Former US official accuses Afghan government of stymying anti-opium efforts

Thomas Schweich charges that President Karzai is protecting drug traffickers within his power base, and says the US Defense Department and some NATO allies have also resisted antiopium efforts.

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A former high-ranking US State Department official has accused Afghanistan's government of undercutting anti-opium efforts in the country for its own political gain, in an article for Sunday's New York Times Magazine that was released early online.

In the article, "Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?", former State Department antinarcotics official Thomas Schweich wrote that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been stymying US anti-opium efforts in southern Afghanistan, as many of his political supporters are amassing wealth through the drug trade.

A lot of intelligence – much of it unclassified and possible to discuss here – indicated that senior Afghan officials were deeply involved in the narcotics trade. Narco-traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials. Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government. The attorney general, Abdul Jabbar Sabit, a fiery Pashtun who had begun a self-described "jihad against corruption," told me and other American officials that he had a list of more than 20 senior Afghan officials who were deeply corrupt — some tied to the narcotics trade. He added that President Karzai — also a Pashtun — had directed him, for political reasons, not to prosecute any of these people. (On July 16 of this year, Karzai dismissed Sabit after Sabit announced his candidacy for president. Karzai's office said Sabit's candidacy violated laws against political activity by officials. Sabit told a press conference that Karzai "has never been able to tolerate rivals.") ...
Back in January 2007, Karzai appointed a convicted heroin dealer, Izzatulla Wasifi, to head his anticorruption commission. Karzai also appointed several corrupt local police chiefs. There were numerous diplomatic reports that his brother Ahmed Wali, who was running half of Kandahar, was involved in the drug trade. (Said T. Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, said Karzai has "taken the step of issuing a decree asking the government to be vigilant of any business dealing involving his family, and requesting that any suspicions be fully investigated.") Some governors of Helmand and other provinces – Pashtuns who had advocated aerial eradication – changed their positions after the "palace" spoke to them. Karzai was lining up his Pashtun allies for re-election, and the drug war was going to have to wait. "Maybe we taught him too much about politics," Rice said to me after I briefed her on these developments.

Afghanistan is one of the world's leading opium producers, the drug trade accounting for 30 percent of its gross domestic product, according to Bloomberg. Bloomberg adds that "Afghanistan's 2007 opium harvest rose 38 percent to a record 8,200 metric tons from 6,100 tons a year earlier, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Land cultivated to grow the drug increased by 17 percent to 193,000 hectares (476,700 acres) and cultivation in 2008 will be 'broadly similar,' it said."

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Mr. Schweich writes that part of the government's resistance to the drug war stemmed from the view that the common conception of poor farmers being driven to the opium trade by lack of alternatives is a myth. His office found that "The poorest farmers of Afghanistan — those who lived in the north, east and center of the country — were taking advantage of antidrug programs and turning away from poppy cultivation in large numbers. The south was going in the opposite direction, and the Taliban were now financing the insurgency there with drug money...." He adds that several reports from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime came to the same conclusion, that "poverty does not appear to have been the main driving factor in the expansion of opium poppy cultivation in recent years."

Schweich writes that, as a result, he and his office pushed for an aggressive aerial herbicide-spraying campaign to destroy poppy fields in the south. But despite the evidence, the Afghan government promoted the idea that poverty was driving the drug trade and refused to act to destroy poor farmers' crops.

My first indication of the insincerity of [the Afghan government's] position came at a lunch in Brussels in September 2006 attended by Habibullah Qaderi, who was then Afghanistan's minister for counternarcotics. He gave a speech in which he said that poor Afghan farmers have no choice but to grow poppies, and asked for more money. A top European diplomat challenged him, holding up a U.N. map showing the recent trend: poppy growth decreasing in the poorest areas and growing in the wealthier areas. The minister, taken aback, simply reiterated his earlier point that Afghanistan needed more money for its destitute farmers. After the lunch, however, Qaderi approached me and whispered: "I know what you say is right. Poverty is not the main reason people are growing poppy. But this is what the president of Afghanistan tells me to tell others."
In July 2007, I briefed President Karzai on the drive for a new strategy. He was interested in the new incentives that we were developing, but became sullen and unresponsive when I discussed the need to balance those incentives with new disincentives – including arrests of high-level traffickers and eradication of poppy fields in the wealthier areas of the Pashtun south, where Karzai had his roots and power base.

Schweich adds that there have been similar complaints within Afghanistan about the drug trade's ties to the government, accompanied by calls for an aggressive campaign against opium farming.

In September 2007, The Kabul Weekly, an independent newspaper, ran a blunt editorial laying out the issue: "It is obvious that the Afghan government is more than kind to poppy growers.... [It] opposes the American proposal for political reasons. The administration believes that it will lose popularity in the southern provinces where the majority of opium is cultivated. They're afraid of losing votes. More than 95 percent of the residents of ... the poppy growing provinces – voted for President Karzai." The editorial recommended aerial eradication. That same week, the first vice president of Afghanistan, Ahmad Zia Massoud, wrote a scathing op-ed article in The Sunday Telegraph in London: "Millions of pounds have been committed in provinces including Helmand Province for irrigation projects and road building to help farmers get their produce to market. But for now this has simply made it easier for them to grow and transport opium.... Deep-rooted corruption ... exists in our state institutions." The Afghan vice president concluded, "We must switch from ground-based eradication to aerial spraying."

Schweich notes, however, that the Afghan government is not the only obstacle to fighting the opium trade. The US Defense Department has also resisted fighting the drug war, Schweich says, as it "tends to see counternarcotics as other people's business to be settled once the war-fighting is over." He adds that "many of our allies in the International Security Assistance Force were lukewarm on antidrug operations, and most were openly hostile to aerial eradication." He particularly emphasizes the British military's resistance, who "actually issued leaflets and bought radio advertisements telling the local criminals [in the Helmund province where British forces were operating] that the British military was not part of the anti-poppy effort."

The New York Times reports that Karzai dismissed Schweich's criticism. "This campaign is a long-term, time-consuming campaign," he said. "It is not to be done in one or two years. It is related directly to the economy of the country. It is related directly to bringing peace in our country."

The Associated Press writes that while a US State Department official did not directly address Schweich's accusations, he reiterated support for current US policy and Karzai.

"We know and understand that there is a corruption issue in Afghanistan but we're working with the sovereign government," [State Department spokesman Gonzalo] Gallegos said Thursday. "President Karzai has shown us through word and deed that he is working with us to help improve the plight of that country."
Corruption is a deeply rooted problem and addressing it, along with the country's massive development need, will not be quick, Gallegos said. "This is a long-term commitment in terms of time and this is a large commitment in terms of dollars."

The BBC reports that the British Foreign Office reiterated its commitment to eradicating the opium trade in Afghanistan, saying that "Drugs pose a threat to the future of Afghanistan, and the UK is one of the leaders in international efforts to combat the narcotics trade. We are committed for the long haul in this challenging endeavour, through a two-pronged approach, to tackle both supply and demand." Schweich notes in his article, however, that the British Foreign Office has be an ardent supporter of the drug war; it is the British military that has resisted supporting it.

Some have directly criticized Schweich's take on the situation. David Borden, founder and executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, writes that one must consider "why did all those different people – all those different kinds of people – fail to support Schweich's agenda?"

Maybe it's because these Afghans and Europeans and US military officials aren't crazy. Maybe it's because they've actually listened to what scholars have to say about this: eradication doesn't work, it drives farmers into the hands of the Taliban, security has to come first, you can't just tell a hundred thousand people in the world's fifth poorest nation to give up their primary income source with no viable replacement. Could they have taken the positions they've taken, made the decisions they've made, because they are intelligent and informed and logical and practical?
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