Sunday, May 10, 2009

Thriving Afghan drug trade has friends in high places

When it's harvest time in the poppy fields of Kandahar, dust-covered Taliban fighters pull up on their motorbikes to collect a 10 percent tax on the crop. Afghan police arrive in Ford Ranger pickups -- bought with U.S. aid money -- and demand their cut of the cash in exchange for promises to skip the farms during annual eradication.
Then, usually late one afternoon, a drug trafficker will roll up in his Toyota Land Cruiser with black-tinted windows and send a footman to pay the farmers in cash. The boss inside the Land Cruiser never shows his face, but the farmer says he presumes it's a local powerbroker who has ties to the U.S.-backed Afghan government.

Everyone wants a piece of the action, said farmer Abdul Satar, a thin man with rough hands who tends about half an acre of poppy just south of Kandahar. ''There is no one to complain to,'' he said, sitting in the shade of an orange tree. ``Most of the government officials are involved.''

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, which was worth some $3.4 billion to Afghan exporters last year. For a cut of that, Afghan officials open their highways to opium and heroin trafficking, allow public land to be used for growing opium poppies and protect drug dealers.


The drug trade funnels hundreds of millions of dollars each year to drug barons and the resurgent Taliban, the militant Islamist group that has killed an estimated 450 American troops in Afghanistan since 2001 and seeks to overthrow the fledgling democracy here.

What's more, Afghan officials' involvement in the drug trade suggests that American tax dollars are supporting the corrupt officials who protect the Taliban's efforts to raise money from the drug trade, money the militants use to buy weapons that kill U.S. soldiers.

Islam forbids the use of opium and heroin -- the Taliban outlawed poppy growing in 2000 -- but the militants now justify the drug production by saying it's not for domestic consumption but rather to sell abroad as part of a holy war against the West. Under the Taliban regime, the biggest Afghan opium crop was roughly 4,500 tons in 1999, far below the record 8,200 tons in 2007.

The booming drug trade threatens the stability of the Afghan government, and with it America's efforts to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan. The threat has grown not only because of the cozy relationships among drug lords, militants and corrupt officials, but also because of apathy among Western powers.

From the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks until last year, the United States and other NATO countries did little to address the problem, according to a Western counter-narcotics official in Afghanistan.

''We all realized that it will take a long time to win this war, but we can lose it in a couple years if we don't take this [drug] problem by the horns,'' said the official, who asked for anonymity so that he could speak more freely.

To unravel the ties among militants, opium and the government, McClatchy interviewed more than two dozen current and past Afghan officials, poppy farmers and others familiar with the drug trade. Seven former Afghan governors and security commanders said they had firsthand knowledge of local or national officials who were transporting or selling drugs or protecting those who did.

Most sources feared retribution. One man was killed a week after he spoke to McClatchy. Another called a week after the interview and said he hadn't left home in days, fearful McClatchy's calls to verify his story would bring trouble. A third met on the condition that a reporter promise not to tell anyone he still lives in Kabul.

''In this country, if someone really tells the truth he will have no place to live,'' said Agha Saqeb, who served as the police chief in Kandahar, in the heart of Afghanistan's opium belt, from 2007 to 2008. Naming officials who profit from drugs, he said, would get him killed: ``They are still in power and they could harm me.''

The embassies of the United States, Britain and Canada -- the countries principally behind counter-narcotics in Afghanistan -- declined to comment. A State Department report issued earlier this year flatly noted that: ``Many Afghan government officials are believed to profit from the drug trade.''

It also said: ``Regrettably, no major drug trafficker has been arrested or convicted in Afghanistan since 2006.''

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration officials in Kabul also refused to comment. Afghan and Western observers said the DEA had been hampered by inadequate staffing and by the difficulty of cracking down on drug trafficking in a country where local officials were implicated in it.


The corruption allegedly reaches the highest levels of Afghanistan's political elite. According to multiple former Afghan officials, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai and head of the provincial council in Kandahar, routinely manipulates judicial and police officials to facilitate shipments of opium and heroin.

Ahmed Wali Karzai and his defenders retort that the U.S. government never has formally accused him of any wrongdoing.

In Kabul, President Karzai's office said no one could prove his brother had anything to do with trafficking.

Ahmed Wali Karzai himself is defensive, saying that the accusations are part of a political conspiracy against his brother, the president. When he was asked recently about the allegations linking him to drugs and crime, he threatened to assault a visiting McClatchy reporter.

According to several former Afghan officials in the region, however, the major drug traffickers in southern Afghanistan don't worry much about getting caught because they're working under the protection of Karzai and other top officials.

For example, a former top Afghan intelligence official recounted an incident from five years ago, when, he said, his men arrested a Taliban commander involved with drugs at a key trafficking point between Helmand and the Pakistani border.

Late on the evening of the arrest, a local prosecutor dropped by and said Ahmed Wali Karzai wanted the militant released, according to Dad Mohammed Khan, who was the national intelligence directorate chief of Helmand province for about three years before he became a member of the parliament.

Khan said he released the Taliban commander, a man known as Haji Abdul Rahim, because he didn't want to tangle with the president's brother.

A week after his conversation with McClatchy, Khan -- a large man who had a reputation for dealing with enemies ruthlessly -- was killed by a roadside bomb that most attribute to the Taliban.

Asked for comment about Dad Mohammed Khan's allegation and others during an interview at his palatial Kandahar home, which is protected by guard shacks, perimeter walls and sand-filled roadblocks, Ahmed Wali Karzai said he had nothing to do with drugs.

Serious housing shortage in Mardan for IDPs

MARDAN: With a huge influx of the internally displaced persons (IDPs) owing to military operation in Malakand and Buner, the district now lacks buildings for accommodation.

Rental houses, hujras, under-construction buildings, deserted houses and even governmental schools are not available in Mardan for the IDPs because of continuous influx. Approximately more than 400,000 IDPs fleeing Buner, Swat, Upper Dir and Lower Dir have reached Mardan and Swabi districts.

The affluent families preferred to stay with relatives and rented buildings, while the underprivileged either reached relief camps or were searching under-construction and even deserted buildings for shelter.

On the directives of District Nazim Himayatullah Mayar, a large number of IDPs were lodged in governmental schools. A sizeable number of IDPs were also seen camped in the open in rural areas under trees and at the sides of canals.

Bicket Gunj Union Council Nazim Ziaul Haque Gandheri broke the locks of the Government Girls Primary School at Shamsi Road Saturday night and housed 18 families, mostly from Swat.

One Islam told this correspondent that his family belonged to Rang Mahallah in Mingora (Swat) and last night shelling forced the locals to flee from the area. He thanked Nazim Gandheri who provided them the school building, meals and tea twice a day.

He also thanked the school principal for his cooperation. Similarly, women thanked local social worker Gulara Shahnazar for consoling the war-affected families and providing them clothes, food and even sweets to children.

Later, Shahnazar said she was trying her best to help the IDPs at every level in limited resources. She disclosed that after the arrival of the displaced families in the area, she along with her team went to every house of the UC and requested donation.

She deplored that no MNA or MPA had reached the camp and were trying to avoid meeting the IDPs. Shahnazar deplored that no facilities or material assistance was available to the IDPs at the school.

Raj Shah, a resident of Palai village on the border of Malakand and Mardan districts, told this correspondent that a rocket attack on Sunday morning forced the villagers to flee the area while leaving behind property and valuables.

Khalil Ahmed, from Rahimabad area of Swat, said his village was the focus of bombardment and rocket attacks. Narrating his ordeal, he said the shelling destroyed their houses and other property. He said he had seen bodies lying on the streets in Rahimabad.

Situation at the relief camps is worst because of registration problem and insufficient availability of food and shelter. An NGO activist, identified as Siraj Muhammad of Takhtbhai tehsil, told this correspondent at Jalala relief camp that the method of providing food, utensils and shelter was very humiliating and inhuman.

He said first the IDPs had to wait in queues for registration: an uphill task, particularly for women. After they got registered, they had to queue up for getting food, utensils and tent and most of the IDPs were unable to get the relief goods.

Next few weeks crucial, says top US general

WASHINGTON: The next few weeks would be pivotal for Pakistan’s future, a top US general warned on Sunday, noting that the Pakistanis also realised this and had galvanised to protect their country from the militants.

In an interview with Fox News on Sunday, Gen David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, pointed to Pakistan’s intensifying offensive against the Taliban in Swat as a sign its political leaders, people and military were united against the militants.

‘The actions of the Pakistani Taliban seem to have galvanised all of Pakistan,’ he said. ‘There is a degree of unanimity that there must be swift and effective action taken against the Taliban.’

The Obama administration has strongly backed the offensive launched last week when President Asif Ali Zardari was in Washington seeking support for fighting the militancy, which he said was a threat to the entire international community.

‘The next few weeks would be very important and, to a degree, pivotal in the future for Pakistan,’ said Gen Petraeus.

‘Certainly the next few weeks will be very important in this effort to roll back, if you will, this existential threat — a true threat to Pakistan’s very existence that has been posed by the Pakistani Taliban,’ he added.

The general dismissed the suggestion that if the fight against the Taliban intensified, it could also endanger Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal.

‘With respect to the nuclear weapons and sites that are controlled by Pakistan, as President Obama mentioned the other day, we have confidence in their security procedures and elements and believe that the security of those sites is adequate,’ he said.

The US general said the trilateral talks in Washington last week enabled him to have ‘some good conversations’ with Pakistani leaders and officials.

‘It was very clear in discussions with everyone, from President Zardari through the other members of the delegation that there’s an understanding that this does have to be a whole-of-government approach,’ he said.

‘In other words, not just the military but all the rest of the elements of government (are) supporting the military,’ the general said.

Gen Petraeus noted that besides the military offensive, Pakistani authorities were also trying to re-establish basic services, repair the damage done by the bombardment of these areas in which the Taliban were located, and to take care of the internally displaced persons.

The US, he said, was also backing an ‘enormous effort’ to rehabilitate the internally displaced persons.

Various US agencies, he said, were working with the government of Pakistan to help them deal with this problem while UN agencies also were playing a frontline role in helping the refugees.

‘This is not a US assurance that matters,’ said the general when asked if the US government could assure the success of Pakistan’s offensive against the militants. ‘This is a Pakistani assurance. This is not a US fight … this is a Pakistani fight, a Pakistani battle, with elements that, as we’ve mentioned, threaten the very existence of the Pakistani state.’

Al Qaeda leaders: ‘There’s no question that Al Qaeda’s senior leadership has been there and has been in operation for years,’ said the general when asked if he knew where they were hiding. ‘We had to contend with its reach as it sought to facilitate the flow of foreign fighters, resources, explosives, leaders and expertise into Iraq, as you’ll recall, through Syria.

‘We see tentacles of Al Qaeda that connect to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen, the elements Al-Shabab in Somalia, elements in north central Africa, and that strive to reach all the way, of course, into Europe and into the United States.’

The general said it was not possible to determine the accurate location for Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri other than a general description of where that might be.

‘Certainly, they surface periodically. We see communications that they send out. And of course, they periodically send out videos in which they try to exhort people and to inspire individuals to carry out extremist activities.’

ANP leader calls for arming Swat villagers

ISLAMABAD: Afzal Khan Lala is an amazing man. After having been in the mainstream politics for decades, the veteran Pakhtun nationalist once again made headlines recently when he defied the worst Taliban pressure in the Swat valley by refusing to leave his beleaguered village.

But now even Afzal Khan’s optimism is gradually waning. Although the octogenarian leader continues to remain a symbol of hope for hundreds of thousands of people in Malakand and beyond, he is increasingly becoming unsure about the fate of the troubled valley.

‘I’m still not prepared to blame the army for the current mess,’ Afzal Lala said during an informal chat at the Frontier House in Islamabad, where he was recently brought in for medical check-up.

‘But I also know such military operations cannot deliver if there is no planning or strategy to consolidate the gains through administrative action once the army withdraws.’

While in Islamabad Afzal Khan Lala has remained in touch with the highly disturbing developments taking place in Mingora and various other parts of Malakand region.

However, his view is that even this time the army will, at best, be able to secure the main towns and villages by pushing back the Taliban to the mountains. ‘But you can’t expect the army to continue to man the streets for ever,’ he said.

‘In order to do so, we need to have a proper administrative system, backed by a civilian security establishment.’ Otherwise, he says, the Taliban may soon be back, only to inflict further pain on the local people.

Like most others, he too doesn’t seem to have a solution. However, he believes that everyone, including his comrades in the Awami National Party, has to share the blame for the mess that the Malakand region is at the moment.

According to him, the military’s half-hearted action has convinced many people that it is either in league with the Taliban, or is not interested in fully eliminating them.

He accuses the ANP government of not even discussing the issue with him or other veteran politicians from the area before striking peace deals with the Taliban.

Certainly he is not the only one from the Malakand region who either accuses the army of carrying out ill-conceived or half-hearted operations in the past, or blames the NWFP government and Islamabad for abandoning the anti-Taliban forces in the region by literally surrendering to wishes of armed militants.

For many such people it was a foregone conclusion that such moves would embolden the armed religious extremists, who soon started venturing out of Swat.

Then there are quite a few former civil servants, who had served in Malakand, who are convinced that it has been mishandled from the day the old justice system, drawn on the lines of Sharia, of the former princely states was abolished without replacing it with an equally effective system.

If the situation was exploited by the religious extremists, only Islamabad is to be blamed for it, says a former commissioner of Malakand.

Much debate is now going on about the latest military offensive. Reports coming from Mardan and adjoining areas speak of a real exodus of internally displaced people from Mingora and many big and small villages during the hours when curfew was lifted.

Those working for the United Nations Refugee agency UNHCR and humanitarian organisations like the ICRC are alarmed by the speed with which migration is taking place from the conflict zone.

It’s quite possible that it may turn out to be the biggest internal migration ever to have taken place in Pakistan.

For those like the 82-year-old Afzal Khan Lala, this is important but may only provide temporary relief.

His belief is that along with the current military operation the authorities should start to think about the post-operation strategy. And he believes if the police and constabulary are too demoralised and not prepared to be deployed there, the authorities should seriously think of arming the Swat villagers.

‘These are the people who have lost their sons and brothers during repeated onslaughts by the Taliban, and if properly armed, the Pakhtun concept of ‘badla’ (revenge) can make them fight back’.

According to him, this may not be the ideal solution, but in the given situation, it might be the only option left with the civil and military authorities to keep the Taliban at bay.

Corker, Casey on Pakistan


Zardari arrives in New York

NEW YORK :President Asif Ali Zardari flew into New York Friday night after wrapping up his 4?day official visit to Washington during which he had talks with US President Barack Obama and other administration officials as well as congressional leaders.

The President, who is here on a private visit on his way back home, also took part in the three?way meeting of leaders of the the United States, Pakistan and Afghanistan on the Afghan strategy.

He was received at New York’s JFK airport by Pakistan’s U.N. Ambassador Abdullah Hussain Haroon and Consul General Mohsin Razi.

In New York, the president will address members of the Pakistani community on Sunday, May 10, at a local hotel. Billed as an address to “pro?democracy activists”, the event is being hosted by Pakistan’s Ambassador to the United States Hussain Haqqani.

Karzai criticizes airstrikes

Troops kill at least 180 militants in Swat

MALAKAND: Between 180 and 200 insurgents were killed in the last 24 hours in a fierce military offensive to push Taliban fighters out of Pakistan's northwestern Swat valley, the military said on Sunday.

'During the last 24 hours, as many as 180-200 miscreants have been killed in various areas of Swat and Shangla by security forces,' the military said in a statement.

The military has been pounding the Swat valley and several nearby districts since late last month after Taliban fighters advanced to within 100 kilometres of Islamabad despite a February peace deal.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the army ordered people out of parts of the Swat valley, temporarily relaxing a curfew to enable civilians to flee an intensifying offensive against Taliban militants.

Hundreds of thousands of people have left Swat in the past week and in all about 500,000 are expected to get out. They join 555,000 people displaced earlier from Swat and other areas because of fighting since August.

‘We have ordered the civilian population in four districts to vacate the areas,’ said Nasir Khan, a military spokesman in the region. ‘They have seven hours to leave because we have to strike militant hideouts there,’ he said.

The Swat administration announced that the curfew had been relaxed from 06:00 a.m. to 01:00 p.m. on Sunday and asked the residents of Qamber and Amankot to leave the areas as soon as possible.

‘We expect more than 100,000 people will quit their homes at different places in Swat today,’ local administration chief Khushhal Khan told AFP, adding that while vehicles would be allowed to leave the valley, no one would be allowed in.

The UN refugee agency has warned up to one million people have already been displaced in northwest Pakistan, with tens of thousands streaming out of Buner, Lower Dir and Swat, registering in camps or sheltering with families.

The government has said it was bracing to cope with half a million people displaced by the fighting.

Earlier, on Saturday, at least 44 militants were killed when jet fighters, helicopter gunships and artillery shelled different areas in Swat, Dir and Malakand.

Local people and officials said that 25 militants had been killed and several others wounded in the bombing and shelling in Qambar, Amankot, Green Chowk, Landi Kas, Shahiabad, Namal, Chamkali, Wenai and Peuchar areas of Swat.

The longstanding curfew in the entire Malakand division had multiplied the misery of the displaced and a large number of people were trapped in their homes in Mingora and other areas of swat.

They had appealed to the government to relax the curfew to enable them to leave their homes for safety. They also alleged that Taliban were stopping them from vacating their houses.

Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Saturday that the army would minimise civilian casualties while the government would look after those displaced by the conflict. These views echoed President Asif Ali Zardari’s special message from New York, which stated that the government must take special care to protect the refugees of the operation, in particular addressing the needs of women and children. APP quoted the President as saying that a billion rupee fund would be announced for the rehabilitation of the IDPs.

Meanwhile, ten people, militants and non-combatants among them, were killed and five others injured when helicopter gunships shelled Maizara and Thana areas of Malakand.

A mortar shell hit the house of one Qadir Gul in Thana village, killing his daughter-in-law and grand son. Another shell hit a house in the same area, killing Qayyum, son of Habibur Rehman, and Hazrat Nawab, son of Abdul Wahab.

Hundreds of people left their homes in Thana and Batkhela and moved to other areas through Palai road via Buner. About 500 new families arrived at the Rangmala relief camp. A large number of people were stranded on roads because of curfew.

Thirteen militants, including a key commander, were killed and five others wounded when security forces pounded militant hideouts in Maidan, Lower Dir.

Clashes between security forces and militants were also reported in Hayaserai, Kumbar and Darro areas of Maidan. Several bunkers and hideouts of militants were destroyed in Kolal Dheri, a stronghold of the Taliban.

The security forces recaptured the bungalow of Khan of Hayaserai, a son of the late Nawab-i-Dir. It was occupied by militants a few days ago.

Officials claimed that troops had cleared Hayaserai, Kumbar and Darro villages of militants.

However, a spokesman for the Taliban told Dawn by phone from an unspecified location that they had repulsed attacks by security forces in Kumbar and Hayaserai and claimed that troops suffered heavy casualties. Civilian casualties were reported in the Maidan fighting.

‘Taliban have taken shelter in vacated houses and are attacking security forces,’ the spokesman said.

Lower Dir DCO Ghulam Mohammad enforced curfew for an indefinite period in the district on Saturday, causing problems for the displaced persons trapped in different areas.

About 12,000 people have moved out of Tazagaram, Shawa, Kityari, Gul Abad, Gaddar, Chakdara and Ouch areas of Adenzai tehsil.Local people said that helicopters gunships had conducted an aerial search of Osakai and Warsak areas of Adenzai, sparking panic and fear among the locals.

According to sources, over 100 armed Taliban entered the Osakai village on Saturday evening and asked the residents to vacate their homes. The militants had started taking positions in mountains of the village and a clash between them and security forces might take place any time, the sources added.

The Swat Taliban active in Adenzai areas reportedly held a public gathering at Chakdara Square on Saturday. The meeting, attended by a few people, mostly children, was addressed by a local commander, the sources said. Militants whisked way a local photographer who tried to take footage of the gathering.

In Buner, army troops were moved to cover up the deployment of the Special Service Group on hilltops between Daggar and Pir Baba. Militants offered stiff resistance to SSG personnel soon after they were dropped in the area by helicopters, the sources said.

Security forces, backed by helicopter gunships and tanks, moved to the troubled area. Air and ground forces combed the localities. Heavy artillery pounded hideouts of militants in Patora, Jaffar, Dagger, Pirabai, Ghazi Khanay, Sultanwas and Pir Baba.

Dawn Correspondents Hameedullah Khan, Haleem Asad, Gohar Ali Gohar and Abdur Rehman Abid have contributed to this report.