By Tom Lasseter | McClatchy Newspapers

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — When it’s harvest time in the poppy fields of Kandahar, dust-covered Taliban fighters pull up on their motorbikes to collect a 10 percent tax on the crop. Afghan police arrive in Ford Ranger pickups — bought with U.S. aid money — and demand their cut of the cash in exchange for promises to skip the farms during annual eradication.

Then, usually late one afternoon, a drug trafficker will roll up in his Toyota Land Cruiser with black-tinted windows and send a footman to pay the farmers in cash. The farmers never see the boss, but they suspect that he’s a local powerbroker who has ties to the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Everyone wants a piece of the action, said farmer Abdul Satar, a thin man with rough hands who tends about half an acre of poppy just south of Kandahar. “There is no one to complain to,” he said, sitting in the shade of an orange tree. “Most of the government officials are involved.”

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 land to be used for growing opium poppies and protect drug dealers.

The drug trade funnels hundreds of millions of dollars each year to drug barons and the resurgent Taliban, the militant Islamist group that’s killed an estimated 450 American troops in Afghanistan since 2001 and seeks to overthrow the fledgling democracy here.

What’s more, Afghan officials’ involvement in the drug trade suggests that American tax dollars are supporting the corrupt officials who protect the Taliban’s efforts to raise money from the drug trade, money the militants use to buy weapons that kill U.S. soldiers.

Islam forbids the use of opium and heroin — the Taliban outlawed poppy growing in 2000 — but the militants now justify the drug production by saying it’s not for domestic consumption but rather to sell abroad as part of a holy war against the West. Under the Taliban regime, the biggest Afghan opium crop was roughly 4,500 tons in 1999, far below the record 8,200 tons in 2007.

The booming drug trade threatens the stability of the Afghan government, and with it America’s efforts to defeat the Taliban and al Qaida in Afghanistan. The threat has grown not only because of the cozy relationships among drug lords, militants and corrupt officials, but also because of apathy by Western powers.

From the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks until last year, the United States and other NATO countries did little to address the problem, according to a Western counter-narcotics official in Afghanistan.

“We all realized that it will take a long time to win this war, but we can lose it in a couple years if we don’t take this (drug) problem by the horns,” said the official, who asked for anonymity so that he could speak more freely.

To unravel the ties among militants, opium and the government, McClatchy interviewed more than two dozen current and past Afghan officials, poppy farmers and others familiar with the drug trade. Seven former Afghan governors and security commanders said they had firsthand knowledge of local or national officials who were transporting or selling drugs or protecting those who did.

Most of the sources feared retribution. One man was killed a week after he spoke to McClatchy. Another called back a week after the interview and said he hadn’t left his home in days, fearful that McClatchy’s calls to verify his story would bring trouble. A third met on the condition that a reporter promised not to tell anyone that he still lives in Kabul.

“In this country, if someone really tells the truth he will have no place to live,” said Agha Saqeb, who served as the provincial police chief in Kandahar, in the heart of Afghanistan’s opium belt, from 2007 to 2008. Naming Afghan officials who profit from drugs, he said, would get him killed: “They are still in power and they could harm me.”

The embassies of the U.S., Britain and Canada — the countries principally behind counter-narcotics in Afghanistan — declined to comment. A State Department report issued earlier this year flatly noted that: “Many Afghan government officials are believed to profit from the drug trade.”

It also said: “Regrettably, no major drug trafficker has been arrested or convicted in Afghanistan since 2006.”

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Kabul also refused to comment. Afghan and Western observers said the DEA had been hampered by inadequate staffing and by the difficulty of cracking down on drug trafficking in a country where local officials were implicated in it.

The corruption allegedly reaches the highest levels of Afghanistan’s political elite. According to multiple Afghan former officials, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai and the head of the provincial council in Kandahar, routinely manipulates judicial and police officials to facilitate shipments of opium and heroin.

Ahmed Wali Karzai and his defenders retort that the U.S. government never has formally accused him of any wrongdoing.

In Kabul, President Karzai’s office said no one could prove that his brother had anything to do with opium and heroin. The Afghan Attorney General’s Office has received no complaints or evidence against Ahmed Wali Karzai, according to an official there who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue.

Neither the Bush nor the Obama administrations has officially charged him with involvement in drugs, and a former DEA chief of operations, Michael Braun, said the agency had “basically struck out” in trying to prove the allegations.

Ahmed Wali Karzai himself is defensive, saying that the accusations are part of a political conspiracy against his brother, the president. When he was asked recently about the allegations linking him to drugs and crime, he threatened to assault a visiting McClatchy reporter.

THE ALLEGATIONS AGAINST AHMED WALI KARZAI

The narcotics trade in Afghanistan would be impossible without government officials and the Taliban on the payroll, said the man in the brown turban. “The link between them is a natural one.”

The man should know. He’s a drug dealer in Kandahar who provides money to purchase opium culled from poppy on local farms and arranges for it to be shipped to markets near the city.

The owner of several shoe and electronics shops in Kandahar, he sat in a plastic chair in a small office tucked away on the second floor of a bare concrete building. As he described the inner workings of the opium trade, he spat tobacco from under the fold of his cheek into a silken floral print handkerchief.

“The drug smuggler tells a police commander to transport a certain amount of drugs, for example, from the city to Maiwand District” — on the northwest edge of Kandahar province — “and pays him 100,000 Pakistani rupees,” about $1,200, said the dealer, who asked that his name not be used for fear of running afoul of local warlords or officials. “And then from Maiwand, he pays the Taliban another 100,000 rupees to take it farther,” to heroin labs in the southern province of Helmand and on to Pakistan or Iran.

The dealer offered introductions to the Taliban or to the provincial governor, but there was one man he didn’t wish to discuss: Ahmed Wali Karzai.

According to several Afghan former officials in the region, however, the major drug traffickers in southern Afghanistan don’t worry much about getting caught because they’re working under the protection of Karzai and other powerful government officials.

For example, a former top Afghan intelligence official recounted an incident from about five years ago, when, he said, his men arrested a Taliban commander who was involved with drugs at a key narcotics-trafficking point between Helmand and the Pakistani border.

Late on the evening of the arrest, a local prosecutor dropped by and said that Ahmed Wali Karzai wanted the militant released, according to Dad Mohammed Khan, who was the national intelligence directorate chief of Helmand province for about three years before he became a member of the national parliament.

Khan said he released the Taliban commander, a man known as Haji Abdul Rahim, because he didn’t want to tangle with the president’s brother.

A week after his conversation with McClatchy, Khan — a large man with a bushy black beard who had a reputation for dealing with enemies ruthlessly — was killed by a roadside bomb that most attribute to the Taliban.

Khan, however, isn’t the only one to accuse Ahmed Wali Karzai of ties to drug trafficking.

In 2004, an Afghan Defense Ministry brigade reportedly had a similar run-in with Karzai. The brigade pulled over a truck in Kandahar and found heroin hidden under sacks of concrete, according to the corps commander who oversaw the unit, Brig. Gen. Khan Mohammed.

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Shortly afterward, the brigade leader, a man named Habibullah Jan, got a phone call from Ahmed Wali Karzai demanding that he release the truck, Mohammed said. That call was followed by one from a member of President Karzai’s staff, Mohammed said.

Jan later became a parliament member and publicly accused Ahmed Wali Karzai of being a criminal. Jan was killed last year in a sophisticated ambush in Kandahar under circumstances that remain unclear. The Taliban haven’t taken responsibility for the attack.

“Ahmed Wali Karzai has very close links with the drug smugglers,” said Mohammed, who was sipping tea as he sat on a cushion at his home in Kabul. “The house that he’s living in in Kandahar right now is owned by a very big drug smuggler.”

People who accuse Ahmed Wali Karzai of ties to the drug trade often don’t stay around very long. Many Afghans were shocked last year when a TV station that broadcasts to several cities around the country aired a roundtable discussion in which one of the guests said he knew that Karzai was involved with drugs.

Although he isn’t a current government official — he had part ownership in an Internet technology institute — Abdullah Kandahari is from Karzai’s Popalzai tribe and has known the president’s family for years. He also was an intelligence official for two years during the regime of former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, a political opponent of the Karzais.

Speaking by phone from Pakistan, Kandahari said he was forced to move his family out of the country and sell his business interests in the aftermath of the show; Ahmed Wali Karzai sent gunmen looking for him four times in two locations, Kandahari said.

Another guest on the show, a parliament member from Kandahar named Shakiba Hashimi, said that Karzai called her husband the morning after it aired.

“Ahmed Wali said that after appearing on that program, I would not have the courage to return to Kandahar,” Hashimi said. It was a gloating sort of threat, and Hashimi took it seriously: She said she hadn’t been back to the province since.

Asked for comment about Dad Mohammed Khan’s allegation and others during an interview at his palatial Kandahar home, which is protected by guard shacks, perimeter walls and sand-filled roadblocks, Ahmed Wali Karzai said he had nothing to do with drugs.

A few minutes later, he yelled, “Get the (expletive) out before I kick your (expletive)” at a reporter.

Asked about Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s spokesman said there was no proof that the president’s brother was involved with the drug trade.

President Karzai has told the U.S. and British governments that “if they have any evidence against his brothers or close associates, they should come forward,” said Humayun Hamidzada, the spokesman. To date, he said, there’s been no response.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: A PASSIVE ROLE?

President Karzai hasn’t been accused of any connection to drug trafficking, but he appears to be powerless to halt some of his own officials’ ties to it. The issue allegedly extends far beyond his brother.

A man named Syed Jan traveled through Afghanistan in 2005 with documents saying that he worked for a drug task force in Helmand province. The deputy interior minister for counter-narcotics, Col. Gen. Mohammed Daoud, had signed the paperwork. When Jan’s car was stopped at a checkpoint in eastern Afghanistan, it was carrying about 425 pounds of heroin. That amount was worth about $580,000 on the Afghan wholesale market in 2005 and more than $5.4 million wholesale in Britain — which gets most of its heroin from Afghanistan — during 2006, according to figures from the United Nations.

Daoud told McClatchy the documents were genuine, but that Jan “was introduced to my office by President Karzai’s office.”

Appearing before a special narcotics court in Kabul, Jan was sentenced to 16 years. An appeals court then declared him innocent and released him.

Sareer Ahmad Barmak, a spokesman for a central narcotics-prosecution task force in Kabul, said that Jan had confessed to being a drug trafficker. “I don’t know what he did, how much money he offered to the judges to get acquitted,” Barmak said.

At the urging of Afghanistan’s attorney general, President Karzai directed the appeals court to reconsider. While the case was pending, however, the Justice Ministry ordered that Jan be transferred from Kabul to a jail in his home province of Helmand, a move that Barmak said was illegal.

On the drive from the Helmand airport to the jail, gunmen ambushed the police convoy and Jan escaped.

It was obvious from the details that Barmak gave that the gunmen knew about the transfer in advance. A Justice Ministry official told McClatchy that Jan had simply slipped out of custody. The last anyone heard, he was living in Dubai or Pakistan.

Asked for comment, Hamidzada, President Karzai’s spokesman, said, “I’m not aware of these little details, of one particular person carrying letters, (of) these little people doing little things.”

Several former security officers in southern Afghanistan said that the story of Syed Jan was nothing unusual.

Mohammed Hussein Andewal, a former police chief of Helmand province, said that in 2007 his men caught an opium dealer red-handed with a large stash of drugs on his way to the bordering province of Farah.

Andewal said he was called first by a regional Interior Ministry commander and then by a senior official from the ministry in Kabul telling him to let the man go.

“I know very high government officials who have heroin storerooms in their own houses,” he said.

Andewal said that if he had a map in front of him, he could sketch the bases and the movements of a drug-dealing ring of Afghan leaders in five provinces who pushed heroin through Nimruz province into Iran.

“If anyone could guarantee my security, I could give the names and draw the map,” he said with a grin and then a shrug. “But I would get killed.”

A former senior Afghan official who’s worked in high positions in southern Afghanistan and the national government said he could list the bases and movements of Ahmed Wali Karzai’s drug network as well as the names, home districts and jobs of the dealers in Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, the former official said he wouldn’t want those facts or his identity made public, because he had the same worries as Andewal: a bullet to the head or a bomb on the road.

(Warren P. Strobel contributed to this article from Washington.)


Story Transcript

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.

TOM LASSETER, MOSCOW BUREAU CHIEF, MCCLATCHY NEWSPAPERS: Thank you for having me.

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.

DISCLAIMER:

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