KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Locals call them “poppy palaces,” the three- or four-story marble homes with fake Roman columns perched behind razor wire and guard shacks in Afghanistan’s capital.
Most are owned by Afghan officials or associates, who make a few hundred dollars per month as government employees but are driven around in convoys of armored SUVs that cost tens of thousands.
Kabul’s gleaming upmarket real estate seems a world away from war-torn southern Afghanistan, but many of the houses were built with profits harvested from opium poppy fields in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
“When you see these buildings, that’s not normal money ... that’s drug money,” said Ghulam Haider Hamidi, the mayor of Kandahar’s provincial capital since 2007. “The ministers and the governors are behind the drug dealers, and sometimes they are the drug dealers.”
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Last year, Helmand and Kandahar provinces accounted for about 75 percent of Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation, and Helmand was the world’s biggest supplier of opium.
Afghan and Western officials say that’s because U.S. and NATO-led forces failed to take the drug problem seriously for more than six years after the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 ousted the Taliban regime.
“They (the Western military) didn’t want anything to do with either interdiction or eradication,” said Thomas Schweich, a former Bush administration ambassador for counternarcotics and justice reform for Afghanistan. “We warned them over and over again: Look at Colombia.”
Now, Helmand and Kandahar have become the core of a narco-state within Afghanistan, effectively ruled by the resurgent Taliban. Drugs are the main economic engine there, and most politicians and police are said to be under the thumbs of dealers. “I haven’t seen any good police during the last two years in Kandahar,” Hamidi said.
In the west Helmand district of Nad Ali, thousands of acres of government land reportedly have been irrigated and cultivated — including wells and farm boundaries dug by heavy machinery — as poppy plantations. Police in the area fired on government eradication teams last year.
Asked what American and NATO forces have done to halt the flow of opium and heroin in the southern provinces, Afghanistan’s minister for counternarcotics, Col. Gen. Khodaidad, who like many Afghans uses only one name, had a quick answer: “Nothing.”
The Afghan government hasn’t done much, either. Schweich said that, at the highest levels of government, the issue wasn’t always corruption but political considerations.
For example, he said, U.S.-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai was seen in 2007 as “trying to prevent serious law enforcement efforts in Helmand and Kandahar to ensure that he did not lose the support of drug lords in the area whose support he wanted in the upcoming election.” But Schweich said Karzai recently has appeared to “adopt a more hands-off approach.”
A spokesman for Karzai, Humayun Hamidzada, denied that the government is soft on drugs and said it is waging “an active campaign against corruption and drug dealing.”
Mirwais Yasini, a parliament member who headed Afghanistan’s anti-narcotics directorate for about two years, agreed that politics is a factor in the government’s lax enforcement. However, he said, there is another consideration: “It’s also for their own benefit, because some government officials have large lands that produce opium.”
Yasini didn’t provide the names of those officials.
Abdul Jabar Sabit, a former Afghan attorney general, said that when many Afghans got government positions, “they see that it is their turn right now” to grab as much money as they could. Sabit spoke from his house in an expensive Kabul neighborhood.
“All the officials dealing with narcotics are corrupt,” said Sabit, who said he borrowed from a construction company to build his home. “The police are there to make a deal (with drug traffickers); if the police cannot make a deal, then the prosecutor will or the judges after them.”
Mohammed Ayub Salangi, a former Kandahar and Kabul police chief, said he doesn’t think drug money tainted many Afghan officials. Salangi, who said he was paid about $6,500 a year, sat in front of his house in Kabul with a Lexus SUV parked in the driveway and a posse of gunmen out front. Rents in the neighborhood are as much as $10,000 per month. Officials from provinces where Salangi worked in the past told McClatchy they weren’t aware of any accusations that he is corrupt. In fact, Salangi was waiting to hear whether he would be named the police chief of yet another province.
Some Western and Afghan officials say southern Afghanistan spun out of control because of a miscalculation by U.S. and British officials, who all but ignored the poppy rows and the opium trafficking that flows from them.
The results are grim.
After the Taliban banned poppy cultivation in July 2000, Afghanistan produced 185 tons of opium in 2001. The next year, production was 3,400 tons, according to U.N. statistics. By 2007 it was about 8,200 tons, making Afghanistan the source of roughly 93 percent of the world’s opium and heroin. U.S. numbers differ from the U.N. statistics but reflect the same trend.
Production declined last year, but amounts differ. The State Department says 5,500 tons; the U.N. says, while the cultivation area fell by 19 percent, farmers still produced some 7,700 tons of opium because they had higher yields.
Most experts attribute the decrease in land usage to farmers diversifying because of rising prices for wheat and bumper crops in Afghanistan causing a slide in opium prices. Afghanistan, however, still supplied more than 90 percent of the world market last year.
As a lead donor nation to Afghanistan, Britain agreed in 2002 to head counternarcotics efforts, but it did little to crack down on drugs and largely avoided the eradication of poppy crops.
While NATO-led forces in Afghanistan provided training for Afghan anti-narcotics units, they would “not take part in the eradication of opium poppy or in pre-planned and direct military action against the drugs trade,” Jack Straw, Britain’s foreign secretary from 2001 to 2006, wrote in a 2006 letter to Parliament.
The British worried that strong-arming poppy farmers could create more militants, and they preferred to wait for the rule of law to be strengthened, at which point — the thinking went — the Afghans could take care of their drug problem themselves.