A Poor Yield For Afghans' War on Drugs
As Opium, Heroin Trade Booms, Police Net Mainly Smaller Players

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, September 19, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The grim-faced man in gray prison pajamas sat on a metal chair Saturday, listening silently while judges and lawyers debated whether he had known about the 37 pounds of heroin found hidden in the car he was driving cross-country to a city near the Iranian border.

No evidence or witnesses were presented. There were glaring gaps in the police report. The car's owner, a man named Shoaib, had not been arrested, so no one could check the defendant's story that Shoaib had given him money and a car to drive home from Kabul after visiting his sister in the hospital.

"People like Shoaib are the smugglers who use poor people like my client for their business," protested the man's attorney, provided by a foreign legal aid foundation. "We should be going after the real criminals who take advantage of the poor."

After a two-hour hearing, the driver, a young house painter and father of two, was sentenced to 16 years in prison. It was a harsh punishment, based on Afghanistan's tough new drug law and meted out by its year-old narcotics court, which is battling corruption, inexperience and a long-broken legal system to crack down on Afghanistan's skyrocketing opium and heroin trade.

Foreign backers of the government of President Hamid Karzai are growing impatient with the continuing production and trafficking. President Bush weighed in Monday, saying in a report to Congress that the Afghan government must be "held accountable" and toughen its fight against drugs even further.

"We are concerned that failure to act decisively now could undermine security, compromise democratic legitimacy, and imperil international support for vital assistance," Bush said in comments accompanying an annually compiled list of major drug-transit or drug-producing countries.

Two weeks ago, the top U.N. anti-drug official aroused new international alarm when he announced here that the cultivation of opium poppies in Afghanistan had increased by 59 percent in the past year. It grew despite a slew of expensive, foreign-funded programs to eradicate poppy fields and motivate Afghan farmers to grow other crops.

Poppy farming, banned in 2000 by the Taliban administration that U.S.-led forces overthrew the following year, quickly revived after the establishment of a U.N.-backed government and has been spreading rapidly ever since. It now accounts for more than half the country's gross national income and provides the raw material for about 75 percent of the world's heroin.

"It's become an industrial production," said Doris Buddenberg, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime here, noting that Afghanistan's opium output this year was a staggering 6,700 tons. Rural poverty, dashed hopes for economic recovery, Taliban blandishments and anti-government sentiment "all added up to more families deciding to grow poppy," she said.

But anti-drug officials and experts here say the expansion of drug smuggling and refining is a far more pernicious problem than poppy farming and could easily turn Afghanistan into another Colombia.

"Our main problem is these former commanders and warlords who are still in power. Now they are district chiefs and local police," said Maj. Gen. Sayed Kamal Sadaat, head of the anti-narcotics police force. "The drug mafia is getting more powerful day by day, and the only support we have is from the international community. The senior authorities not only do not cooperate, they get in our way."

Sadaat's force has arrested more than 600 people, but only 35 have been convicted of drug-related crimes. Most, like the house painter, have been small cogs in a fast-growing illicit enterprise. If higher-level traffickers are caught, Sadaat said, "they have personal relations with officials. I get telephone threats. It is a very difficult situation."

Over the past two years, the Bush administration has poured several hundred million dollars into combating drugs here. The money has funded programs to develop alternative crops, eradicate poppy fields, build prisons and train special anti-narcotics police officers, prosecutors and judges. But still production rises.

Thomas A. Schweich, a senior anti-drug official at the State Department, visited Kabul last week for consultations. He told a group of journalists there was no more room for excuses, such as that Afghan farmers are too poor to survive without poppy cultivation or that bureaucrats linked to drugs can be dealt with by rotating them into other jobs.

"We are looking for the government of Afghanistan to start prosecuting corrupt officials," Schweich said. "They must get out the message that if you grow poppy, you will be eradicated, and if you traffic, you will be prosecuted.

"There are a lot of rumors and finger-pointing, but they need to start building cases that will stand up in court."

Another U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, described Afghanistan as "worse than Mexico" in the volume of its drug traffic but said the trade is informal and less organized, although some areas that once merely produced poppies have now built laboratories to refine opium into heroin. "It's bad and it will get worse, but there are more tools to fight it," he said. "What is really needed now is political will."

Senior Afghan anti-drug officials say that even with the training and technology provided by American and British experts, it is hard to do their jobs. They say the danger from Taliban insurgents, inadequate police training and poor government leadership in poppy-growing provinces have created a culture of impunity for drug traffickers.

"Poppy is threatening the existence of this country," said Habibullah Qaderi, the national counter-narcotics minister. "We have a good drug law now. We can record phone conversations, we can seize assets. But most of those arrested are drivers, and nobody investigates who the owner is. We are not going after the people who matter."

Police and other experts here described an efficient smuggling system in which taxi or truck drivers are hired to carry hidden bundles of opium, hashish and sometimes heroin in discrete stages from rural production areas to border-crossing points into Pakistan, Iran and the former Soviet republics to the north. Sometimes the contraband is mixed with shipments of legal exports, such as almonds or dried fruit.

Highway police officers often stop such vehicles, but they may be bribed to let them go or may not know how to conduct a proper investigation. If a person arrested with drugs is well connected, the pressure on police may be intense. Once the case goes to the special drug court in Kabul, the crime scene may be too far away to retrace steps missed by investigators.

In one case the drug court heard this week, an illiterate truck driver's assistant appealed a 10-year sentence for carrying 207 pounds of hashish in the truck's body. He denied knowing about the drugs and said he had been forced to put his thumbprint on a police report he could not read. The driver, who was also arrested, escaped from a jail bathroom. It was later learned that the custody officer was his brother.

The panel of three judges upheld the assistant's sentence, but the prosecutor acknowledged afterward that he could not prove that the man knew about the contraband.

"We don't have the drugs, we don't have the driver, we don't even have photographs of the truck, and all this happened in Herat," nearly 800 miles away, said the prosecutor, Azim Afzali. "Only God knows if this poor guy was an accomplice to the real smuggler."

Some analysts here say they are pessimistic that the government will begin seriously pursuing drug traffickers and their official accomplices anytime soon, especially given what they call Karzai's chronic reluctance to make difficult decisions.

But others said Karzai is committed to the anti-drug fight. They noted that he recently made a tough speech empowering all provincial governors to take such actions as firing corrupt or incompetent police officers. He also recently named a new attorney general, Abdul Jabbar Sabit, who has a reputation for honesty and determination.

Perhaps most important, they said, the Afghan government, which is protected by tens of thousands of international troops and heavily dependent on foreign aid, knows it is under enormous international pressure to do the right thing on drugs. It has pledged to begin going after major traffickers, no matter how prominent or powerful.

At the special drug court this week, a line of gloomy men in leg irons and handcuffs hunched awkwardly in the hall, awaiting their hearings. The chief judge, a thoughtful man named Mohammad Zaman Sangari, called each one "son" and asked if he understood where he was and if he had an attorney. Most defendants seemed bewildered and resigned, and most were given stiff prison terms.

"As you can see, the real perpetrators are rarely arrested," Sangari said with a sigh after several hearings. "We have a few bigger cases, but this court is new and the law is new. These things take a lot of time and preparation."

He mentioned the names of several men arrested with large amounts of drugs. "Just wait a little while," the judge said, with a gleam in his eye. "We will be bringing in some much bigger fish."

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