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  May 12, 2009

Poppy palaces in Afghanistan

Lasseter Pt.3: Solutions in Afghanistan are hard to find as corruption and a narco-state grow
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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to the next part of our interview with Tom Lasseter. He's the Moscow bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers, just returned from four weeks in Afghanistan. Thanks for joining us again, Tom.


JAY: So the drug trade is fueling not only the Taliban but extensive corruption throughout the whole Afghan government, as you suggest, and perhaps in neighboring countries as well. Heroin addiction, I think, has now become a massive problem in Iran and Pakistan and many of the neighboring countries. So the issue of trying to solve this has both military consequences and profound social consequences in the whole region. Are there any solutions that are being looked at that appear realistic or potentially successful to you?

LASSETER: Well, you know, I think, first of all, there are not any easy solutions to much of anything in Afghanistan. You know, we've got so much corruption and so much violence there right now, and a country that's dysfunctional in so many ways, you know, big and small, that, you know, I don't think there's any, you know, magic bean to fixing the problem. But certainly there's, you know, increasingly, looking at an array of approaches, there's crop substitution, you know, trying to get farmers to grow things like pomegranate, wheat, different fruits and vegetables, and building up the supply chain from there to places like Dubai, demonstrating that they could—you know, try to demonstrate that they could make as much or more by growing alternative crops, crops for which, presumably, there would not be as heavy a taxation system from militant groups like the Taliban. And there's a look at balancing that with eradication, you know, having a carrot and stick. But, again, I mean, whatever you're talking about in Afghanistan, if you're talking about fixing roads, if you're talking about fixing water quality, if you're talking about addressing past war crimes, corruption, counterinsurgency tactics, you know, it is a place where solutions are, you know, not fast and coming and where the problems have become, you know, very complicated over the year.

JAY: During the election campaign, President (then-candidate) Obama talked about something at the scale of a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan, a real commitment to reconstruction and rebuilding the economy from the bottom up, he said as he was campaigning. But in the recent Afghan policy there was an announcement of about $1.5 billion investment in the Pakistan tribal areas, but no mention of real expenditure in Afghanistan, other than what they're calling a civilian surge, where they're going to send American expertise. But that's certainly far from a Marshall Plan. I mean, I don't understand how there can be any real solution in Afghanistan if there isn't a commitment to some kind of transformation of the Afghan economy.

LASSETER: I've not done much reporting about the Obama team and its plans for Afghanistan or Pakistan. But I think, you know, I mean, the subject of Pakistan brings up just how complicated it is. You know, when you look at east Afghanistan and west Pakistan, certainly the locals there don't recognize an international border between the two countries. You know, it's just a place with, you know, just such a large and complex set of variables.

JAY: But from your own observations in Afghanistan, if they don't deal with the issue of an—I mean, as Afghan's essentially become a narco-state, if they don't deal with the fact that most of Afghanistan, if not all of it, is essentially one big narco-state, then how is there any solution to the Afghan problem, which means reconstruction of some serious way, doesn't it?

LASSETER: Right. And, again, I think there has been, during the past year, year and a half, I mean, a very serious reckoning about that, about the potentials and the dangers of the country, particularly in the south, sliding into a narco-state and all that would entail, you know, because you start to have serious destabilization beyond questions of an insurgency. You start to have, you know, what some would call narco-terrorism. You know, you start to have, you know, exponentially more crime, exponentially more corruption, and the state and the society fall apart even more. But, you know, there are many who would argue that, even as it stands today, you know, the writ of the central government in Kabul does not extend very far past Kabul.

JAY: And as tremendous addiction problems growing within Afghanistan, which as I understand it was not a traditional problem in Afghanistan, but now heroin addiction, as I understand it, has become quite a profound social problem throughout the whole country.

LASSETER: Right. Yeah. I mean, there's a pretty big step between, you know, an informal culture of hashish smoking in a place and serious, widespread, hardcore heroin addiction. I mean, the latter is going to bring far more serious social ills, a much bigger strain on infrastructure, you know, such that it exists, medical services. It's a much higher order of the problem.

JAY: So what was the mood there? You just returned from Afghanistan. What were people's mood and reaction when President Obama announced the new surge of troops, etcetera? How are people feeling about US policy in Afghanistan?

LASSETER: Well, you know, when you talk to, you know, Afghan officials, you know, I think they liked what they heard, in a way, but they were unclear or uncertain about what the details were about what it would actually mean. And so I think there was sort of a wait-and-see attitude. And when you talk about just your normal person on the street, you know, I mean, there's a fair amount of despondency about the decline in the country in terms of security, infrastructure, services, and most everything else.

JAY: The debate here in the United States, to a large extent, is whether or not US troops should be there at all. What do you think Afghans want in terms of the presence of US and foreign troops there?

LASSETER: Again, it's not something that I've done much reporting about, you know, Afghan attitude toward US- and NATO-led troops. You know. But I think it certainly would be fair to say in general it's more negative now, certainly, than it was at the beginning of this campaign.

JAY: In your article, you talk about something called poppy palaces. What's that?

LASSETER: Right. Well, those are houses in Kabul in relatively upscale areas, where rents run in the thousands or up to ten thousand dollars, that are frequently owned by either Afghan officials or those connected with them who would seem to have no legal means to own that sort of real estate, much less the expensive armored vehicles which are often pulled up around them. I interviewed the mayor of Kandahar, the city of Kandahar, a gentleman by the name of Ghulam Haider Hamidi. And if I could just read his quote, he said, "When you see these buildings, that's not normal money. . . . That's drug money." He said, "The ministers and the governors are behind the drug dealers, and sometimes they are the drug dealers." And that was a sentiment that I heard across the board with, again, this more than two dozen current and former Afghan officials. And, you know, to emphasize, these are men who work in a government backed by the United States, often in security or intelligence positions in the south of Afghanistan. Another of the men I interviewed, a man by the name of Mohammed Hussein Andewal, a former police chief in Helmand province, said that if he had a map in front of him, he could sketch out a drug ring involving several regional and high-ranking Afghan officials that push heroin through Nimruz province into Iran. But he said that the principal thing standing between him doing that—you know, him knowing that and him doing that was that he would be killed. And that's something that I heard a fair amount. You know, these officials were not coming to me. You know, they often were very hesitant to meet with me, you know, often did not want to talk about what they knew, because of very—for them it seemed very real threat of death. You know, another man that I was interviewing, a former senior security official in southern Afghanistan who is now in Kabul, we were in the middle of an interview in his office, and I started asking him about a couple of specific Afghan officials and their involvement in the drug trade, and he cut the interview off, asked that I not use his name, and said that to do so would endanger not only his life but the lives of his family.

JAY: Tell us, just quickly, just what happened to the guy that did get killed.

LASSETER: That was Dad Mohammad Khan, a former intelligence chief from Helmand who, during our interview, said that Ahmed Wali Karzai had essentially forced him, through an intermediary, to release a Taliban commander who his men had arrested in a well-known drug transit point. A week after that interview, he was killed by a roadside bombing in the south of Afghanistan. But his death was widely attributed to the Taliban. He had a reputation for being a man who had dealt with his enemies fairly ruthlessly during his time as intelligence chief.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Tom. And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network, coming to you from the McClatchy offices in Washington, DC.


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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