West looked the other way as Afghan drug trade exploded

McClatchy NewspapersMay 10, 2009 

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Locals call them "poppy palaces," the three- or four-story marble homes with fake Roman columns perched behind razor wire and guard shacks in Afghanistan's capital.

Most are owned by Afghan officials or people connected to them, men who make a few hundred dollars a month as government employees but are driven around in small convoys of armored SUVs that cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Kabul's gleaming upmarket real estate seems a world away from war-torn southern Afghanistan, but many of the houses were built with profits harvested from opium poppy fields in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

"When you see these buildings, that's not normal money . . . that's drug money," said Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar's provincial capital since 2007. "The ministers and the governors are behind the drug dealers, and sometimes they are the drug dealers."

Last year, Helmand and Kandahar provinces accounted for about 75 percent of Afghanistan's poppy cultivation, and Helmand alone was the world's biggest supplier of opium.

Afghan and Western officials say that's because U.S. and NATO-led forces failed to take the drug problem seriously for more than six years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 ousted the Taliban regime.

"They (the Western military) didn't want anything to do with either interdiction or eradication," said Thomas Schweich, a former Bush administration ambassador for counter-narcotics and justice reform for Afghanistan. "We warned them over and over again: Look at Colombia."

Now Helmand and Kandahar have become the core of a narco-state within Afghanistan, effectively ruled by the resurgent Taliban. Drugs are the main economic engine there, and most politicians and police are said to be under the thumbs of dealers. "I haven't seen any good police during the last two years in Kandahar," Hamidi said.

In the west Helmand district of Nad Ali, thousands of acres of government land reportedly have been irrigated and cultivated — including wells and farm boundaries dug by heavy machinery — as poppy plantations. Police in the area fired on government eradication teams last year.

Asked what American and NATO forces have done to halt the flow of opium and heroin in the southern provinces, Afghanistan's minister for counter-narcotics, Col. Gen. Khodaidad, who like many Afghans uses only one name, had a quick answer: "Nothing."

The Afghan government hasn't done much, either. Schweich said that at the highest levels of government the issue wasn't always corruption, but political considerations.

For example, he said, U.S.-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai was seen in 2007 as "trying to prevent serious law-enforcement efforts in Helmand and Kandahar to ensure that he did not lose the support of drug lords in the area whose support he wanted in the upcoming election." Schweich, though, added that Karzai has recently appeared to "adopt a more hands-off approach."

A spokesman for Karzai, Humayun Hamidzada, denied that the government was soft on drugs, and said it was waging "an active campaign against corruption and drug dealing."

Mirwais Yasini, a parliament member who headed Afghanistan's anti-narcotics directorate for about two years, agreed that politics is a factor is the government's lax enforcement. However, he said, there's another consideration: "It's also for their own benefit, because some government officials have large lands that produce opium."

Yasini didn't provide the names of those officials.

Abdul Jabar Sabit, a former Afghan attorney general, said that when many Afghans got government positions, "they see that it is their turn right now" to grab as much money as they could. Sabit was speaking from his recently built house in an expensive Kabul neighborhood.

"All the officials dealing with narcotics are corrupt," said Sabit, who said that he'd borrowed money from a construction company to build his home. "The police are there to make a deal (with drug traffickers); if the police cannot make a deal, then the prosecutor will or the judges after them."

Mohammed Ayub Salangi, a former Kandahar and Kabul police chief, said recently that he didn’t think that drug money tainted many Afghan officials. Salangi, who said he was paid about $6,500 a year, was sitting in front of his house in Kabul with a Lexus SUV parked in the driveway and a small posse of gunmen out front. Rents in the neighborhood run up to $10,000 a month. Officials from provinces where Salangi worked in the past told McClatchy they weren’t aware of any accusations that he’s corrupt. In fact, Salangi was waiting to hear whether he’d be named the police chief of yet another province.

IGNORING THE PROBLEM?

Some Western and Afghan officials say that southern Afghanistan spun out of control because of a serious miscalculation by U.S. and British officials, who all but ignored the long rows of poppy and the opium trafficking that flows from them.

The results were grim.

After the Taliban banned poppy cultivation in July 2000, Afghanistan produced some 185 tons of opium in 2001. The next year, production was 3,400 tons, according to U.N. statistics, and by 2007 it was about 8,200 tons, making Afghanistan the source of roughly 93 percent of the world's opium and heroin. U.S. numbers differ from the U.N. statistics but reflect the same trend.

Production declined last year, but there are differences about how much. The State Department puts it at 5,500 tons; the U.N. says that while the area of cultivation fell by 19 percent, farmers still produced some 7,700 tons of opium because they had higher yields.

Most experts attribute the decrease in land usage to farmers diversifying because of rising prices for wheat and bumper crops in Afghanistan causing a slide in opium prices. Afghanistan, however, still supplied more than 90 percent of the world market last year.

As a lead donor nation to Afghanistan, Britain agreed in 2002 to head up counter-narcotics efforts, but it did little to crack down on drugs and largely avoided the eradication of poppy crops.

While NATO-led forces in Afghanistan provided training for Afghan anti-narcotics units, they would "not take part in the eradication of opium poppy or in pre-planned and direct military action against the drugs trade," Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary from 2001 to 2006, wrote in a 2006 letter to Parliament.

The British worried that strong-arming poppy farmers could create more militants, and they preferred to wait for the rule of law to be strengthened, at which point — the thinking went — the Afghans could take care of their drug problem themselves.

"We think that this was a rather simplistic view of the issue, because as we have seen in Colombia, as we have seen in the Golden Triangle" — an opium and heroin production area in southeast Asia — "at the end of the day it is very hard to make a distinction between the drug cultivation and the insurgency," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, representative for the United Nations office on drugs and crime in Afghanistan.

The softer British approach often didn't achieve much.

During 2003, for example, the British and Afghan governments tried to buy up the poppy crop in Helmand. The $40 million effort "failed to produce lasting results," according to a subsequent report by the U.S. State and Defense departments' inspectors general.

In 2006, the British deployed about 3,300 troops to Helmand and brought with them the same laissez-faire approach to counter-narcotics.

A report published that year from the British House of Commons quoted a British Defense Ministry official as saying that "the military contribution to counter-narcotics might be quite small . . . it will be in support of the Afghan authorities rather than the British carrying out a counter-narcotics mission on its own account."

In 2007, Helmand radio stations carried announcements telling Afghans that NATO-led and Afghan troops "do not destroy poppy fields" because "they know that many people of Afghanistan have no choice but to grow poppy," an advertisement written by British officers, according to British news reports.

Three former Helmand governors said the British forces' reluctance to deal with drugs was disastrous.

"When they're not targeting the source that fuels the terrorism it is difficult to defeat terrorism," said Mohammed Daoud, the governor from late 2005 through 2006. "Unless the international community includes poppy eradication and fighting drugs in their list of ways to fight terrorism, they will not succeed in this fight because it (the drug trade) is the fuel in the machine of terrorism."

Asadullah Wafa, the Helmand governor from 2007 to 2008, said that many Afghans took the lack of action as a signal that it was open season for poppy cultivation.

Cultivation in Helmand nearly quadrupled from 2005 to 2008, and now accounts for some 66 percent of Afghanistan's output. In 2003, the province had roughly 37,980 acres of poppy. Last year, there were some 255,970 acres of poppy there, according to U.N. numbers.

"It was not just the British, it was also ISAF (the NATO-led forces) and the U.S. military" that did little about the opium trade, said a Western official working with counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

The British and U.S. embassies in Kabul declined to comment.

Some experts on counter-narcotics contend that in the middle of a war, in a country with a weak central government and a tattered economy, the British had limited options.

"Peace first, drugs next," said Ekaterina Stepanova, a senior analyst at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute who's studied drug economies in conflict zones. "If you want counter-narcotics policy to succeed, you first need a functional and domestically accepted state."

Stepanova agreed with the British decision to sidestep eradication.

"The most counterproductive thing you can do is to start an eradication campaign, because it pushes the peasants further to support the Taliban," she said in a phone interview.

The issue was left mainly to underequipped and often-corrupt Afghan police, who had little inclination to take on the hordes of militants and warlords who were protecting poppy fields.

The police are infamous for being on the payrolls of drug dealers big and small.

"When the police arrested me I would give them 1,000 or 2,000 afghanis" — $20 or $40 — "and they'd let me go," said Ahmadullah, a 20-year-old junkie and former two-bit heroin dealer from Kandahar who was interviewed at an abandoned building in Kabul that's become an opium and heroin den.

When he was asked when heroin started becoming a major problem in Kandahar, Ahmadullah, his hair matted with dirt and face drooping with the lazy gaze of a heroin addict, paused and asked: When did the Western armies and Hamid Karzai come? It was a few years after that, he said.

Christopher Langton, a retired British army colonel who's a senior analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, pointed to the fragile state of the Afghan government, "which has little control over the country," as a major factor.

"Weak control allows cultivation," he said.

A SLOW CHANGE IN POLICY

The Western powers' hands-off counter-narcotics policy in Afghanistan has begun to change, however slowly. Much of President Barack Obama's surge of 17,000-plus troops to Afghanistan will target the south, a move that's sure to put pressure on the Taliban's drug-running operations. The State Department and other agencies are spearheading eradication campaigns and agricultural development projects across the country, a carrot-and-stick approach.

In Helmand, the Afghan government — with U.S. and British backing — has distributed wheat seed to some 30,000 farmers as part of a pilot program for crop substitution, and has begun to map out supply chains for fruits and vegetables to lucrative markets such as Dubai.

Afghan eradication teams now have regular backup from Western military units that serve as quick reaction forces. Former U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officers are mentoring Afghan Interior Ministry narcotics officials, and a central drug court in Kabul is seen as relatively promising.

Last December, the British military led a contingent of at least 1,500 troops for an operation in and around Helmand's Nad Ali district — home to thousands of acres of poppy — to establish a foothold. Then in February, the British conducted one of the first high-profile military raids of a reputed Taliban drug base in Helmand, in its northeast district of Sangin. They found more than 2,700 pounds of opium and a lab for making heroin.

The number of poppy-free provinces reportedly climbed to 18 from 13 out of 34 last year, including the former number two producer of opium, and there are expectations that the number will increase this year.

However, as poppy cultivation has shifted almost exclusively to five of the country's southern provinces, Taliban areas such as Kandahar and Helmand have become even more volatile. In 2007, 19 Afghan police were killed during eradication efforts. In 2008, that number more than tripled to 72, according to the Western official involved with counter-narcotics.

Government eradication troops in the south now come under attack by platoon-sized Taliban teams broken into squads firing mortars, grenade launchers and machine guns.

Amid the new, fragile momentum in the battle against drugs, the Obama administration has sent some confusing signals.

The president's special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, recently lashed out at U.S. policy, saying that American efforts to date have been useless.

"We have gotten nothing out of it, nothing," Holbrooke said at a March conference in Brussels, Belgium. "It is the most wasteful and ineffective program I have seen in 40 years."

During a briefing for White House reporters the same month, Holbrooke acknowledged that the Obama team hadn't finalized its strategy for counter-narcotics in Afghanistan.

In Helmand, convoys of Land Cruisers still speed across the desert loaded with heroin and gunmen, and no one dares stop them, said Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, who was the governor there for about four years.

Sitting in his living room in Kabul, Akhundzada bemoaned the state of his home province. It's a place run by the Taliban and narco-traffickers, he said with a shake of the head.

Akhundzada didn't mention that during his time as governor he was caught storing some 9 tons of opium in the basement of his office. Instead of being prosecuted, he became a senator. Akhundzada now lives in a large house in Kabul.

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