimes he’d still be partying into the early hours of a Tuesday morning. The drugs allow your body to go without sleep. “Crystal meth lets you really dig in, to use an Army expression,” Wharton says, wryly.


Wharton now works as a PR in London. Photo: James Wharton

Mainly experienced by gay and bisexual men, chemsex commonly involves snorting the stimulant mephodrone, taking “shots” (the euphoric drug GBL mixed with a soft drink), and smoking the amphetamine crystal meth.

These drugs make you “HnH” (high and horny) – a shorthand on dating apps that facilitate the scene. Ironically, they also inhibit erections, so Viagra is added to the mix. No one, sighs Wharton, orgasms. He describes it as a soulless and mechanical process. “Can you imagine having sex with somebody and then catching them texting at the same time?”

“This is the real consequence of Section 28”

Approximately 3,000 men who go to Soho’s 56 Dean Street sexual health clinic each month are using “chems”, though it’s hard to quantify how many people regularly have chemsex in the UK. Chemsex environments can be fun and controlled; they can also be unsafe and highly addictive.

Participants congregate in each other’s flats, chat, chill out, have sex and top up their drugs. GBL can only be taken in tiny doses without being fatal, so revellers set timers on their phones to space out the shots.

GBL is known as “the date rape drug”; it looks like water, and a small amount can wipe your memory. Like some of his peers, Wharton was raped while passed out from the drug. He had been asleep for six or so hours, and woke up to someone having sex with him. “That was the worst point, without a doubt – rock bottom,” he tells me. “[But] it didn’t stop me from returning to those activities again.”

There is a chemsex-related death every 12 days in London from usually accidental GBL overdoses; a problem that Wharton compares to the AIDS epidemic in a book he’s written about his experiences, Something for the Weekend.


Wharton has written a book about his experiences. Photo: Biteback

Wharton’s first encounter with the drug, at a gathering he was taken to by a date a couple of years ago, had him hooked.

“I loved it and I wanted more immediately,” he recalls. From then on, he would take it every weekend, and found doctors, teachers, lawyers, parliamentary researchers, journalists and city workers all doing the same thing. He describes regular participants as the “London gay elite”.

“Chemsex was the most traumatic chapter of my life” 

Topics of conversation “bounce from things like Lady Gaga’s current single to Donald Trump”, Wharton boggles. “You’d see people talking about the general election, to why is Britney Spears the worst diva of them all?”

Eventually, he found himself addicted to the whole chemsex culture. “It’s not one single person, it’s not one single drug, it’s just all of it,” he says.



Wharton was in the Household Cavalry alongside Prince Harry. Photos: Biteback and James Wharton

Wharton feels the stigma attached to chemsex is stopping people practising it safely, or being able to stop. He’s found a support network through gay community-led advice services, drop-ins and workshops. Not everyone has that access, or feels confident coming forward.

“This is the real consequence of Section 28,” says Wharton, who left school in 2003, the year this legislation against “promoting” homosexuality was repealed. “Who teaches gay men how to have sex? Because the birds and the bees chat your mum gives you is wholly irrelevant.”


Wharton was the first openly gay soldier to appear in the military in-house magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

Wharton only learned that condoms are needed in gay sex when he first went to a gay bar at 18. He was brought up in Wrexham, north Wales, by working-class parents, and described himself as a “somewhat geeky gay” prior to his chemsex days.

After four years together, he and his long-term partner had a civil partnership in 2010; they lived in a little cottage in Windsor with two dogs. Their break-up in 2014 launched him into London life as a single man.

As an openly gay soldier, Wharton was also an Army poster boy; he appeared in his uniform on the cover of gay magazine Attitude. He served in the Household Cavalry with Prince Harry, who once defended him from homophobic abuse, and spent seven months in Iraq.


In 2012, Wharton appeared with his then civil partner in Attitude magazine. Photo courtesy of Biteback

A large Union Jack shield tattoo covering his left bicep pokes out from his t-shirt – a physical reminder of his time at war on his now much leaner frame. He had it done the day he returned from Iraq.

Yet even including war, Wharton calls chemsex “the most traumatic chapter” of his life. “Iraq was absolutely Ronseal, it did exactly what it said on the tin,” he says. “It was going to be a bit shit, and then I was coming home. But with chemsex, you don’t know what’s going to happen next.

“When I did my divorce, I had support around me. When I did the Army, I had a lot of support. Chemsex was like a million miles an hour for 47 hours, then on the 48th hour it was me on my own, in the back of an Uber, thinking where did it all go wrong? And that’s traumatic.”

Something for the Weekend: Life in the Chemsex Underworld by James Wharton is published by Biteback.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 07 September 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Meet the new progressives