Drug trade 'reaches to Afghan cabinet'
"A British official said that a number of Afghan MPs were linked to the drugs trade and that some officials had to be circumvented because they were corrupted by drugs."By Toby Harnden, Kabul
Some cabinet ministers in Afghanistan are deeply implicated in the drugs trade and could be diverting foreign aid into trafficking, the country's anti-narcotics minister said yesterday.
The admission will dismay Western governments, which last week pledged $10.5 billion (£6 billion) in aid, including £505 million from Britain, to help to fight poverty, improve security and crack down on the drugs trade.
SBS, March 3, 2005:
"The International Narcotics Control Board’s report found that opium production in Afghanistan in 2004 reached 4,200 tonnes - 1000 tonnes more than in 2003."
It raises the prospect that money being donated by the West could be used indirectly to kill British soldiers, 3,300 of whom will be stationed in anarchic Helmand province, where corrupt officials, insurgents and drug lords overlap.
"I don't deny that," said Habibullah Qaderi in an interview with the Sunday Telegraph, when asked whether corruption linked to the £2.7 billion-a-year drugs trade went right up to the cabinet.
Such high-level criminality, he said, would help account for why "a lot of trafficking through different parts of the country" was being conducted with apparent impunity.
But he declined to name names and said Afghanistan's weak justice system, itself bedevilled by corruption, meant that it was difficult to convert allegations and rumours into fact. "The question is how to find evidence against these people [politicians]."
In Kabul, the houses of several senior politicians resemble small palaces with marble corridors, painstakingly manicured lawns and dozens of armed guards.
Even in provincial town such as Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, ostentatious homes stand in stark contrast to the poverty around them and are known locally as the houses of "smugglers" - a euphemism for drug traffickers.
Western aid officials and several European diplomats named the same high-ranking politicians and officials, including one with close links to Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's President, as drug lords.
"The Afghans complain that 75 per cent of aid is spent directly rather than being filtered through their government but the reason for that is because otherwise a significant proportion is skimmed off into the pockets of drug lords," said one American aid worker. "Post-Taliban Afghanistan is going to emerge as a low-level narco-state at best."
But a veteran European diplomat in Kabul said: "The problem, as ever, is the smoking gun. We all know it is happening. We all know the names. But I have never seen any direct evidence and I don't know anyone who has."
Ali Ahmad Jalali, who resigned as Afghanistan's interior minister last year, said: "Sometimes government officials allow their own cars to be used for a fee. Sometimes they give protection to traffickers.
"In Afghanistan, corruption is a low-risk enterprise in a high-risk environment. Because of the lack of investigative capacity it is very difficult to get evidence. You always end up arresting foot soldiers."
But he accused Western governments of exaggerating the problem to justify limiting their long-term commitment to rebuilding Afghanistan. The "drug problem in Afghanistan is demand-driven" from the West, he said, with 90 per cent of profits being made outside the country. Nato policies, moreover, had helped to consolidate the drugs lords because they had focused solely on fighting Taliban and insurgent forces rather than attacking the trade.
Mr Jalali urged British troops in Helmand not to ignore narcotics, 90 per cent of which end up in Europe. "I understand Nato's argument that if they eradicate poppy fields then that antagonizes the population. But there are legitimate targets - mobile labs and stockpiles - which only drugs lords, rather than ordinary poppy growers, are involved with."
A British official said that a number of Afghan MPs were linked to the drugs trade and that some officials had to be circumvented because they were corrupted by drugs. "There are plenty of people in the national assembly who are very dodgy. Corruption is endemic so I have to be careful with some figures in the Afghan set-up who might not be 100 per cent committed to eradicating drugs."
Last week, the World Bank castigated Western governments for failing to channel money through the Afghan government, leading to vast amounts of cash being spent on exorbitant salaries, security guards and fortified accommodation for aid workers.
But the Kabul Weekly, an Afghan newspaper, summed up the dilemma: "If aid is given to NGOs, huge amounts go into their own expenditures. If it's given to the Afghan government, the poor bureaucracy and corruption waste it."