|A member of Afghanistan’s security forces destroying an illegal poppy crop this spring. Credit Noorullah Shirzada/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images|
Afghan Opium Cultivation Rises to Record Levels …
“With the presidential election ongoing, there was a huge demand of funding,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, a senior official with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “And that funding is not available in the licit economy, and that money has to come from somewhere, so they turned to the illicit economy.”
Still, officials noted at least one encouraging sign, saying that the new government of President Ashraf Ghani had moved to arrest three judges accused of aiding the escape of a drug kingpin wanted by the United States.
ACCULTURATION AT THE HIGHEST LEVELS
The three judges accused of corruption are in custody in Kabul, according to Afghan and international officials. The men are accused of engineering the release of Haji Lal Jan Ishaqzai in June, as he was serving a 20-year sentence for drug trafficking.
THE POT CALLING THE KETTLE BLACK
The arrests of the judges were welcomed by United Nations officials as a signal that Mr. Ghani’s government was willing to treat the country’s drug-trafficking problem more seriously than past officials have done.
Still, the problem has never been worse.
In their annual opium survey, the United Nations agency and the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics said Wednesday that Afghan opium cultivation had increased by 7 percent over 2013, while production had increased as much as 17 percent. The rise came even though worldwide demand for Afghan opium has stagnated and prices have dropped for the country’s opium farmers.
The numbers are particularly troubling, the agencies said, because in 2013, opium cultivation increased 49 percent over the year before, reaching its highest levels since the fall of the Taliban.The Taliban regime in the late 1990s was the only Afghan government to completely eradicate opium cultivation, but the Taliban now both tax and actively participate in opium production.
The eight-month presidential and provincial elections, which included two rounds of voting and a protracted dispute over the results, affected opium production not only in the increased demand by politicians for campaign cash, but also in diverting police and military resources to the elections and away from opium eradication.
Opium crop eradication decreased by 63 percent from 2013 to 2014, the report said. Such changes were seen in nearly all provinces where there were eradication efforts underway. Such programs are led by provincial governors, who are political appointees of the president.
Andrey Avetisyan, a former Russian ambassador to Afghanistan and now the head of the United Nations drug agency here, said United Nations officials had met with Mr. Ghani recently and were encouraged by his concern.
“He understood well that drug trafficking suffocates the normal economic development,” Mr. Avetisyan said. “We are quite optimistic.”Mr. Lemahieu said: “Ashraf Ghani is not a magician, but at least Ashraf Ghani said all the right words, with a lot of passion. The criminalization of economics and politics threatens everything he wants to achieve.” [A SIDE NOTE: SOUNDS LIKE LEMAHIEU IS SPEAKING ABOUT OBAMA!]
Mr. Ishaqzai’s arrest and conviction in 2012 was a major victory for the country’s drug enforcement efforts. But he was then transferred to Kandahar to serve his 20-year sentence. In the prison there, the former warden, Mohammad Akbar Zabuli, “treated him like a bride and allowed Jan to carry a cellphone and provided him with a separate cell to live in,” said one Kandahar prison official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Mr. Zabuli could not be reached for comment.
The prison official said that Mr. Ishaqzai had sometimes been allowed to spend nights in his own home and return to the Kandahar prison in the daytime.Mr. Ishaqzai had close connections with relatives of the previous president, Hamid Karzai, and was also close to the Taliban, narcotics investigators said. His arrest became possible only after Mr. Karzai’s powerful half brother Ahmed Wali Karzai was assassinated in 2011 in Kandahar. Mr. Karzai ran Kandahar at that time, and many Western officials expressed concern about his close relations with drug traffickers.
International officials said that many efforts had been made last year to persuade Mr. Karzai to pardon Mr. Ishaqzai, but that they had been thwarted by opposition from international law enforcement officials. His escape in June may have been prompted by concern that his connections would weaken under a new government.
Officials in Kandahar said that after the judges quietly got him released, Mr. Ishaqzai was believed to have fled to Helmand Province, to his home district of Sangin, where the insurgents are strong. Others say he fled to Quetta, in Pakistan, where he has close relations with Taliban leaders and other relatives.
Mr. Ishaqzai is such a powerful and feared figure that most officials in Kandahar and Kabul were reluctant to comment Wednesday on the arrests of the judges who are accused of releasing him. Shamsul Rahman Raiskhail, head of the appeals court in Kandahar, claimed that he did not know the names of the judges who had been arrested, for instance, and referred questions to the Supreme Court in Kabul.
Five Supreme Court officials were contacted, but all refused to comment on the case or claimed to have no knowledge of it.
Opium trafficking has been estimated to be one-fifth as large as Afghanistan’s legitimate gross domestic product, making it an $8-billion-a-year business, based on 2013 figures. With world demand no longer rising, a growing domestic market for opiates has led drug addiction in Afghanistan to rise greatly, with an estimated 1.5 million drug abusers in a country of 30 million people, United Nations officials have said.
“What was missing in the last decade was political will,” said Mr. Lemahieu — both on the part of world leaders, who could not agree on how to attack the opium problem, and on the part of “national entities who saw this as one big opportunity.”