US is in a drug turf war with the Taliban? 12-4-2009 Richard Clark

United States of America, Chief Kingpin in the Afghanistan Heroin Trade?

Richard Clark


December 4, 2009

What we have is essentially a drug war in Afghanistan, and US forces are simply helping one side against the other.

Unbeknownst to American taxpayers, drug lords collaborate with the U.S. and Canadian officers on a daily basis.

This collaboration and alliance was forged by American forces during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, and has endured and grown ever since. The drug lords have been empowered through U.S. money and arms to consolidate their drug business at the expense of drug-dealing rivals in other tribes, forcing some of them into alliance with the Taliban.

In short, the war in Afghanistan is largely, if not entirely, between armies run by heroin merchants, some aligned with the Americans, others aligned with the Taliban. Even worse, the Taliban appear to be gaining the upper hand in this Mafiosa-style gang war, the origins of which are directly rooted in U.S. policy.

U.S.-allied drug dealers are put in charge of the police and border patrol, while their rivals are placed on American hit lists.

If you’re looking for the chief kingpin in the Afghanistan heroin trade, it’s the United States. The American mission has devolved to a Mafiosi-style arrangement that poisons every military and political alliance entered into by the U.S. and its puppet government in Kabul. It is a gangster occupation, in which U.S.-allied drug dealers are put in charge of the police and border patrol, while their rivals are placed on American hit lists, marked for death or capture. As a result, Afghanistan has been transformed into an opium plantation that supplies 90 percent of the world’s heroin.

An article in the current (December) issue of Harper’s magazine explores the inner workings of the drug-infested U.S. occupation and it’s near-total dependence on alliances forged with players in the heroin trade. The story centers on the town of Spin Boldak, on the southeastern border with Pakistan, gateway to the opium fields of Kandahar and Helmand provinces. Here the chief Afghan drug lord is also the head of the border patrol and the local militia. The author is an undercover U.S.-based journalist who was befriended by the drug lord’s top operatives and then met with the U.S. and Canadian military officers who collaborate with the drug dealer on a daily basis.

Check out the following illustrative excerpts from the article by Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins, writing in the December 2009 issue of Harper’s.

On the latest United Nations Department of Safety and Security map, which color-codes Afghanistan to denote levels of risk for U.N. operations, we were in a tiny island of “high” orange surrounded by a wide sea of “extreme” red. The orange island is Spin Boldak and the road to Kandahar city; the red sea stretches across most of the provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, Zabul, and Uruzgan, and farther to the southeast.

This schema is illustrative of four striking facts.

First and foremost, it depicts how a ferocious and increasingly sophisticated insurgency—the “neo-Taliban,” as many now call them—has spread across the predominantly Pashtun south and southeast of Afghanistan.

Second, that red area we were in also corresponds with the indefinite deployment of 20,000 additional U.S. soldiers, sent here during the months leading up to the eighth anniversary of the 2001 invasion, in October. Intended to bolster the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), a patchwork of different nations, the increase was a belated recognition of just how badly the country has fared after years of neglect and mismanagement.

Third, all the red regions on the UNDSS map serve as a rough approximation of the areas with opium under cultivation, representing a billion-dollar industry whose tentacles grip both the neo-Taliban and the fledgling Afghan state, from foot soldier to government minister.

And last, our little island of “high” orange in the sea of “extreme” red is Colonel Razik’s private domain.

Together, these four facts—the intensifying insurgency, the massive deployment of international troops and assistance, the opium, and Razik’s relatively secure territory—go a long way toward explaining why an uneducated thirty-year-old warlord remains firmly entrenched as an ISAF ally and drug trafficker at a crucial border crossing like Spin Boldak.

This Afghan-Pakistani border region has long been awash in opium, which is grown in Afghanistan and then generally smuggled west to the Balkans, via Iran and Turkey, or shipped out of the port of Karachi to the Gulf states and Africa. The trade boomed during the Eighties, when both the CIA and the Pakistani government were happy to turn a blind eye to the drug operations of the mujahideen fighters in Afghanistan, since it helped fund the war against the invading Soviet Union. After the Soviets left, the drugs remained, and since then opium production in Afghanistan has increased fourteen-fold, from around 500 tons in the mid-1980s to 6,900 tons this year. Recent counternarcotics efforts have dramatically reduced cultivation in the north and east of the country, and so both cultivation and trafficking have shifted to the south, where security is most tenuous.

Like much of Afghan life, drug operations tend to be organized by tribal and family affiliations.


Razik turned to me suddenly. “Do you know what I do?” he asked. “I am a smuggler.” He said it proudly—it is, after all, the natural heritage of his tribe, which has straddled the border since the British drew it in 1893. “I take cars and things to Pakistan.”

Didn’t he have problems with the Pakistani police? I asked. Razik beamed. “No problems! I just give them money.

Razik’s family’s fortunes soared when Esmat Muslim, a warlord from the same Adozai branch of the Achakzai, came to prominence in the region. A former military officer who had been trained by the Russians, Esmat became a mujahideen commander during the early 1980s and organized a force drawn mainly from his tribe; Razik’s uncle Mansour became one of his principal lieutenants. Notorious for his treachery and cruelty, Esmat shattered the delicate peace that had existed between the Achakzai and Noorzai smuggling clans, and he eventually sided with the Communist government in return for control over the border trade. In the end, Esmat was driven out of Spin Boldak in 1988 by a combined mujahideen offensive.


That summer saw the return of widespread opium cultivation in the south of Afghanistan, after the Taliban had banned it the year before. With stocks running low, the price paid to farmers for opium shot up to $250 per kilo at harvest-time, compared with $28 in 2000. The nascent central government had little influence; every warlord was running his own small fiefdom, and the economic incentives were clear. Fayda Mohammad, tasked with policing one of the world’s largest drug-smuggling routes, soon found his job impossible to do with any honor. He and his men would stop trucks full of opium or hashish only to find them under the protection of prominent officials. On one occasion, he claimed, he was forced into releasing a truck under direct pressure from a powerful minister in Kabul. Another driver carried a letter from Bacha Shirzai, Governor Shirzai’s brother.


The smuggling of goods may be the biggest economic sector in Afghanistan, larger even than the opium trade, according to World Bank reports.

As a result, places like Spin Boldak have become markets for all sorts of goods to be smuggled back into Pakistan. Each day, new shipping containers arrived, and Samiullah and I would often go to watch them being cracked open and unloaded. The haul was not just vehicles. It was all the cast-off crud of the First World, anything conceivably worth being shipped here: used microwave ovens, guitars, DVD players, bicycles, car stereos, TV sets, Beta camcorders, keyboards, propane stoves, motorized wheelchairs, generators, winches, children’s toys, clothing. I watched one bent, beturbaned old man hauling a tangled bundle of PlayStation controllers slung over his shoulder like a bushel of thatching.

Maintaining a sort of order in this chaos was Razik’s Border Police, who protected the trade and in turn fed off it. The Border Police were so involved in smuggling that the duties of several commanders who frequented the showroom, Razik included, seemed to consist entirely of brokering goods. When I asked them why they were never in uniform, they told me they suited up only for major engagements. Their days were spent sizing up cars, gossiping on the showroom’s veranda over cups of chai, and sealing deals.

Of course, some Border Police officers were engaged in the serious business of securing Spin Boldak. The most active I met was Commander Hajji Janan, who wore a U.S. Army combat uniform with a captain’s insignia and a 1st Infantry Division patch. Janan had been a police officer in the Taliban regime before he sensed the changing winds of fortune, shaved his beard, and joined his tribesmen in the new border force.

Razik pulls in between $5 million and $6 million per month in revenues, money he has invested in properties in Kabul and Kandahar and also abroad, in Dubai and Tajikistan. The racket itself is run directly by a select group of his commanders, who facilitate drug shipments and collect payment from the smugglers. Lalai showed me a list with their names—Janan was among them—and the names of the five biggest drug dealers in Spin Boldak. He said that Razik’s men also had imported shipping containers full of acetic anhydride, a chemical used in heroin manufacturing, from China.

On condition of anonymity, two Kandahari politicians—Achakzai tribal elders with clean reputations and who were widely respected—made similar assertions to me about Razik’s involvement in drug smuggling, his private prisons, his vast wealth, and his entanglement in a network of corrupt high officials and major drug smugglers. An official at the Kandahar office of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, who asked not to be named, agreed that Razik was operating his own prisons and conducting extrajudicial executions.

I spoke to one of Razik’s current commanders, who was initially extremely reluctant and agreed to meet only on the basis of absolute anonymity—Razik would kill him if he knew he was talking, he said. Still, he came forward because he felt that the corruption had swelled to monstrous proportions, and he was anguished about the worsening security situation that was costing the lives of more and more of his men. He said that even as the commander of a company-sized force in a volatile border zone, he was powerless to stop the convoys of drug smugglers that ran through his area. Not only were they better armed than he and his men; some smugglers had shown him letters of protection signed by Razik himself. Many of these convoys, the commander said, were in fact made up of green Border Police pickup trucks headed for the heroin laboratories in Helmand Province’s Taliban-controlled areas. Others were unmarked Land Cruisers headed south into Baluchistan.

What followed was a debacle. The Noorzais, fearing their tribal enemies, rose up and joined forces with the Taliban. Razik and his men responded to the unexpected resistance with brutality. “They were killing women and children,” said Ustaz Abdul Halim, a Noorzai and former mujahideen commander who lives in Kandahar city. “After that, everyone was with the Taliban.”

Capitalizing on the tribal dynamics, the Taliban installed a Noorzai, Mullah Rauf Lang, as their commander in Panjwaii District. Later that fall, newly arrived Canadian troops in the area would launch Operation Medusa, a large-scale assault that killed hundreds of fighters and scores of civilians in weeks of close combat and withering bombardments. Today, the area remains one of the most violent in Kandahar Province—the Canadians suffer many of their casualties there and have recently abandoned two untenable forward operating bases in the area—and anti-government sentiments still run high.

A grim irony of the rising pro-Taliban sentiments in the south is that the United States and its allies often returned to power the same forces responsible for the worst period in southerners’ memory—the post–Soviet “mujahideen nights.” In the case of Gul Agha Shirzai (now governor of Nangarhar but still a major force in Kandahar), the same man occupied the exact same position; in the case of Razik, nephew of the notorious Mansour, it is the restoration of an heir. By installing these characters and then protecting them by force of arms, the ISAF (the International Security Assistance Force, a patchwork of different nations, that was bolstered by 20,000 additional U.S. soldiers sent to Afghanistan during the months leading up to the eighth anniversary of the 2001 invasion) has come to be associated, in the minds of many Afghans, with their criminality and abuses. “We’re doing the Taliban’s work for them,” said one international official with years of experience in counternarcotics here.

In the initial scramble to invade Afghanistan in 2001, there was a certain pragmatism to enlisting the mujahideen, who represented the best means of taking over the country in the absence of a substantial U.S. ground presence. But those troops were diverted to Iraq, and the ISAF was cobbled together slowly, arriving too late and with too few soldiers to upend the warlords’ rule. Canadian forces didn’t deploy to Kandahar until 2006, and even then their contingent of 2,500 was stretched far too thin to control one of the most critical provinces in Afghanistan.

“We were facing the worst-case scenario in 2006—a conventional takeover by Taliban forces,” said Brigadier General Jonathan Vance, the Canadian commander of ISAF forces in Kandahar Province. He was proud that his country’s small contingent had been able to hold the insurgency more or less at bay. But he admitted that the life of the average Kandahari had become less secure as the Taliban began to tighten their grip on Kandahar city. “I don’t have the capacity to make sure someone doesn’t rip their guts out at night.”

Military officers like General Vance find themselves in a peculiar fix when confronted with characters like Abdul Razik. These entrenched figures hold posts or wear uniforms whose legitimacy must be respected. But many of those who maintain their power through corruption and coercion were originally installed by the U.S. military—a fact not lost on Afghans, who tend to have longer memories than Westerners here on nine- or twelve-month rotations.

I asked General Vance if he was aware that Razik was directly involved in the drug trade. “Yes,” he said. “We are completely aware that there are a number of illicit activities being run out of that border station.” He had few illusions about Razik, with whom he interacts directly. “He runs effective security ops that are designed to make sure that the business end of his life runs smoothly, and there is a collateral effect on public order,” he told me. “Ideally, it should be the other way around. The tragedy of Kandahar is that it’s hard to find that paragon of civic virtue.”

Honest people in Afghanistan don’t often occupy the halls of power, and they don’t usually have the resources to be the first in line for big development contracts. Should one’s security restrictions allow one to stroll the streets, however, one will find them (the honest people) there, pushing carts of vegetables, positively begging strangers to join them for a cup of tea that might cost them half their day’s salary. If one looks a little harder, one will find them in crumbling little homes, so unlike the palatial “poppy palaces” of Kabul’s new elite, dwellings such as Fayda Mohammad’s in Spin Boldak, or Hajji Ahmad Shah’s in Carte Nau Market, a poor area on the edge of town: places of exile, to which honest men have been marginalized either by force or by choice. In other cases—such as that of Malalai Kakar, Kandahar’s top female police officer, who was shot in September of last year by unknown assailants, or that of Alim Hanif, chief judge of the new Central Narcotics Tribunals Appeals Court, killed outside his house in Kabul by masked men—the honest Afghans will be found in the cemetery.

As for Razik, he remains alive and very much the master of the borderlands. Occasionally, outside forces will annoy him: in July, CNPA teams, working with DEA mentors, raided two caches of hashish in Razik’s territory, arresting one of his commanders in the process. But Razik is hardly at odds with his government. After the first round of national elections closed on August 20, his men forcibly took Spin Boldak’s ballot boxes into his house for “safekeeping” overnight. It was just one of the many reports of electoral fraud in Kandahar Province, which polled overwhelmingly for President Karzai, according to the independent Election Commision of Afghanistan. The count from Spin Boldak’s polling stations: Karzai, 8,341; his main challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, 4.

:: Article nr. 60776 sent on 05-dec-2009 00:30 ECT




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