Former Heroin Smuggler Co-Owns One of Afghanistan’s Biggest Oil, Gas Projects

By Paul Gaita 07/14/14

Ahmad Rateb Popal spent 10 years in prison for smuggling heroin. So what is he doing in a country that produces over 90% of the world's illicit opiates?

Ahmad Rateb Popal. Photo via

From a financial standpoint, the joint venture between Afghanistan’s Watan Group and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), which seeks to tap untouched basins of oil and natural gas in northern Afghanistan, promises to be a major boon for all parties.

Their effort may potentially yield 1.6 billion barrels of crude oil and 15.6 billion cubic feet of natural gas, which in turn could bring $250 million per year to the impoverished country, freeing them from dependency on American and other foreign aid, while also making both companies extremely rich top shelf players in the international energy business. But government officials from around the globe are deeply concerned about the involvement of the Watan Group and in particular, its chairman, Ahmad Rateb Popal, who oversees the company with his brother, Rashid. Both men are reported to be cousins of Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai.

Popal gained notoriety in the late 1980s for a decade-long prison sentence in New York for heroin smuggling; his brother Rashid pleaded guilty to a separate heroin charge in 1996, one year before Popal’s release. The brothers returned to Afghanistan, where they formed Watan Risk Management, a private security firm, in 2005. The firm reaped millions of dollars in funds from the U.S. government until 2010, when the Taliban launched a series of attacks against NATO supply convoys protected by Watan. The company was briefly banned from security work for the U.S. over allegations that they had either paid the Taliban to keep the convoys safe or colluded with the terrorist group to underscore their importance to the project.

The ban was reversed a year later, though Watan was required to stay out of the security business for three years. Since then, the Popals have expanded Watan’s influence to telecommunications and logistics. But the oil deal, struck in December 2012, promises to elevate the group to new-found heights of wealth and influence. The venture has drawn criticism, privately from the diplomatic community and more publicly from oil industry watchdog groups. A more immediate concern to the project is a dispute between Watan and CNPC over budgeting, which has halted future drilling and exploration, though oil production and sales continue unabated.

The success of the project is of vital importance to both Afghanistan’s financial security and the international oil industry, which has necessitated the involvement of the Pentagon, which has launched its own investigation into the conflict. According to their report both sides have inflated drilling and exploration costs.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.