A Harvest Of Treachery

In the privacy of his sparsely furnished house in Kabul, a veteran Afghan Interior Ministry official says the situation may already be hopeless. Although he has no authorization to speak with the press, and he could be in personal danger if his identity became known, he's nevertheless too worried to keep silent. "We are losing the fight against drug traffickers," he says. "If we don't crack down on these guys soon, it won't be long until they're in control of everything."

His pessimism is spreading. Despite the recent fanfare over the convening of Afghanistan's first elected Parliament in more than three decades, the rule of law is under attack by a ruthless organization of warlords and drug smugglers that spans the country and transcends its ethnic divisions. Narcotics trafficking isn't merely big, it's more than half the economy--amounting to $2.7 billion annually, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)--that is, 52 percent of the country's entire GDP. And many of the underground industry's most important figures are said to be senior government officials in Kabul and the provinces. Amanullah Paiman, a newly elected member of Parliament from the far northern province of Badakhshan, has studied the country's drug problem and says Afghan government officials are involved in at least 70 percent of the traffic. "The chain of narcodollars goes from the districts to the highest levels of government," he says.

That accusation is supported by the public complaints of Ali Jalali, a former Interior minister who quit the job this past summer. He has repeatedly said he has a list of more than 100 high-ranking Afghan ----officials he suspects of involvement in the drug trade. A source close to him, fearful of being killed if identified, says Jalali's unpublished list includes at least 13 former and present provincial governors and four past or present cabinet ministers. The source adds that one of the minister's chief reasons for resigning was his frustration over President Hamid Karzai's failure to sack and prosecute crooked officials.

The president, having declared a "holy war" against drugs a year ago, can claim a few victories. A successful eradication campaign reduced total poppy-growing acreage by 21 percent this past year, but exceptional weather yielded an opium harvest just 2 percent below the record crop of 2004. The price of raw opium rose anyway, from $90 a kilo to more than $100, and many former growers are said to be returning to poppies for lack of a better source of income. Gen. Mohammad Daud, the president's deputy Interior minister for counternarcotics, says the president recently gave a severe tongue-lashing to the governors of 10 major opium provinces. "I don't want to see any poppy cultivation in your provinces," Karzai reportedly told them. "It harms and defames Afghanistan"--and, he added, it could ultimately deprive the country of desperately needed international help in the war against the Taliban. That's America's worry, too: the unchecked spread of drug corruption in Afghanistan could affect the future stability and democracy of a country that U.S. troops gave their lives to stabilize and democratize.

President Karzai's name has never been linked to the drug trade. His younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a personal representative of the president based in Kandahar, is a different story. He was alleged to be a major figure by nearly every source who described the Afghan network to NEWSWEEK for this story, including past and present government officials and several minor drug traffickers. "He is the unofficial regional governor of southern Afghanistan and leads the whole trafficking structure," says the veteran Interior Ministry official. Ahmed Wali Karzai vehemently denies the allegation, telling NEWSWEEK it's "propaganda" concocted by his family's political enemies--a defense that is seconded by the presidential palace.

General Daud is also a subject of persistent reports of past involvement in trafficking. "These are false accusations," says the former Northern Alliance general. "Such rumors cannot weaken my determination." Daud says he is making steady progress against the drug gangs, arresting more than 300 traffickers in the past year and winning stiff prison sentences against most. He says the busts have included government officials and border policemen. "These traffickers are killers of humanity," he says.

All the same, the drug trade is making some Afghans rich. Many of them don't bother hiding their newfound wealth. Dozens of gleaming new multistory commercial edifices are going up amid the low-lying mud-brick architecture of old Kabul, along with scores of palatial villas where squatters used to live in makeshift huts. A prominent local building contractor, asking not to be named for fear of retribution, estimates that 70 percent of the new construction is funded by drug profits. "Here you build with ready cash," he says, "not with bank loans."

Most Afghans are far less fortunate. More than 300,000 families in Afghanistan raise opium as a cash crop, but it earns them an average of less than $1,800 a year. The remaining 80 percent of the country's total drug income goes to the traffickers and their well-connected friends. Nevertheless, almost every move to stop the traffic seems to be directed mainly at the growers. "The poor farmers who benefit least from the narcotics business are the target of the anti-drug campaign," says Ahmed Nader Nadery of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission. "The focus instead should be on the more important players, the Kabul officials, provincial governors and police."

The drug trade is placing terrible costs on the rest of the country. According to a recent study by the UNODC and the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, approximately 170,000 Afghans--roughly 1.4 percent of the population--now use opium or heroin. About 30,000 of those addicts are women, a shockingly high number in such a conservative Muslim society. The toll doesn't end there. "Afghanistan's main problems are all linked to drug trafficking: rampant corruption, repressive militia groups, human-rights --abuses and bad governance," says a Western diplomat in Kabul who would discuss drug trafficking only on condition of anonymity.

Karzai is in the most difficult of positions. Many of the figures under suspicion were useful to the United States in the overthrow of the Taliban and continue to serve as checks against the old regime's resurgence. The president sometimes reassigns officials who have come under scrutiny, but rarely in a way that would upset the status quo. He's particularly careful with the war-lords who run many of the biggest opium-growing provinces. "His options are limited," says senior presidential adviser Javed Ludin. "These guys have been propped up by and are allied with U.S.-led Coalition forces." Now Karzai depends on the military strength and political influence of his warlord governors. Ludin says: "The same people who are being accused by some in the international community of being drug traffickers... are our most reliable partners in the war against terrorism."

Meanwhile the traffickers are waging a political war of their own--and winning. Diplomats and well-informed Afghans believe that up to a quarter of the new Parliament's 249 elected members are linked to narcotics production and trafficking. One especially controversial figure is Arif Noorzai, who has won the post of deputy speaker of Parliament. (He denies any wrongdoing.) In a study for the independent Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, Afghan expert Andrew Wilder concludes that at least 17 newly elected M.P.s are drug traffickers themselves, 24 others are connected to criminal gangs, 40 are commanders of armed groups and 19 face serious allegations of war crimes and human-rights abuses.

There's little doubt that Afghanistan's future depends on stopping the drug lords. "It's the cornerstone of everything you want to do here," says a UNODC representative in Kabul who asks not to be identified because the subject is so sensitive. "It's linked to security, to building the justice and law-enforcement systems and to economic and political development." Western governments ought to confront Karzai directly and "name and shame" some of the worst drug offenders on the public payroll, says the diplomat. "Then the president could tell governor X and police chief Y, 'You're out--the international community is telling me you are involved in drugs, and I have to believe them'." That's easy to say. Karzai has never had much luck at telling the warlords what to do. The question is how much more help the West is prepared to give him--and whether it would be enough.