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 power broker 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."
American dollars help Taliban
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Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, which was worth $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 has 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 Sept. 11, 2001, 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 Newspapers 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 was 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 United States, Britain and Canada — the countries principally behind counter-narcotics in Afghanistan — declined to comment. A State Department report issued earlier this year flatly noted, "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 former Afghan 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 administration 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.
How the trade works
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 buy 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 former Afghan 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.
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.
Traffickers have ties
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 — in 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, Humayun 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."