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.

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

"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."

But at one point, he was captured with $370,000 worth of heroin, and had to sell everything he had – including his Swiss Rado watches and most of his heavy weapons – in order to pay back the owners of that drug. In another instance, Dost was captured by his chief competitor, another police commander.

The commander "caught me once with 56 kg of drugs. He asked me, 'Will you do it again?' and I told him that I would never do that again. Right after I promised him that I would not do that again, I came home and took another 100 kilos of drug and put it in my Russian jeep and took it to sell."

"These persecutors do it themselves, like 300 kilos to 400 kilos each time," Dost complains. These days, "all the smuggling is now in the hands" of these commanders, "and no one can do anything without [their] permission. Except me. When I do it, I tell my boys, 'Anybody who wants to stop you, you should kill them.' "

Commander Nasir

"Commander Nasir" is the police commander of a border district in Takhar Province. Like Commander Dost, Nasir is a relatively small player in the drug trade, but he gives an inside picture of how some of the bigger police commanders – both in Afghanistan and in neighboring Tajikistan – punish drug-trafficking competitors to burnish their law-enforcement credentials, or take bribes from those willing to pay for favorable treatment.

"One day I counted how much I had given" a top police commander, says Nasir, who was a longtime commander during the Russian war, fighting alongside Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Masood. From drug sales and fees, "it was $680,000, just in cash." Nasir pauses. "$680,000! A lot of money, isn't it? But believe me, he [the commander] never had any intention to do anything good for me in return, ever."

Nasir says all the big smuggling these days is being conducted by relatives of this top commander, some of whom are police commanders in Takhar. One relative "takes $50 per kilo to carry it from this side to that side of the border near Tajikistan. And if he catches somebody else smuggling, he takes $5,000 to $10,000 each time."

Nasir says he has stopped taking drugs across the border himself, because he is too well known, but he continues to send his men to do the job instead. Instead of paying his men immediately after a successful mission, now he pays them a week later, so that competing police commanders don't discover his smuggling until it's over.

"When I was a big smuggler, I had relations with the Tajik officers on the other side of the border. But my competitor has relations with the Russian KGB," he says. "[His] people have damaged my business a lot. Once I lost $500,000 of heroin, another time $600,000, another time $700,000, another time $900,000, another time $1.1 million because of [his] people." Nasir laughs. "My opponents have knocked out my 32 teeth."

But as bad as things are with the powerful commander – and after an assassination attempt by the top commander against Nasir, relations are pretty bad – Nasir says he wants to be practical and keep the peace, for now.

"I have a lot of proof and evidence against [the commander]," he says, "but I want to keep my relations good with him."

Ahmed Noor

"Ahmed Noor" is the police commander of a market town along the Afghan-Tajik border in Takhar Province. In the tape, Mr. Noor admits that he's involved in drug trafficking, and gives an up-to-date breakdown of how much profit corrupt police officials make per kilo in the drug trade. But Noor notes with chagrin that other, more powerful commanders are making much more money than he is.

Mentioning one police commander by name, Noor says, "[He] is not happy with $20,000 a night from drug money," he says. "He charged $40 per kilo to transport it to the other side of the border. [He] himself is at home, resting and watching movies, and he plays cards with friends."

This commander moves more than 600 kilos every night, and at $40 a kilo, that's a hefty profit, Noor says. "Believe me, I know he did this six times a week."

But while big players like this commander are able to move large quantities of heroin through Takhar Province, and even through Noor's own district, Noor says that this powerful commander won't share this business with other commanders.

Once, Noor says, this commander warned Noor to stop trafficking in drugs. Noor refused. So the commander started setting up checkpoints to try to catch Noor in the act of smuggling. At one such checkpoint, Noor was driving the car himself, and rather than stop at the checkpoint, he floored the accelerator and attempted to run over an armed soldier blocking the road.

"I had 500 kilos of drugs with me, and I was not going to give up that easily," he says. "So I drove fast to run over the soldier. The soldier runs away and shoots in the air. After I unloaded the car at the border, I came back to the commander of the checkpoint, and asked him why his soldier wanted to stop me. [The checkpoint commander] told me it was the order of [the top commander]. So I warned [the checkpoint commander] and told him that the drug money goes to [the commander's] pocket, but why he is stopping other people's cars. I told him, 'the next time you try to stop me, I will shoot your head to pieces with bullets.' "

Noor admits that the drug business is getting more difficult, and his business partners are becoming less trustworthy. "One day, I took 60 kilos of drugs to the other side of the border to Dushanbe, but the Tajik smuggler took it and did not pay me," he says. "No one can do anything to Tajik smugglers on their soil."

Noor blames the incident on his own sense of trust. "I believed one of my Afghan friends, who told me that this Tajik guy pays better than the others. I believed him."

Commander Bilal

"Commander Bilal" is a senior administrator in the provincial Takhar police force, and a former police commander of a border district along the Tajik border. In his tape, Bilal complains that police discipline is breaking down, and the trafficking has become so fractured that even low-level cops are starting to skim profits. More important, he reveals that drug corruption has infiltrated deep within the Ministry of Interior, the chief law- enforcement organization, as top officials take bribes to appoint corrupt drug dealers into top police positions.

On paper, Bilal is one of the most powerful police commanders in his province, with many district commanders under him. But in reality, with district commanders deeply involved in the drug trade, few of the police officials in Takhar pay attention to him. Things were better, Bilal says, when he was a district police commander.

But even then, it wasn't so good. As a trafficking point, his border town was highly overrated.

"What have they seen [about that town]?" he asks. "There is only one bridge, and anyone you send – even your brother – will not bring any smuggler to you. If some one is caught there and brought to me, I will get $10,000 from him [in bribes]. But that poor soldier standing there will accept $200 from the smuggler [to let him pass through] instead of bringing him to me. I can't stand there myself on the bridge, because it is shameful."

In any case, Bilal says his relations with the drug smugglers was never very warm. "I don't know why, but the smugglers did not trust us," says Bilal.

He thinks for a moment, and then continues. One of his colleagues in the police department in the border town, "was playing games with the smugglers. [This commander] is the kind of person who cut a deal with smugglers, takes money from them, and further on up the road, stops and seizes their drugs, too. That was the reason the smugglers did not trust us. "

Bilal says almost all the police commanders in Takhar have paid officials at the Ministry of Interior to get their jobs, and nowadays, commanders have to pay increasing amounts just to keep their jobs.

"Every three months the commanders are pushed a little bit or they are told that they may be replaced. Then everybody rushes toward the ministry with $10,000."

But Bilal says he likes his job. It's not the responsibilities that he likes the most, though. It's the access to the drug trade. "It is a good position," he says. "I pay $1,000 and get $20,000 in profit."

"It has some advantages," he says.

At the Ministry of Interior, little effort – or ability – to end a corrosive trade

Top Afghan officials privately admit that perhaps 80 percent of the personnel at the Ministry of Interior, Afghanistan's chief law-enforcement agency – from local police chiefs up to the top bureaucrats – may be benefiting from the drug trade. At a press conference announcing his resignation last fall, Interior Minister Ali Jalali said that the ministry had a list of 100 top officials who were being watched for evidence of drug trafficking. The result is a government that is either incapable or unwilling to prevent a trade that is rapidly undermining the country's rule of law and the Afghan people's faith in their leadership.

"The wrong elements can be a sapling in our society, and if we act now, we can remove it with less damage," says Habibullah Qaderi, Afghan minister for counternarcotics, a government agency that is separate from the Ministry of Interior. "But if it becomes a tree, there will be more destruction when you remove it."

Already the corrupt sapling is becoming a tree, Mr. Qaderi says, adding that Afghanistan cannot afford to wait for the proof of guilt. "If we had removed these people one by one, the country would have been much much better." The Afghan people need to trust that their government is working in the national interest. "People have to be close with their government. The day there is a distance, that becomes very dangerous."

A note on how we reported this story

The Monitor used a reporting device in this story that it normally avoids: The key interviews, all taped, were with sources who did not realize they were speaking to the press. This presents a risk to fairness and privacy, in that the interviewees might speak more casually and loosely than they would if they knew they were speaking to a reporter. We decided to go forward for several reasons. The subjects in these interviews are all public officials, not private citizens, discussing what should be public business. The issue of drug trafficking, illegal in Afghanistan as nearly everywhere else, is critically important to the future of that country and others. We could find no other safe way to collect direct evidence of this official corruption. But because we could not directly confront these police chiefs without endangering the lives of reporters or interpreters, we decided to withhold their names.

– The editors

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