VOA, June 4, 2008

The Business of Opium in Afghanistan: Drugs and Corruption

"Traders support the farmers. They are government officials, high-ranking policemen and members of parliament. They are powerful people. And the big drug traders are free."

Siri Nyrop

Afghanistan supplies virtually all of the world's illegal opium. Last year, the country's drug trade was a $4 billion business, half of which alone was produced in the south where the fighting against the Taliban insurgency is the fiercest. Getting Afghanistan to rid itself of poppy is a pillar of U.S. policy there, because the Taliban use profits from opium as a revenue source. For Afghans themselves, however, feelings about poppy are conflicted: It's harmful to their country and to their people, but it is also a livelihood for many where instability offers few alternatives.

This little boy is one face of the poppy trade in Afghanistan. For this boy, the All Terrain Vehicle demolishing a poppy field is not tearing up an illegal crop, but destroying his family's livelihood.In an Afghan drug court, the men on trial are not notorious drug dealers. Still, in Afghanistan it is dangerous work to go after even small offenders in the country that produces almost all of the world's opium.

The Afghan judicial system is still a fragile work in progress.

Judge Mukrima Akrami believes in her work, but she is also well aware of the threat she faces from the bigger drug dealers behind the scenes.

"I'm concerned. I feel insecure when I go out," says Judge Akrami. "It's because we are facing drug dealers. They are organized criminals. My family members and I risk being kidnapped. But still, my job is important to me, and I perform it responsibly."

A man convicted, complains bitterly about what he sees as a double standard. "This is a fact that every Afghan, even the Afghan government knows," he says. "Traders support the farmers. They are government officials, high-ranking policemen and members of parliament. They are powerful people. And the big drug traders are free."

Charges of corruption at all levels, not just with the drug trade, have long been leveled at Afghan officials by friends and foes alike.

"Corruption is a serious, serious problem. The police are corrupted from time to time. Local government officials are corrupted; the provincial government officials are sometimes corrupted, so it's across the board," says Former Director of Counternarcotics at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Doug Wankel. "Unfortunately, this is becoming all too common in Afghanistan society in general, but its certainly very much there in drugs."Interdiction is yielding some results, but most of the drug traffickers easily dilute justice.

One high-level drug lord who was arrested wasn't tried in Afghanistan. Instead, he was turned over to federal authorities in the United States. "Haji Baz Mohmmad, who was extradited Friday, is one of the world's most wanted, most powerful, and most dangerous drug kingpins," says DEA official Karen Tandy.

Baz Mohammad was the first defendant the Afghan government ever extradited for drug crimes.

"He pled guilty to being a manager of a heroin transportation organization through which he moved heroin from Pakistan and Afghanistan to the U.S. from 1990 through 2005. From 1994 forward, he and his organization used some of the money from the sales of the heroin in the US to support the Taliban in Afghanistan. And in exchange, they received the protection of the Taliban," Boyd Johnson, Chief of the Public Corruption Unit, U.S. Attorney's Office, New York City said.Mohammad was sentenced to over 15 years in a US prison. But it's a long way from the American courthouse to this one in Afghanistan.

It will take time before the Afghan judicial system has the power of the criminals it must prosecute.

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