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.
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.
Here in Konar Province, an area that has seen a large increase in opium cultivation over the past year, local officials say it is clear that Afghanistan's armed factions are deeply involved in the drug trade.
Lieutenant Dost, for example, had all the trappings of a modern Afghan druglord. His companions were a driver and two armed men in official Afghan military fatigues. His vehicle was a late-model Toyota Land Cruiser with tinted windows, the sort of car that policemen usually wave through checkpoints with a smile.
But the Konar police decided to check Dost's car, and discovered four bales of opium wrapped in plastic.
"This is a danger for me," says newly appointed Konar Gov. Sayed Fazl Akbar.
"If they come to know that this man is an obstacle," he says, referring to himself, "it is easy for them to kill one man and get rid of the problem."
Leafing through pictures of Dost and his staff in custody, and of the drugs found inside the truck, Governor Akbar says he released Dost on Aug. 6. Akbar says he turned Dost over to the custody of his commander, Hazrat Ali, the military chief for the First Corps of Eastern Afghanistan, which includes Konar, Nooristan, Nangrahar, and Laghman provinces.
"By law, this was a case for military discipline," says Akbar.
But in Jalalabad, Dost has not been seen. Mr. Ali says that he never received Dost into custody, and in any case Dost is not one of his officers.
"I am the military commander responsible for four provinces, and there are people in Army uniforms saying 'we are his guy,' but they aren't. They are just getting the power of my name," says Ali, whose men swept into Jalalabad days after the Taliban fled and maintain a heavily armed presence in the city.
And the commander says he's adamant about using the full force of law against those who grow and traffic opium poppies.
"Personally, I hate poppies. They are against Islam, and according to my abilities, I will stop poppies in my area," says Ali, noting that poppy cultivation has dropped significantly in Nangrahar province. "But I can tell you that senior government people are involved in this trade."
But farmers in the province charge that Ali's own men are directly involved in the drug business.
"Hazrat Ali's men gave us money in advance for opium," says Jalal Khan, an old farmer in Batikot village. "It is all because of him [Hazrat Ali] that we are living a peaceful and prosperous life."
Another farmer in Nangrahar Province says, "Once, Hazrat Ali's men came to the villagers and told us 'the Americans are really furious [about] the increasing poppy crop, so destroy some of it on the roadside to make Americans feel happy.'"
A few days after, this farmer says, Ali's men told the villagers, "We are not your enemy. We want to see you prosperous so continue your business [of poppy cultivation]."
• Owais Tohid contributed to this report.