U.N. Sees Afghan Drug Cartels Emerging’, reads a headline in the 2 September issue of the New York Times. Now the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) got it. Or did it?
The headline reminds of a 2008 World Bank paper (William A. Byrd, Responding to Afghanistan’s Opium Economy Challenge, The World Bank, South Asia Region, Policy Research Working Paper 4545, March 2008) describing a ‘“pyramid” of the drug trade in Afghanistan […] with no more than several dozen key traffickers at the top […, a] ‘strengthening triangle between drug interests, their political and other sponsors, and parts of the government […] and important linkages between higher-level elements in the drug industry and some warlords and their militias, as well as with government officials and some of the figures active in the conflict-affected politics of Afghanistan’ while ‘the transformation of warlords into politicians has been accompanied by compromising of parts of some government agencies like the Ministry of Interior and Police by drug industry interests […]. Security forces, most notably the police, are in part facilitating the activities of the drug industry rather than countering it. […] Overall, this dynamic evolution of the drug industry constitutes a profound threat to Afghanistan’s state-building and development agenda. […] Moreover, the expanding Taliban insurgency in the South […] adds complexity to the picture’ (pp. 8, 13-15). In other words, it started with the warlords and corrupt government officials.
Former Afghan interior minister and almost-Karzai-challenger Ali Ahmad Jalali had rang alarm bells already in fall 2005 when, while declaring his resignation, he said that his ministry had a list of 100 top officials who were being watched for evidence of drug trafficking and he would make them public soon. But he never did. Jalali’s words were echoed by Vice President Ahmad Zia Massud two years later: ‘We should admit that some top-ranking government officials are unfortunately linked to the smuggling of drugs.’ (Pajhwok Afghan News 27 September 2007).
On 30 November the Afghan news agency quqnoos quoted Afghan anti-narcotics ministry sources as saying that ‘drug smugglers are using the cars of high-ranking Afghan officials to traffic drugs through the country’.
Not naming names obviously doesn’t do the job. But neither did naming them trigger action. Western member-governments obviously do not want to rock the Afghan boat further.
In the Los Angeles Times (29 May 2005, The Lure of Opium Wealth Is a Potent Force in Afghanistan), Paul Watson in a very detailed story found witnesses – Afghan anti-drug cops and even drug traffickers in Kunduz and Jalalabad – who implicated the deputy interior minister in charge of the anti-drugs effort Gen. Muhammad Daud Daud (who still in this position) and then chief of police of Nangrahar province – now MP – Hazrat Ali.
German magazine Stern (13 September 2006) quoted a DEA investigator saying Daud was ‘deeply involved’ in the narco business. ‘I don’t understand why my bosses cultivate this crook’. The same article refers to a ‘top secret’ list with the names of 14 high-ranking Afghan drag barons – from which the names of Daud and Ahmad Wali Karzai were deleted after an agreement ‘between Karzai and the US government’ (Uli Rauss,Rekordernte im Narco-Staat).
A further report on Daud came in the Globe and Mail of 21 March 2009 by Graeme Smith (‘Afghan officials in drug trade cut deals across enemy lines’).
Equally detailed, Scott Baldauf told an inside story of the drug trade in Takhar province, featuring a former mujahedin commander and police chief in the province, a commander of a border police unit, a police commander of a border district and the police commander of a market town along the Afghan-Tajik border – not using their real names but easily recognizable for people with knowledge about the area in the Christian Science Monitor (15 June 2006, Inside the Afghan drug trade).
The biggest waves made an article by James Risen published in the New York Times on 4 October 2008 (‘Reports Link Karzai’s Brother to Heroin Trade’) directly implicating the President’s brother Ahmad Wali Karzai and linking him to drug haules discovered in 2004 and 2006. ‘The assertions about the involvement of the president’s brother in the incidents were never investigated, according to American and Afghan officials’, Risen writes. ‘The White House says it believes that Ahmed Wali Karzai is involved in drug trafficking, and American officials have repeatedly warned President Karzai that his brother is a political liability’.
On 10 May 2009, Tom Lasseter of the McClatchy group of newspapers followed up with another story on Ahmad Wali Karzai (Thriving Afghan drug trade has friends in high places) that triggered direct threats against the author (Karzai’s brother threatened McClatchy writer reporting Afghan drug story).
In the latter report, it is also mentioned that British forces found nine tons of opium and heroin in the house of Sher Muhammad Akhundzada in 2005 when he was still governor of Helmand. He was removed from his office – and appointed senator by President Karzai.
In August this year, the German magazine Stern reported that a British elite soldier unit had captured some tons of raw opium in a compound in Southern Afghanistan that is owned by Wali Karzai and that protocols and videos of this operation exist in the Afghan Ministry of Interior.
Some journalists – from the BBC’s Lyse Doucet to Susanne Koelbl of German ‘Spiegel’ – tried time and again asking the President about his younger half-brother’s – alleged – role in the business. They usually met the standard answer Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta gave to ‘Spiegel online’ on 2 February this year:
‘If anyone comes forward with evidence that the drug rumors about the president’s brother are true, I guarantee that he will take the correct action. So far, no one has provided evidence.’
(The question he was asked actually was: ‘Is President Hamid Karzai still the right man to confront drug production?’)
The already quoted Los Angeles Times article paints the broad picture: ‘U.S. troops forged alliances with warlords, who provided ground forces in the battle against the Taliban. Some of those allies are suspected of being among Afghanistan’s biggest drug traffickers, controlling networks that include producers, criminal gangs and even members of the counter-narcotics police force. They are willing to make deals with remnants of the Taliban if the price is right. The U.S.-backed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has brought some of those warlords into his popularly elected government’.
And Thomas Schweich, until June 2008 the state department’s co-ordinator for counter-narcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, adds in an article for the New York Times Magazine (27 July 2008, ‘Is Afghanistan a Narco-State?’): ‘Karzai had Taleban enemies who profited from drugs but he had even more supporters who did’.
Thomas Pietschmann, a research officer with the UNODC Statistics and Surveys Section, told Jeremy R. Hammond of the Online Journal (1 Dec 2008) that an estimated $50-70 million is made by warlords and Taleban from the poppy farmers. An additional $200-400 million is made from the traffickers. But, he explained, ‘We do not have any good idea of how this income is divided up between warlords and Taleban.’ Pietschmann also confirmed that ‘[w]e also have not seen strong indications of much direct exporting of opiates by the Taleban.’ ‘A UNODC study done in 2006 concluded that there may be 35 major criminal groups in Afghanistan, of which 15 are located in southern Afghanistan (Helmand/Kandahar) controlling much of the business. None of them had its criminal head in government. But they seem to influence politics, including who gets the job as police chief at the regional level’, Hammond’s article continues.
In March 2008, Christian Gynna Oguz, UNODC country director in Afghanistan stated that drug lords and corrupt government officials operate with impunity. ‘Powerful individuals are able to compromise the justice system through bribes and corruption, as well as implicit and explicit threats […]. Telephone justice, in which powerful individuals, inside or outside the government, improperly intervene in this process with a simple phone call’ needed to be stamped out. ‘Such situations can no longer be tolerated’. (Rahim Faiez, ‘UN: Afghanistan should hit drug lords’, AP 5 March 2008).
Ignoring all of this and even its own researchers, the UN’s ODC can move forward with one eye closed in its latest statement: ‘A marriage of convenience between insurgents and criminal groups is spawning narco-cartels in Afghanistan linked to the Taleban’.
Anyone else involved? Was Hillary Clinton referring to the Islamic Emirate when she spoke of a narco-mafia state in Afghanistan in April this year?
If that one-eyedness of the UNODC is not remedied one has to wonder whether it is becoming part of a counter-insurgency psy-op which is clearly not its mandate. All in all, these are brilliant conditions for the cancer that undermines all institution-building and anti-corruption efforts done in Afghanistan to grow further. Just watch the narcotecture palaces of the powder-furush, as Afghan call them, growing between Zaranj, Lashkargah, Sherpur and Kunduz. And also watch who rents them.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020