Pubdate: Fri, 25 Sep 2015
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2015 The Washington Post Company
Author: Tim Craig, Haq Nawaz Khan and Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.


Pakistani Offensive Against Taliban Pushes Tribesmen Off the Land and 
Threatens Their Hash-Based Livelihood

PESHAWAR , PAKISTAN - For decades, Taj Muhammad Afridi had been 
making stoners mellow around the world.

By now, at his family homestead in the Tirah Valley in Pakistan's 
tribal belt, hundreds of marijuana plants should be full-grown, some 
as tall as a one-story house. The traditional harvest would be in 
October, and that's when Afridi would start making some of the 
world's most sought-after hashish.

But Afridi's crops- and those of others nearby that produce 
eye-popping amounts of marijuana - have been abandoned and are in 
danger of becoming another casualty of Pakistan's decade-long war 
against terrorism and Islamist militancy.

After Afridi planted his marijuana seeds in February, the military 
began a series of operations in the Tirah Valley against Taliban 
fighters who had found refuge there. The operation displaced Afridi 
and a quarter-million other residents, many of whom are still waiting 
to go home.

"We know that our crops are still there," said Afridi, 65, noting 
that the region's moist climate allows marijuana to grow with little 
maintenance. "But I don't know what the future will be. Will the 
military allow this?"

The answer could prove to be a buzz-kill.

According to other residents who have gone home, security forces are 
targeting Pakistan's lucrative hash industry to try to establish more 
government control over the historically lawless border region.

In recent weeks, paramilitary forces have erected a dozen checkpoints 
and are enforcing a ban on transporting hashish through tribal areas. 
Dozens of roadside stands that previously sold hash openly have been 
shuttered. And residents say private homes are being raided.

That spells big trouble in the Tirah Valley, where growing marijuana 
is part of the culture as well as the chief source of income for 
several tribes, including the Afridis. Hamid-ul-Haq Khalil, a member 
of Pakistan's Parliament, said at least 100,000 people make their 
living cultivating or selling hash.

Families in the Tirah Valley, on the southern edge of the Hindu Kush 
mountains, grow marijuana on small or medium plots of land that 
cascade down from an elevation of 8,000 feet. The valley typically 
produces at least 100 tons of hash annually, residents say.

Much of it ends up in Pakistani cities, one reason hippies and 
college students from the United States flocked to Pakistan in the 
1960s, 1970s and early 1980s. But the drug is also smuggled around 
the world, and terms such as "Hindu Kush marijuana" and "Pakistani 
hash" are mainstays of pot-lovers' lexicons.

Along with the Tirah Valley, high-quality hash is produced in parts 
of Afghanistan, Morocco, Lebanon and India, according to Sheshta, who 
uses only a first name and writes for Amsterdam-based Sensi Seeds, a 
Web site that sells marijuana seeds.

But residents of Tirah Valley claim that no one can produce hash 
quite like they can.

While marijuana grows wild through out much of northern Pakistan, 
most of it lacks enough tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) to be considered a 
mind-altering drug. In the Tirah Valley, however, residents say they 
have been refining the quality of their marijuana for decades.

The drug was introduced to the valley about 120 years ago when a Sufi 
tourist from the eastern part of India, then a British colony, 
stumbled into the valley, tribesmen say. Sufism is a mystical form of 
Islam that stresses peace and love.

"He brought us the plant from India and convinced us we should grow 
it," said Shah Nawaz Afridi, a social justice activist from the valley.

The summer climate of the Tirah Valley - warm days, brief rain 
showers most evenings and cool nights - allows pot seeds to grow into 
monster marijuana plants that can exceed 15 feet, residents say.

In October, the plants are cut but left bundled in fields for two 
more months. Then they get covered in snow, which residents say is 
the secret to producing powerful hashish. The snow turns once green 
buds red - "like a radish," one farmer said.

After the plants are dried and brittle, entire families gather to 
make hash. It's produced by beating marijuana buds with sticks so 
dust-like residue floats to the ground. The residue is then swept up 
and packed into a bag-or the hide of a freshly slaughtered sheep or 
goat - so it gels into a substance that resembles smashed chocolate 
cake. It can then be smoked.

"The students, the doctors and other people who know, all want charas 
from the Tirah Valley," said Zakirullah Afridi, 35, using the local 
name for hash. As he spoke, he rubbed a half-dollar-size ball of hash 
between his fingers. "The taste is good. It's sweet. It's oily. And 
it makes you drowsy."

In a part of Pakistan so rugged that residents say the first paved 
road opened just this year- after the Pakistani army built it to 
transport military supplies - tribesmen consider hash to be a vital 
"medicine" for six ailments.

Diabetes. High blood pressure. Constipation. Poor sexual performance. 
Unhappiness. Being overweight.

"We also give it to the chickens in the field so they produce more 
eggs," said Sadar Khan Afridi, 36, who estimates that his family can 
produce about 15 pounds of hash annually.

But most of the hash is sold on the black market. Several Tirah 
Valley pot farmers say they earn $5,000 to $10,000 annually, a 
respectable income in one of the world's most remote regions.

When the Pakistani Taliban controlled the area, it taxed marijuana 
crops but otherwise did not interfere in the trade, residents said.

Even as Pakistan tries to exert more control, residents insist they 
are still governed by colonial-era regulations that gave them wide 
latitude to set their own laws.

Pakistan's army, which entered the Tirah Valley for the first time in 
2003, appears to be taking a different view. ShahNawaz Afridi said at 
least 100 Tirah Valley residents have been arrested in recent months 
for drug offenses.

"Even carrying one kilogram is now a difficult task," said Mohammad 
Karim Afridi, 43. "They are checking every vehicle ... even the nuts 
and bolts . . . and if they have any idea someone is keeping hashish 
at home, they raid."

A spokesman for the Pakistani military declined to comment. 
Pakistan's Anti-Narcotics Force also declined to comment, except to 
point to statistics showing that it seized 57 tons of hash between 
March 1 and Aug. 31.

"The operation in the Tirah Valley was launched to clear the area of 
terrorists, but the drug problem is also part of counterterrorism 
operations," said an Interior Ministry official who spoke on the 
condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the 
matter. "Drug money is being used to fund militancy. . . . It will be 
done away with completely."

Now, there is widespread concern in the Tirah Valley that the army 
will not even allow the crop to be planted next year.

With smuggling a mainstay of the tribal economy, it is hard to 
imagine that Pakistan's hash trade will totally dry up. But residents 
say even a partial disruption will cripple them financially because 
little else grows in the Tirah Valley except corn, walnuts and apricots.

"In the past, we had thick forests, but now the forests are depleted, 
so this is the only source of income," said Nisbat Afridi, 27.

But as some countries in the West liberalize marijuana laws, 
tribesmen and even a few Pakistani lawmakers see opportunity.

"We want permits and licenses for hashish, so we can show more people 
about the benefits, and if they allow us, we can export it," Sadar 
Khan Afridi said. "We could offer people better products, better prices."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom