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Afghan military tied to drug trade

A lieutenant's arrest is the first strong evidence of links that may contribute to the Taliban's return.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 2003


As drug dealers go, Mohammad Dost was a pretty low-level character. He was arrested here in Asadabad on June 23 with 167 kilograms of raw opium - a relatively small load worth about $92,000 on the world market.

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But Mr. Dost's case is worrisome nonetheless, in part because of his rank as a lieutenant in the Afghan military forces here. Dost is someone who should have been arresting drug traffickers, not, from all appearances, working for them. Now, Dost is likely to escape prosecution altogether, because of a jurisdiction dispute between the local government here and the regional military commander.

For senior Afghan officials, the case of Mohammad Dost is much more than a mere case of a warlord - used interchangeably with commander here - run amok. It is the first substantial evidence that many of the same Afghan commanders who helped remove the Taliban from power two years ago may be involved in a business that could destabilize Afghanistan and lead to the Taliban's return.

For these officials, opium is not only a shameful drug. Opium, and the money it generates, is the engine for the Taliban's resurgence, as evidenced in the growing number of attacks across southern provinces of Afghanistan in recent months. And Afghan warlords who traffic drugs, even if they were useful to America in the past, now pose a dire threat to the future of the country.

"Narcotics and terrorism are of equal danger to this country," says Omar Samad, spokesman for the Afghan Foreign Ministry in Kabul. "Imagine if all the political candidates in our country were bought by narcotics dollars," says Mr. Samad, citing the experiences of Colombia, Thailand, and Burma.

Shahmahmood Miakhel, a senior adviser in the Interior Ministry responsible for selecting and removing the country's governors and local police commanders, says that the government should act firmly in the Mohammad Dost case and assert the rule of law in the provinces.

"If the government is serious about the drug problem, they should pursue this case," says Mr. Miakhel. "If you punish one commander, it will be a lesson to others that there will be serious consequences. If you have law without enforcement, then the law does not have any meaning."

Experts say the driving force behind the opium trade - those with the men, muscle, and motive to keep it going - are Afghanistan's warlords, both within the outlawed Taliban movement and within the ranks of pro-US military commanders who work in the hunt for Al Qaeda and Taliban remnants.

"Not all the commanders are involved," says Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office for Drug Control, on a recent visit to Kabul.

"But if you have 20,000 soldiers in your command, you need money. I don't believe these warlords are building bank accounts in Switzerland. An army needs to be fed, maintained, armed."

Poppies are big money in this poor nation. Last year's crop of opium, estimated to value $1.2 billion, equaled the value of all foreign assistance to Afghanistan that year. Those farmers who grow poppies can earn about $4,000 on the average-sized plot (eight-tenths of an acre), compared with $500 for legal crops like wheat.