KABUL, Afghanistan — The labs themselves are simple, tucked into nondescript huts or caves: a couple-dozen empty barrels for mixing, sacks or gallon jugs of precursor chemicals, piles of firewood, a press machine, a generator and a water pump with a long hose to draw from a nearby well.
They are heroin refining operations, and the Afghan police and American Special Forces keep running into them all over Afghanistan this year. Officials and diplomats are increasingly worried that the labs’ proliferation is one of the most troubling turns yet in the long struggle to end the Taliban insurgency.
That the country has consistently produced about 85 percent of the world’s opium, despite more than $8 billion spent by the United States alone to fight it over the years, is accepted with a sense of helplessness among counternarcotics officials.
For years, most of the harvest would be smuggled out in the form of bulky opium syrup that was refined in other countries. But now, Afghan and Western officials estimate that half, if not more, of Afghan opium is getting some level of processing in the country, either into morphine or heroin with varying degrees of purity.
The refining makes the drug much easier to smuggle out into the supply lines to the West. And it is vastly increasing the profits for the Taliban, for whom the drug trade makes up at least 60 percent of their income, according to Afghan and Western officials.
“Without drugs, this war would have been long over,” President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said recently. “The heroin is a very important driver of this war.”
At a time when the Taliban has been aggressively seizing territory from the government, particularly in opium-producing regions, the prospect of even more drug profits cuts to the heart of American commanders’ hopes of urging the Taliban to seek peace with the Afghan government.
“If an illiterate local Taliban commander in Helmand makes a million dollars a month now, what does he gain in time of peace?” one senior Afghan official said.
Another official, Gen. Abdul Khalil Bakhtiar, Afghanistan’s deputy interior minister in charge of the counternarcotics police, said the insurgents had used the growing insecurity of the past two years to establish more refining labs, and move them closer to the opium fields.
General Bakhtiar estimated last year that there were 400 to 500 labs in the country, mostly in regions controlled or contested by the Taliban. His forces have destroyed over 100 of them.
But then he admitted, “They can build a lab like this in one day.”
Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said the group “had nothing to do” with processing heroin, and denied that major laboratories existed in the areas under its control.
The Taliban have long profited from the opium trade by taxing and providing security for producers and smugglers. But increasingly, the insurgents are directly getting into every stage of the drug business themselves, rivaling some of the major cartels in the region — and in some places becoming indistinguishable from them.
The opium economy in Afghanistan grew to about $3 billion in 2016, almost doubling the previous year’s total and amounting to about 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The increase in processing means the Taliban have been able to take a greater share of the $60 billion that the global trade in the Afghan opium crop is estimated to be worth. Demand remains high in Europe and North America: Ninety percent of the heroin on the streets of Canada, and about 85 percent in Britain, can be traced to Afghanistan, the State Department says.
Despite the size of Afghanistan’s opium problem, not much is being done about it. Opium eradication or interception got little attention in the Trump administration’s new strategy for the Afghan war.
Various police forces bear the brunt of the drug war in Afghanistan, but are often complicit in the opium trade themselves, feeding corrupt networks within the Afghan government, both locally and nationally.
The fight to disrupt the flow of Afghan drugs to Western and regional capitals, and cash to the coffers of the Taliban, has largely fallen on a small police unit, the National Interdiction Unit, of about 450 to 600 commandos who are mentored by American Special Forces.
“We have to merge these two things together — the counterterrorism and the counternarcotics. It has to go hand in hand, because if you destroy one, it is going to destroy the other,” said Javid Qaem, the Afghan deputy minister of counternarcotics.
Mr. Qaem said the situation could improve if opium crop eradication efforts factored more into the planning of security operations. He gave the example of Helmand Province, where eradication operations were attempted, but only started after this year’s crop had been harvested.
“In Helmand, we were targeting to do more than 2,000 to 3,000 hectares of eradication,” Mr. Qaem said. “We couldn’t do anything there, none at all, because Helmand was almost an active battlefield, the entire province.”
At the provincial level, counternarcotics officials have proved far from trustworthy, their directors often appointed by local strongmen or vulnerable to their influence.
A senior counternarcotics official in Kabul, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid reprisals, recounted how the elite unit was painstakingly following a network of money launderers in one opium-rich province who were helping to import the chemicals needed for refining heroin. The officers finally had enough evidence to make a high-level arrest, nabbing one of the network’s leaders — only to lose him when a powerful police commander personally stepped in to set the suspect free. There was no recourse.
In that environment, the small National Interdiction Unit, sequestered in a secure mountainside base in Kabul, has been one of the surest bets in striking against the opium and heroin networks. And even that has not been foolproof: Its top commander was replaced recently for failing a polygraph test and “was probably leaking information to hostile forces,” according to a report by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. The force also has a one-stop-shop justice center, advised by the British.
A United States Army Special Forces member working with the unit said advisers accompanied the Afghan force on about 30 percent of its operations. Those usually end up as larger-scale raids in Taliban areas, requiring a more complex approach.
“The Taliban derives its funding from the narcotics taxing, sales and trafficking,” said the adviser, who, like other Special Forces members spoke on condition that his name not be used. “It is a priority: We are specifically after denying Taliban their revenue.”
The elite forces and their American advisers, often flying up to six helicopters from Kabul, operate at night. They land miles away from the target to avoid fire, and then make their way by foot.
Still, the raids rarely, if ever, result in arrests; the suspects often flee as soon as they hear the motors. The operations last no more than a few hours, culminating with the torching of the drugs and equipment after a process of documentation.
There are other indicators that more opium is being processed within Afghanistan, officials say, including data from the drug seizures and the amount of chemicals needed for the processing.
In previous years, the amount of opium seized in Afghanistan would far outnumber, by at least five times, the processed morphine and heroin. In 2015, for example, about 30,000 kilograms, or 66,000 pounds, of opium was sized, compared with a little over 5,000 kilograms, or 11,000 pounds, of heroin and morphine combined.
So far in 2017, the seizure numbers seem flipped, officials say: The amount of heroin and morphine, both requiring some level of processing, combined is almost double that of opium.
The Afghan government said that so far this year it had seized about 73 tons of the chemical precursors needed for processing. That number for all of 2015 was just a little over 1.4 tons of solid and close to 5,000 liters, or about 1,300 gallons, of liquid precursors. One recent shipment alone, which cleared customs and was caught being transferred to another vehicle when agents found it, could have made 15 tons of heroin.
If the initial data is any indication, the 2017 poppy harvest was another record year, Afghan officials say. Eradication was abysmal, with security forces unable to even raze fields in Sarobi, just 50 miles from the presidential palace in Kabul.
Mr. Qaem, the deputy minister, said that just as eradication efforts were about to begin in Kabul District, the district’s leadership was changed. And workers were hard to find: They had to be brought in from other provinces, as the local laborers would not destroy their neighbors’ fields.
But the biggest problem was hidden Taliban bombs, he said. Each day, before laborers could destroy the fields, demining teams had to first clear them of explosives.
“It seemed easy — it was Kabul,” Mr. Qaem said. “But it was tough. It was almost a war there, every day.”