Inside the Afghan drug trade
In a northern province, four law-enforcement officials describe life built around trafficking.
The Afghan police chief doesn't realize his voice is being taped. So pardon him if he brags about his life as a drug trafficker.Skip to next paragraph
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In a friendly conversation recorded in his home last summer, he tells of his quarrels with another drug-dealing police commander in the country's northern Takhar Province; about driving through a rival's police checkpoint with 500 kilos of heroin in his car; and his adventures in rescuing three heroin-smuggling friends from the clutches of Tajik policemen. It's just another part of the job, he says.
"If my adventure were filmed, it would be a very exciting movie," chuckles the commander, referred to hereafter as "Ahmed Noor." On the tape, he laughs. "The UN should give me an award."
But on one point the former mujahideen commander is certain: "Even if all the world were to come to Afghanistan, they will not be able to stop smuggling."
In relative terms, Mr. Noor is a small player in an illegal business that generates $2.7 billion a year, more than half the value of the country's legal economy. Afghan officials and foreign diplomats increasingly call this central Asian country a "narco-state," as top officials find it more profitable to flout laws than enforce them.
Very few major Afghan officials have been removed for involvement in drug trafficking, in part because of the lack of evidence, and in part because the country has only recently created special tribunals to handle major drug cases.
For this reason, the Monitor launched its own investigation in a province known for trafficking, to see how prevalent the drug trade is among police chiefs and what evidence could be found. Sending an investigative unit with a hidden minidisk recorder to the northern province of Takhar – where Afghanistan's medium and low-grade heroin is trafficked into Tajikistan, and on toward Europe – the Monitor recorded four police commanders.
All of the names in this story have been changed. The Monitor deemed it too dangerous for our investigators to confront each of these commanders with the taped evidence, and too unfair to their reputations to release their names without giving them a chance to defend themselves. But the statements in these tapes – gathered by investigators who have excellent reputations collecting testimony for the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, among others – provide a rare inside view of how drug corruption has trickled down to the front lines in the country's faltering war on drugs.
"Commander Dost" is commander of a border police unit that patrols a large swath of the border with Tajikistan. In his taped conversation, Dost reveals how widespread the drug trade has become, as police commanders compete with each other to dominate the drug trade in Takhar Province.
"For one year I did the smuggling," he says, on the lawn of his home. "It was not hidden from anybody. It was obvious to everybody. I put my RPG (rocket-propelled grenade launcher) on my shoulder.... I became a dangerous smuggler."
But increasingly, Dost finds himself being run out of the drug business by a group of more powerful police commanders. These commanders have been shutting out all other competitors in the drug trafficking business, says Commander Dost.
A few years back, one of these commanders sent eight men to ambush Commander Dost. "Fortunately I had 25 of my [tribesmen] with me," says Dost. "I used the RPG and fired at the enemy in front of us, and behind us. Finally I made about $70,000 for myself from the drug money."