In the dusty village of Ghurian on Afghanistan's arid western border, Touraj* had made his life as a shepherd, but in the late 1990s, when a drought brought that livelihood to an end, he became a middleman in the country's lucrative drug business. Touraj's primary job was to hire couriers to carry drugs across the border into Iran. At first, the risk paid off -- he was able to build a two-story house and buy gold jewelry for his wife. For himself, he purchased a motorcycle and a Rado watch. Feeling flush, he even took a girl from the city on as a second wife. 

But more recently, after a few deals went bad, Touraj fell into $10,000 worth of debt to smugglers from Helmand Province, the frontline of the NATO counterinsurgency campaign. He was jailed. To buy back his freedom and save the rest of his family, he would sell two of his daughters.

He bartered Darya, 12, and her 14-year-old sister, Saboora, as brides to opium smugglers. The girls were wed without their consent in Helmand -- Touraj and the smugglers performed the Islamic nikah ceremony, which pronounces a man and woman as husband and wife. As it turned out, Saboora escaped her newfound fate: Her husband never showed up to collect. He was presumably killed while on his way; Saboora remained with her family. 

Darya's husband, however, did turn up to claim his new bride. Haji Tor was 34 years her elder and had another wife and eight children. He spoke Pashto; she only spoke Dari. For two years, Darya refused to go with him. He was lenient enough to let her stay with her family, although he routinely visited to try to convince her to come with him to Helmand. In 2003, I was in the village researching my book Opium Nation, and after I met Darya, she pleaded for me to somehow free her.

Over the last ten years, such stories have become increasingly common in Afghanistan, as bartering girls into marriage to pay off opium debts has become more prevalent. Farmers, middlemen in the drug trade, drug couriers, and even some drug lords themselves sell their daughters to more powerful traffickers and smugglers. The women are worth thousands of dollars, a sizeable sum in a country where the average monthly income for a civil servant is $70. Some women who are sold into the drug trade have not reached puberty; many are sold to men three to four decades their senior. In fact, the younger the wife, the more she raises the status of the man -- showing off his wealth and virility.

If a girl refuses to join the new husband, her entire family can become a target. Indeed, traffickers are infamous for their threats to collect their debts, whether it be kidnapping the girls, burning down family homes, or killing whole families in revenge.

The trade in opium brides has long existed in Afghanistan. But with the poppy trade now accounting for more than half of the country's economy, thousands more girls each year are likely becoming victims. Reliable statistics are hard to come by, but girls in villages bordering neighboring countries suffer the most. In one Kandahar village, I was told an entire block of homes included opium brides as second and third wives. Just about the only employment in these areas is in the narcotics industry -- for income, some families have uprooted their courtyard rose beds to plant poppies. Nearly 500,000 farming families, about 20 percent of Afghans, survive on poppy farms.

I reported Darya's case to the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which informed me that it could do nothing to help one girl out of thousands. Under Afghan law, Sunni girls cannot be married until they are 16. There is more leeway for Shiites to marry younger. A year after I left, Darya's family convinced her to go with her husband. Just a few months later, however, Darya's mother asked me to travel south toward Helmand and find her daughter. Darya had threatened to burn herself to death -- an increasingly common form of protest among Afghan girls trying to escape their misery. From January to September 2011, a doctor in Herat Hospital reported 50 cases of self-inflicted burns.

It helps to understand how the drug trade works in Afghanistan today. In early to mid-summer, families harvest their crop. By scoring the milky juice from poppy pods and storing them overnight, they turn the poppies into opium. Two-thirds of that opium is then refined into heroin. Before 2001, the refining process, which involves cooking various chemicals with the opium and water, used to take place largely in Pakistan, Turkey, and other Gulf kingdoms.

In 2000, the Taliban outlawed production to raise opium prices and try to gain international recognition, but they still encouraged processing and trafficking. The Pakistani government raided the labs on its border, and lab workers moved across the mountain passes to Afghanistan. Heroin reaps ten times more profits than opium. Due to the international community's neglect of the drug trade after 2001, the accessibility of precursor chemicals, and the insurgency's reliance on the drug trade to fight its war, secret laboratories within Afghanistan are increasingly able to turn opium into heroin. Lower-grade, small-quantity heroin can be produced in home kitchens, while the finest China White, as it's known, is mass-produced inside elaborate labs nestled in mountain caves.

The Afghan heroin industry churns out 380 to 400 tons of heroin a year, an amount that exceeds global demand, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Counternarcotic agents are often tipped off to lab locations, but usually by the time they arrive, chemists and lab workers have already escaped. Double agents in the Afghan government abound: They tell the lab workers first, then the agents, who respond by blowing up the labs with no drugs or people inside. 

The opium and heroin industry is worth $65 billion per year worldwide. Afghanistan gets about $4 billion of the take, most of which flows into the pockets of the trafficking mafias, drug kingpins, and corrupt government officials who provide protection. Farmers, who usually turn to planting poppy out of desperation, receive only 20 percent of the profits and are the most vulnerable to debt. Under an antiquated loan system called salaam, local smugglers lend farmers the poppy seeds for their first crop. If the farmers' harvest is plentiful, they repay the loan and continue to plant. If the land does not yield the desired amount, or if opium prices dwindle, the farmer will have no way to repay the smuggler and falls deeper into debt. It is possible to get out of poppy farming only once the farmer has produced enough to sustain his livelihood and pay off the loan. 

More than half of Afghanistan's heroin is transported through Iran, because it is the quickest route to Europe. Middlemen and couriers crossing borders are likely to end up in debt as well, as hauls are captured by authorities or lost in firefights en route. Smugglers, who are constantly competing for turf, battle one another with advanced weapons and fast-moving vehicles. The arms-for-drugs racket is prevalent -- instead of money, drug dealers may accept a machine gun on the black market for a kilo of heroin. Entering the narcotics industry is a high-risk business, and young girls -- and sometimes boys -- are its most innocent victims.

While in search of Darya, evidence abounded of a huge trade network of cash, drugs, and daughters between Afghanistan's west and south. The international community has spent billions of dollars trying to find a solution to Afghanistan's poppy problem. It has attempted to eradicate farms, find alternative livelihoods for farmers, and train elite counternarcotic forces. These efforts have yielded some success. Today, fewer provinces are cultivating poppy than in 2007, when a record 8,000 tons of opium were produced.

But a sustainable solution is elusive. Eradication of poorer farmers' crops only propels the sale of more girls. Fathers end up in debt when their harvest is destroyed. Farmers endure daily harassment by drug dealers if they are still in debt. Even after they settle their debts by selling their girls, they will continue to plant poppy for lack of a more profitable crop. Most small landowners divide their land in three plots, planting poppy in one and wheat for subsistence in another, while leaving one plot fallow to rejuvenate the soil.

It will take decades to wean Afghanistan off opium for good. In the meantime, the international community should do much more to protect young girls from becoming casualties. In a documentary film on opium brides released by "Frontline" in January, a young girl who had been sold to traffickers sought protection in a women's shelter. Today, there are about 14 women's shelters in Afghanistan serving abused Afghan women and girls. The number seems small, but it is still progress. The location of these shelters is secret. They give girls an option to save themselves from drug traffickers, even though their families will remain in danger. Investment in such projects would go a long way.

In addition, provincial governors and local leaders need to be held responsible for enforcing Afghanistan's laws on coerced and early marriage. More education and awareness about human rights among Afghans is vital. And any donor country invested in fighting the drug trade, including the United States and Britain, should partner with local organizations to help farmers repay debts and discourage the sale of girls.

Darya's fate is still unknown. The sale of girls like her -- the tens of thousands of them -- is not just the crime of underage or forced marriage. It is human trafficking, slavery, and a gross injustice that will continue to bring shame on those who choose to ignore it.

Matthew DuPee, a security and drug research specialist at the Naval Postgraduate School, contributed to this article.

* Some of the names have been changed to protect the lives of the individuals.

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  • FARIBA NAWA is a journalist and the author of Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords, and One Woman’s Journey Through Afghanistan, and Afghanistan, Inc.
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