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A smuggler’s life in the Afghan-Iranian borderlands

Watch this animated life story of a smuggler who makes a living trading drugs and other goods across the border between Afghanistan and Iran.

The animation above is an account of the life and livelihood of a trader, living and working near the border of southwestern Afghanistan.

The individual at the centre of the animation has lived through and adapted to repeated challenges at the border including war, migration, regime change, hardening borders and finally COVID-19.

You will see that this is an account of a skilled individual, who manages risks, brokers deals and works in and out of the legal economy. His gambles have often paid off.

Managing risks

The smuggler needs great skill and imagination to adapt to a constantly changing risk environment. He responds to external forces and pressures that are mostly beyond his immediate control. This is the reality for many borderland communities who are constantly buffeted by shifts in markets, policing and regulatory arrangements at the border and shifting conflict dynamics. This makes border zones high-risk, but also high-opportunity places.

It is a life shaped by external shocks and improvised responses. As a young child the trader became a refugee in Iran after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. When his father returned to Afghanistan he lost all the profits from his new tractor show room business because of a sudden currency devaluation. After getting started in the drug business he lost much of his capital when his business partner was arrested and executed in Iran. He subsequently left the business because of the high risks involved. For a while he was involved in the people smuggling trade, but then the growing policing of the border meant that, like drug smuggling, it became too dangerous for the ‘little fish’ to be involved. Finally after starting a restaurant at the border post of Milak, which was going very successfully, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing him out of the business. This time, as he says himself, he doesn’t know which way to turn.

Brokering deals

Traders involved in illicit commerce in border regions have to be extremely astute brokers or go-betweens, able to build and maintain networks within their immediate locale, and across the border. Border zones are frequently ‘hybrid’ regions with very mixed populations from different parts of two or more countries living within them. An ability to straddle different social and political groups is important for traders. As a young boy helping his father’s money transfer business in Iran, he helped broker money transfers between Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. As an adult, many different relationships have helped him facilitate his enterprises. He has had business partners within Afghanistan and Iran. He has built relationships at, and across, the border with the Afghan and Iranian authorities, paying bribes to maintain good relations and to build up trusted networks to facilitate the flow of drugs, people, money or other goods. Changes in the risk environment would mean that these brokering arrangements would also need to change and adapt. Failure to adapt means that you get pushed out of the game.

(Il)licit entanglements

The trader’s life embodies the interconnections between different types of trade. He talks about different types of businesses – money exchange, tractor showrooms, transporting drugs and people, sewing machines and the restaurant business. All these activities interconnect, in the sense that capital accumulated from one business is invested in new businesses, property, household goods and children’s education. From the perspective of the trader, licit and illicit activities are deeply connected. The chief difference between them is the risk-profit calculus. Drug trafficking is highly profitable but increasingly risky. The restaurant business was less profitable but more reliable – at least until the pandemic changed everything.

Borderland livelihoods and development

Illicit economies, livelihoods and development are connected on both an individual and collective level.

The trader’s life and businesses were built around informal and illicit trades, enabling him to find some financial security for him and his family. The pandemic and its devastating effect on his last restaurant business – which depended on the movement of people to and from the border – shows how fundamental the trading economy was to his economic wellbeing.

At a larger scale, the growth of Zaranj as a frontier boomtown shows how trade boosts development processes in border regions. This border city, with its government offices, hotels, teashops, construction businesses and retail sector grew on the back of licit and illicit trade in an unplanned and largely spontaneous way.

The regulatory arrangements at the border have changed over the trader’s lifetime. To a large extent, prior to 2001, when the US-led intervention toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the border remained open and many people were involved in informal and illicit trades, crossing small-scale crossing points. From 2005 onwards, there was a growing tightening of the border, which involved the building of walls, fences and an official crossing point at Milak, alongside the closing of informal crossing points. It became more and more difficult and dangerous to be involved in drugs or human trafficking as both the Afghan and Iranian states attempted to formalise trading relations and prevent informal or illegal trade. Many small traders were forced out of business, so only the ‘big fish’ with connections to state authorities on both sides of the border could survive and continue in the illicit trades.

The animation is based on repeat interviews conducted by Afghan researchers who are part of the Drugs & (dis)order team, in which the trader shared his life history and experiences.

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