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Afghanistan riddled with drug ties

The involvement of local as well as high-level government officials in the opium trade is frustrating efforts to eradicate poppy fields.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Faye BowersStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / May 13, 2005



KABUL, AFGHANISTAN; AND WASHINGTON

The case of an Afghan village police chief, named Inayatullah, is a small example of a much larger problem.

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Is Commander Inayatullah a courageous law-and-order crusader responsible for smashing the drug mafia in his hamlet? Or, is he an opium smuggler? Or, as his bosses say, is he both?

It's a question that hangs over more and more public officials here. The post-Taliban boom in opium production means that drug money now permeates every stratum of Afghanistan's society - from the farmers cultivating poppies in the east to those in the highest levels of the central government of Kabul, according to senior Afghan and European officials working here.

"We are already a narco-state," says Mohammad Nader Nadery at the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which has studied the growing impunity of former military commanders and drug dealers who now work within the Afghan government. "If the governors in many parts of the country are involved in the drug trade, if a minister is directly or indirectly getting benefits from drug trade, and if a chief of police gets money from drug traffickers, then how else do you define a narco-state?"

Abdul Karim Brahowie, Afghanistan's minister of tribal and frontier affairs, says that the government has become so full of drug smugglers that cabinet meetings have become a farce. "Sometimes the people who complain the loudest about theft are thieves themselves," he says.

In the past two years, the UN reports that poppy cultivation increased by two-thirds in 2004 to 323,708 acres. Afghanistan now produces 90 percent of the world's opium - most of it ends up on the streets of Europe and Russia as heroin. European officials warn that this fledgling democracy is being undermined as Afghan officials make decisions based on what's good for the drug trade, rather than the electorate. [Editor's note: The original version overstated the extent of poppy cultivation.]

"There is a danger that all the stabilization and reconstruction efforts will be neutralized unless the narcotrafficking problem is addressed," says Ursula Müller, political counselor at the German Embassy in Washington. "We have to fight this corruption ... those guys involved in the drug business [who] are in all levels of Afghanistan's government," adds Ms. Müller, who has been actively involved in rebuilding Afghanistan since the US toppled the Taliban in late 2001.

The Afghan government of US-backed President Hamid Karzai has made countering the narcotics trade - over fighting terrorism - its central aim. And the international community, with Britain taking the lead, is planted firmly behind him. Germany, for example, is training local Afghan police, and the US has budgeted $780 million this year to support the antinarcotics battle.

But the opium trade is deeply rooted in Afghan society. Many regional warlords and opponents of the Taliban are now top officials in the Karzai government. One of the most complicated - and delicate - tasks is to get corrupt officials to turn away from the drug trade as a source of personal income.

Müller says it can be done. She tells of a former Afghan provincial official who was nominated to become a deputy minister in Kabul. "We had doubts, and the [Bush] administration had doubts about him," Müller says. "It was an open secret that he was heavily involved in the drugs business."

But, she says, he has turned his back on his former trade and has become a responsible government official leading efforts to staunch the illicit drug business.

The effort in working with local governors has been mixed, though, according to Steve Atkins, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington.

Britain provided funding and advice to Afghans on an eradication program in 2004. Governors who participated claimed they eradicated 37,000 acres, but a verification team found that only 13,000 acres had actually been eradicated.

"We have always been clear of the limitations of the governor-led eradication, given that many governors are themselves implicated in the trade," says Mr. Atkins.

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