Pakistani fertilizer grows both Taliban bombs and Afghan crops

The Pakistani government is working with the US to make sure a key ingredient for bombs stays away from insurgents in Afghanistan, but that effort may be having an unintended casualty.

Akhtar Soomro/Reuters/File
A man walking down a dirt road is silhouetted with the Pakarab fertilizer factory in the background in Multan, Pakistan, December 2011. The Pakistani government and the region's largest fertilizer manufacturer are working with the United States to play a more active role in making sure a key ingredient for homemade bombs stays out of the hands of insurgents in Afghanistan.

The Pakistani government and the region's largest fertilizer manufacturer are working with the United States to play a more active role in making sure a key ingredient for homemade bombs stays out of the hands of insurgents in Afghanistan, but that effort may be having an unintended consequence.

Homemade bombs are the weapon of choice for insurgents in Afghanistan. The Pentagon says there were 14,500 improvised explosive device (IED) attacks in 2012, up 56 percent from 2009. The bombs killed 868 Afghan civilians and 312 coalition soldiers last year. And many – if not most – of those were made using a chemical found in fertilizers.

By cracking down on fertilizer smuggling, the theory goes, one can also cut down the number of improvised explosive devices. 

But the security restrictions are increasing the price of fertilizer, making it difficult for farmers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, already struggling to make ends meet. Afghan farmers need fertilizer, and most rely on credit against their harvests to purchase it, says Richard Scott, an agricultural expert who has worked with farmers in Helmand Province since the 1970s.

The restrictions run the risk of pushing farmers of regular crops to opium farming. With profit margins already low for crops like wheat and cotton, opium looks increasingly like a good alternative for farmers because "the market is good, the fertilizer credit system is good, and in recent years the price has been high."

More than 60 percent of American combat casualties in Afghanistan are caused by IEDs, most of which are made with calcium ammonium nitrate (CAN), a chemical fertilizer used extensively by farmers in the region. Insurgents boil the fertilizer – removing components that keep it from being an effective explosive – and convert it into material to be used in bombs.

Pentagon officials told Congress last year that investigators had traced the chemical back to the Fatima Group, a Lahore-based manufacturer that supplies most of the fertilizer in the region.

At the time, the Fatima Group was planning to open a factory in Indiana, and was set to receive $1.3 billion in state bonds for the project.  But when word of the manufacturer's connection to IEDs came out, Indiana pulled the bonds, and plans for the plant were suspended.  A subsidiary of the Fatima Group, Pakarab Fertilizers, was the subject of similar controversy in 2011, when Congress threatened to withhold $700 million in aid to Pakistan. 

That impasse was resolved when American officials visited the manufacturer's factories in Multan, in central Pakistan. The company agreed to begin to distinctively color the bags the fertilizer was packaged in, to help customs officials stop the smuggling of it into Afghanistan. In an effort to downplay the most recent controversy, the Fatima Group says it stopped distributing its fertilizer in the provinces of Baluchistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, which both border Afghanistan, pulling existing stock from 228 dealers.

Though it's still too soon to tell what effect these distribution cuts will have, US officials would like to see the Fatima Group do more.

“Results matter,” said Lt. Gen. Michael Barbero, head of the Pentagon's Joint IED Defeat Organization, in a statement. “It will be important for us to see positive and measurable effects in reducing the flow of IED precursor materials from Pakistan into Afghanistan.” 

The Pentagon says it would like to see the Fatima Group dye its normally white calcium ammonium nitrate yellow or pink, so it can easily be distinguished from legitimate substances like soap powder at the border. And they would like the manufacturer to research new fertilizer formulations that would make it harder for insurgents to turn the product into explosives.

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the Fatima Group says it recently produced a “new formula that is much less explosive” than CAN, but would not give further details.

Farmers and fertilizer

In 2009, Afghanistan banned the use of calcium ammonium nitrate in an effort to cut down on IED attacks. The same year, Pakistan also banned the use of several types of ammonium nitrate fertilizers, including calcium ammonium nitrate, in large parts of the border region with Afghanistan. 

According to the World Bank, half of Afghanistan's GDP and 22 percent of Pakistan's GDP comes from farming. Farmers in Pakistan and Afghanistan have complained they need the banned fertilizer to grow their crops in order to survive without turning to illegal opium farming, which the US has also tried to crack down on.

The Pakistani ban on calcium ammonium nitrate has devastated farmers in the tribal areas, says Ahmad Ali Khan, a researcher at the Islamabad-based National Fertilizer Development Centre. 

Mr. Khan says there was already a shortage of fertilizer in Pakistan, and alternatives to ammonium nitrate, like urea, are not well suited to arid regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan. “Much of the border areas are not irrigated, so farmers depend on rain,” he explains.  “Urea is readily soluble, [meaning] if it doesn't dissolve quickly it will not be used by the plants well.” 

Despite its poor results when compared to CAN, says Najmudin Najm, an agricultural specialist with Afghanistan's Department of Agriculture, Irrigation, and Livestock, Afghan farmers have had to increasingly rely on urea fertilizer.  “Calcium ammonium nitrate is not available in the cities now, and it is too expensive,” he says. “Before 2009, it [calcium ammonium nitrate] was cheaper than urea.”

About 600,000 tons of calcium ammonium nitrate is produced in Pakistan each year. It is not clear how much gets smuggled into Afghanistan, but the vast majority of fertilizer produced does not end up in IEDs: The more than 14,500 IED attacks last year used about 200 tons of CAN, and coalition forces seized another 140 tons. 

“There really isn't any domestic production in Afghanistan worth speaking about,” says Adil Husain, head of Emerging Asia, a consulting firm that has studied the fertilizer market in Afghanistan. He says Pakistani fertilizer is far cheaper than the small quantities produced domestically or imported by plane. 

“If you're looking at the grassroots level, where an Afghan farmer gets fertilizer, it's through middlemen who are in turn smuggling it in from Pakistan.” 

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