Afghanistan's drug czar - world's toughest job

Afghanistan's drug czar is waging a new campaign against heroin traffickers who fund the Taliban. The fate of the war may hang on it.

By Phil Zabriskie, contributor

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Soldiers destroy poppy fields in Afghanistan.

(Fortune Magazine) -- With the sun shining brightly, a host of Afghan officials, foreign diplomats, and members of the press take their seats beneath a newly erected red tent. After a prayer and some introductory remarks, a general steps to the podium and gives the customary Islamic invocation in the name of almighty Allah, most gracious and merciful.

He welcomes the attendees to this barren hillside north of Kabul and, as befits his office as Afghanistan's minister of counternarcotics, decries illegal drugs as "pure poison that destroys life, not only in Afghanistan but around the world," labels the drug trade "a feeding tube to terrorism," and resolves "to target this devilish phenomenon from every angle."

When he finishes, Col. Gen. Khodaidad (pronounced koh-DAD-dod; like many Afghans, he uses one name) walks a short distance uphill, takes hold of a wooden rod tipped with kerosene-soaked rags, waits as it is lit, then dips it into a shallow trench filled with gasoline. The flame skips along the ground toward a mound of recently seized raw opium, processed heroin, and mixing chemicals -- 6½ tons in all. In an instant the pile is engulfed by fire. A moment later it explodes.

It should be a moment of triumph for the general, or at least cause for quiet celebration. The spectacle was designed to illustrate that, despite the breakneck growth of the Afghan drug trade these past eight years, despite reports implicating officials throughout the government in the $4-billion-a-year industry, and despite Afghanistan's descent into what could plausibly be called narco-statehood, President Hamid Karzai's administration is trying to do something about its drug problem. On this day the general was a willing emissary for that message.

But afterward, as he is driven back into town in a black SUV with tinted windows, he seems restless, frustrated, perhaps a little defeated, as if he knows the morning's events were a set piece of political theater. As Kabul comes into view he points to a string of car dealerships and, with resignation, says that they are owned by traffickers. Passing a row of large, ornate homes -- commonly called "poppy palaces" or "narcotecture" -- he says drug money built them all. Then he sighs deeply, rubs his hands together, and stares through the darkened glass.

His weariness, to a great extent, stems from the fact that Gen. Khodaidad has one of the toughest jobs in the world. He has been assigned to coordinate Afghanistan's counternarcotics policy, eradicating as many poppy fields as possible, and act as the Afghan face of antidrug efforts in the country.

It's one thing to serve a functional system with clear goals and principles. It's quite another to have his job in this place at this time, when he can't be sure whether his boss wants him to succeed and when any quick hit of satisfaction brought on by burning tons of drugs cannot even last the drive home.

What really worries him -- what should worry us all -- is that if his country continues to be the source of 93% of the world's heroin, America's nation-building and counterinsurgency operations in Afghanistan will almost certainly fail.

Each year as much as $400 million ends up in the pockets of the Taliban and the warlords who support them. The U.S.-led coalition knows it too. The coalition has never been as focused on counternarcotics as it is now.

And President Obama's administration has shifted priorities, jettisoned ineffective programs, and devoted more money, manpower, and military might to combating the trafficking infrastructure. But will that be enough?

A czar without power

If Gen. Khodaidad's current plight is any indicator, the answer is most likely no. As counternarcotics minister, he has earned one of the cleanest reputations in the Afghan civil service. Yet in the face of government corruption and bigtime traffickers and their allies in the Taliban insurgency, he is essentially powerless -- and it shows.

A compact, sturdy man with close-cropped hair, a thick mustache, and dark eyes locked in a squint behind wire-rimmed glasses, he seems perpetually coiled, as if he's internalized the tension that exists between his ambitions and the reality of his situation.

On most days Khodaidad wears slacks and a blazer, not the shalwar kameez worn by most Afghans. Each morning he rides to work with a bodyguard, but not in the high-speed, heavily armed convoys in which most ranking officials travel.

There is security at the ministry's front gate, but nothing like the blast walls and layers of guards at other government offices. (An American review of the ministry's security found "umpteen million things that needed to be fixed," says one State Department official.)

The headquarters itself is a ramshackle building a fraction of the size of the higher-profile ministry complexes and painted an odd shade of pink. His office is a long, rectangular room with a wide, sturdy desk near the back wall, beneath a portrait of Hamid Karzai.

On the wall are posters showing the trafficking routes out of the country, the provinces that have been declared poppy-free, and the districts that are most and least secure -- graphic representations of the work that needs to be done.

It's a staggering task, but Khodaidad believes he is the man for the job. "I know the people of Afghanistan," he says. "I know the forces of Afghanistan. It is very easy for me to deploy these forces against drug dealers and poppy growers."

His bluster has some justification, because few living Afghans can match his record of battlefield exploits. And yet in a country with pronounced ethnic divides and still-fresh memories of the mujahadeen's battle against the Soviets, his background is more handicap than asset.

He hails from Sharistan, an isolated central highlands district populated by Hazaras, a Shia Muslim minority in a largely Sunni country and the country's most downtrodden ethnic group.

Following a course set when his father, a farmer, sent him to a military school in Kabul at 11, he served in the Afghan national army that fought with the Soviets after they invaded in 1979. He was a corps commander, pitted against the mujahadeen throughout the country. At one point he fought to a stalemate the legendary strategist Ahmed Shah Masood, in Masood's own Panjshir Valley.

After the Soviets withdrew, as the Taliban swept across the country, unleashing particular savagery on Hazaras, whom they labeled apostates, Khodaidad took his wife and three daughters to London. His family remains in England, but he returned after the Taliban was overthrown to serve under Karzai.

The Ministry of Counternarcotics was born in 2004, when Karzai responded to British and American pressure by creating an office for drug policy, led by a figure akin to America's drug czar. Khodaidad was its first deputy minister, and then, in 2007, Karzai named him minister. And there's no indication that the recent election will affect his job as drug czar.

Khodaidad's résumé means little in the arena of modern-day Afghan power politics. He has no tribe backing him, no gunmen protecting him, no mujahadeen lending him credibility. And crucially, he has no sway with other ethnic groups, particularly the Pashtuns in the south and southeast, where the majority of poppies are planted. And all this is fine as far as the general is concerned, because he values his independence.

Yet Thomas Schweich, a former senior State Department counternarcotics official in Afghanistan who speaks highly of Khodaidad as an individual, believes his appointment was a sign that Afghanistan's leadership is not looking to solve anything. Says he: "I think Karzai appointed him because he wouldn't have any influence in that part of the country, and I think Karzai felt that Americans were too stupid to figure that out."

To date, the general can point to a few apparent successes, such as the rise in poppy-free provinces -- defined as those with fewer than 250 acres planted -- from three in 2005 to 20 last year, or the recent 22% drop in cultivation.

Yet when asked if he thinks any members of the government have impeded counternarcotics efforts, the general says, "Many times, yes. There are some governors who are obstacles. When we are doing this dangerous job, there are smugglers, there are corrupt officials, there are bad people standing in front of you and making some sabotage, making propaganda." And sometimes, he adds, making threats against his life. "Plenty of obstacles," he says with a smile. "Every day."

Why poppies pay

One of the biggest obstacles is that poppies act as an alternate currency. Mujahadeen leaders, some of whom serve in the current government, partially funded their fight against the Soviets, and later one another, with opium, writes Gretchen Peters in her book "Seeds of Terror," and the Taliban used it to finance their rise and rule.

Yet after the Taliban was toppled, Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon focused mainly on counterterrorism. Drugs were a police matter, he believed, though there was no functioning police force.

Sensing an opportunity, Afghans of all stripes lined up to cash in: farmers hoping to make money; landowners seeking higher returns; local, district, and provincial officials -- police chiefs, governors, and militia leaders (i.e., warlords) -- who'd smuggled before and saw a chance to do so again.

"These guys started to look around and say, 'Holy shit, no one is doing anything about this,'" says Alex Thier, a rule-of-law expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace who has worked in Afghanistan since the mid-1990s. They figured, he says, "there's no risk in doing it. It's not only that I'm able to bribe the governor. The governor owns the fields that I'm planting!"

By 2007 more than 3 million Afghans were involved in cultivating a yield of some 8,200 metric tons of poppies, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Farmers were earning roughly six times the nation's per capita income of $340 a year. In 2007 opium's value was nearly 10 times that of wheat, making it extremely difficult to persuade farmers to switch crops.

American policy now stresses alternative livelihood programs designed to help farmers grow crops -- grapes, pomegranates, and almonds, for instance -- that can bring in as much as poppies do. However, the seeds literally take time to grow, so farmers living hand-to-mouth need some kind of bridge, which the West is trying to provide in the form of training and fertilizer and seedling subsidies.

So poppies remain the best thing going. "Of course we know it's illegal, but we have no other option," Hamid Hakmal, a teacher in Nokher Khil, a village in Nangarhar province, says. "I can't earn enough to live with wheat. If the government or NGOs would help us, we wouldn't have to plant this."

Given these harsh realities, poppy cultivation "is a logical economic response to conditions of chaos," says Ronald Neumann, the American ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.

Indeed, higher up the chain, huge payoffs await those who can get the drugs to multinational criminal mafias that move them to Karachi, Istanbul, Dubai, Moscow, or Beijing, and onward. A UNODC official says the value of the drugs multiplies by a factor of 10 every time they cross a border. And, Khodaidad lamented, "the border of Afghanistan is wide open."

Cash flows through the hawala network, the honor-bound, Western Union-like system used in the Middle East and South Asia to move money. Traffickers also use "trade-based money laundering," says John Cassara, a former Treasury Department investigator.

They exchange drugs for commodities -- cement, luxury cars, TV sets, weapons, and more -- imported with doctored or nonexistent invoices, which are then sold for cash, later reinvested in Dubai's property market or poppy palaces or shopping centers or even banks in Afghan cities. "There's a level of sophistication out here that would probably surprise people," says Jay Fitzpatrick, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent stationed in Kabul. "It's a tough system to crack."

Distressingly, several past and present cabinet ministers, senior law enforcement officials, and even Karzai's own brother are widely suspected of profiting handsomely from the poppy trade, overseeing growing operations or enabling transport of the yield across and out of the country.

They deny the charges, but it's impossible not to believe, as does David Kilcullen, an Australian counterinsurgency scholar and former adviser to Gen. David Petraeus, that "we shouldn't underestimate the degree to which corrupt Afghan officials are involved in the drug trade." Current and former government officials, including Khodaidad, speak of investigations thwarted, inquiries shut down, suspects summarily released after a hurried phone call.

Such was the state of affairs, says a State Department official, that an Afghan radio program that announced a seizure of 100 kilos of opium got a call from the trafficker himself moments later. He insisted he'd had twice that amount, accused the police of stealing the rest, and demanded it back.

Targeting the traffickers

After years of trying, it has become increasingly clear that eradication isn't working. Initially, and for too long, the drug issue and the insurgency were compartmentalized. The military focused on counterterrorism, while drug policy focused on the source. When and where possible, fields were bulldozed or sprayed or threshed by policemen and contractors.

But the work was dangerous -- many were killed -- and the results were inconsistent. Local officials involved in trafficking would point out fields belonging to rivals while shielding those of allies. The eradication that did happen hurt farmers with mouths to feed and loans to repay, resulting in wrenching stories of fathers giving away daughters to settle debts, and communities looking elsewhere for protection.

Antonia Maria Costa, who heads the UNODC, called it "a sad joke." At a conference last summer in Rome, Richard Holbrooke, Obama's envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, essentially agreed. "The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure," he said. "They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work and they alienated people and drove people into the arms of the Taliban." Later, he added, "the U.S. has wasted hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars on this program, and that is going to end."

From the military's point of view, "Counternarcotics was just a sideshow," says Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, who until recently served as deputy commander of operations for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan. "It's center stage now."

The crucial realization, says Kilcullen, was that you can't fight the Taliban without fighting drugs, that "counterinsurgency is counternarcotics, and vice versa." In the south the Taliban taxes growers, takes cuts from labs, and charges fees for protecting drug convoys. Some Taliban commanders are traffickers themselves. "They portray themselves as warriors of Islam," says Peters, "but the way they act reminds me a lot more of Tony Soprano."

Traffickers who do business with the Taliban are now considered military targets. The DEA has increased the number of its agents in the country from 13 to 81. It is training elite units of Afghan drug police and is working more closely with the U.S. military, which now has a counternarcotics desk in its operations center.

Tucker says the military conducts a counternarcotics operation roughly every three days. The proliferation of labs helps, ironically, because processing requires cooking the opium for 12 to 16 hours, which exposes the operation to satellite imaging.

In all of 2008, he said, 14,000 kilograms of opium were seized; by May of this year the military had already seized 18,000 kilos -- a sizable increase, though still a tiny percentage of the overall crop. The Americans, however, remain circumspect. "This is not a one- to two-year fight," says an American embassy official in Kabul. "I think it's unrealistic to expect swift progress."

Time is short, however, because in many ways the war against drugs is a race to hold on to the best of the country. Stu Jones, a Treasury Department official in Kabul, says $500 million in cash was hand-carried out of the country last year (and that's only what was declared).

Military officials estimate that three years' worth of opium is already stockpiled across the country and that the hashish trade is growing as fast as opium once did, often in so-called poppy-free provinces.

On the human side, the cost of drugs is perhaps most evident at a hellish scene that unfolds daily at the former Russian Cultural Center in Kabul, a dilapidated structure haunted by the city's addicts. In room after smoky, fetid room, once able-bodied men -- the youngest around 14, the eldest maybe 75 -- huddle over their 50 hits of heroin. It seems that hope itself has died, that these half-living souls represent the consequences of the life sucked out of this country by corruption, greed, and apathy.

Despite all this, Khodaidad refuses to give in. On another bright morning he stands beneath a large tree in the village of Shaka Zara, about an hour's drive from Kabul, facing a group of local men as armed soldiers stand sentry. He is talking about a project funded by his ministry that is widening the roads in the village to make it easier for people to get their crops to nearby markets. It's happening, he says, because they stopped growing poppies. Khodaidad finishes, then accepts the thanks of the crowd.

Even though failure is never far away and there are no guarantees anything he does will be rewarded, the general drives on. But if he can't get where he's going, it's hard to imagine America's project in Afghanistan will get where it's supposed to go.

Phil Zabriskie, a writer living in New York City, has been covering Afghanistan since 2002.  To top of page

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