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  May 10, 2009

Drug lords have friends in high places

Tom Lasseter: Afghan drug trade thrives with help, and neglect, of officials
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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, which was worth some $3.4 billion to Afghan exporters last year. For a cut of that, Afghan officials open their highways to opium and heroin trafficking, allow public lands to be used for growing opium poppies, and protect drug dealers—so reports Tom Lasseter, McClatchy Newspapers' Moscow bureau chief. Tom's just returned from spending four weeks in Afghanistan, where he investigated the role of the Afghan government and the policy of Western powers facilitating the Afghan drug trade. He joins us today from Moscow. Thanks for joining us, Tom.


JAY: So the title of your piece is "Thriving Afghan drug trade has friends in high places." So what's your evidence for this?

LASSETER: Well, I interviewed two dozen former and current Afghan security and intelligence officials, many of whom pointed to specific instances of phone calls from high-ranking Afghan officials, often from the central government in Kabul, telling them to release trucks or drug traffickers.

JAY: Give an example of one of the stories that you uncovered.

LASSETER: Sure. One of the more striking examples was in 2005. A guy by the name of Syed Jan had been traveling around Afghanistan with a set of documents signed by the deputy interior minister for counternarcotics, saying that he, Syed Jan, was working with the counternarcotics task force in Helmand. Jan was stopped at a checkpoint in eastern Afghanistan later with 425 pounds of heroin in his car. Turned out the documents were authentic. The deputy interior minister for counternarcotics confirmed they were authentic, but said that he trusted Syed Jan because he'd been referred to him by the office of President Hamid Karzai.

JAY: President Karzai says that there is a serious campaign against drug trafficking in Afghanistan. How many top-level druglords have been arrested and convicted and are sitting in Afghan jails right now?

LASSETER: Well, according to a recent US report, none have been. No major drug traffickers have been arrested or convicted in Afghanistan since 2006.

JAY: In your piece, you tell the story of one conviction that was overturned. What is that story?

LASSETER: That was Syed Jan, the same guy I was talking about, [who] was convicted. In Afghanistan they've set up a special court for handling narcotics cases of any significant weight to get them out of the provinces, which are, particularly in the south, seen as being heavily corrupted. And so this court did convict Syed Jan. And he had reportedly confessed to being a drug trafficker. He was sentenced to—I think it was 16 years. The case went to appeals. And in the interim, he was transferred back south to Helmand province, and along the way escaped.

JAY: Escaped in a way that—in your article, you suggest someone had to know exactly where and how they were transporting him. It sounds a little bit out of an episode of 24 Hours [sic].

LASSETER: His escape, as it was described to me by a spokesman from that counternarcotics court, was that during the police transport from the airport to the detention center there, the convoy was ambushed and he was released, which certainly suggest that those who ambushed the convoy and who freed him had a pretty good idea of when that convoy would be headed from the airport to the detention center. Someone we talked to from the Ministry of Justice later said that he had just slipped away. It was the Ministry of Justice, incidentally, which decided to transfer him down south from Kabul.

JAY: Now, in your piece, you make some very specific charges about Wali Karzai, the president's brother, who's one of the senior political figures in Kandahar. Can you talk about your experience with Karzai and what leads you to be able to suggest that he's involved in the drug trade?

LASSETER: A fair number of these 24-plus current and former security and intelligence officials said that they had either firsthand knowledge or had seen reports indicating Ahmed Wali Karzai's involvement. One specific incident was in 2004 and in Kandahar, where Karzai is the head of the provincial council. A truck was pulled over with—I think it was heroin in the back. And the head of the unit that pulled over this truck, a commander by the name of Habibullah Jan, later said that he got a call first from Ahmed Wali Karzai, and then from the office of President Hamid Karzai, telling him to release the truck.

JAY: You met with Karzai and tried to interview him about this. How did that go?

LASSETER: Well, I went to Ahmed Wali Karzai's house in Kandahar after spending several days talking with formal officials there, poppy growers, one sort of middleman drug dealer. And so I went to meet with Ahmed Wali Karzai to give him the opportunity to respond to some of the specific allegations that I'd heard about him from these current and former officials. At the beginning of the interview he said that he had nothing to do with drugs, that this was all part of a political campaign against his brother, the president. And then, as we started to get into specifics, Ahmed Wali Karzai started to get upset. Then he cut the interview short. And then, as I was leaving his house, he started yelling obscenities and threatening to beat me.

JAY: Now, how do you know that in fact this isn't a campaign against Wali Karzai? One thing you and I have in common is we've both been in Karzai's house in Kandahar. I met him in the spring of 2002. He's a quite sophisticated person who stood very strongly against the Taliban. He seems, within the context of Afghanistan, almost a kind of secular person. Do we know that this isn't a campaign, a political campaign against him?

LASSETER: Well, we point out in the story that he says that the spokesman for President Karzai says that, and we point out that the DEA says that they, you know, looked into it and could not conclusively make the case, but certainly, you know, heard very specific allegations from security and intelligence officials who were in a position to know what was happening in the south of Afghanistan. You know, and Afghanistan, you know, certainly is a land of no shortage of conspiracy and feud. But one is struck by the number of Afghan security and intelligence officials who think that he is either involved in the drug trade or involved with protecting those who are.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let's talk more about people in high places facilitating the drug trade in Afghanistan and what western policy has been that's allowed, in the most generous way, room for this to develop. And in a less generous interpretation, certainly western powers have been knowing every step of the way what's been going on with the development of the drug trade. So in the next segment, let's deconstruct that. Please join us for the next part of our interview with Tom Lasseter.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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