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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 May, 2005, 01:51 GMT 02:51 UK
Meeting an Afghan drugs smuggler
By Tom Coghlan, Afghanistan

The Afghan smuggler
The smuggler shows off the liquid opium

We met the smuggler in Kandahar in the lawless lands of southern Afghanistan. As we drove to his house he pointed out gaudy new mansions with neo-classical pillars that dotted his neighbourhood.

They were built with drug money, the smuggler said.

At his home he showed us a 10kg (22lbs) vat of liquid opium. A heavy, organic scent filled the room.

"I have one ton of dry opium buried in a desert area close to the Iranian border," he said.

It was made clear that it would not be safe for us to reveal his identity.

The arrest last month of Bashir Noorzai, a man US authorities allege to be the king-pin of the southern Afghan drugs trade, signals a new US determination in the country's expanding drugs war.

But in the south of the country where central government control is weak, the drug smugglers remain relatively unconcerned by the threats emanating from Kabul and Washington.

A farmer extracting opium from a poppy blossom
Aid agencies say farmers need to be offered alternative livelihoods

This year the US has more than tripled its funding to fight the Afghan drugs problem, raising it to $780m.

But ranged against the counter-narcotics forces is an industry that may amount to as much as 60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

In early April, a new 600-strong counter-narcotics force trained by the US that was sent from Kabul to undertake a programme of mass eradication in Kandahar province was driven off with gunfire on its first operation near the town of Maiwand.

During the days that followed local tribal elders said they agreed a deal with the provincial government only to eradicate one third of every poppy field in exchange for a promise of non-resistance.

'Endemic corruption'

In reality, eradication efforts undertaken by local police that I witnessed amounted to a fraction of even that goal.

The smuggler said there was little to fear while so many officials within the government and police were profiting from the drugs trade.

Poppy field in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has long struggled with the illegal narcotics trade

Corruption was endemic, he said. "If I don't pay bribes then I can't work," he laughed.

"Every warlord, every commander, if they are not smugglers for 2005, were smugglers from the 1970s until 2003 or 2004.

"So they have quite enough for their future. They don't need to work any more."

He named a string of senior local figures he claimed had direct or indirect links to the trade.

The smuggler acknowledged that central government efforts had succeeded in closing the major highways to opium traffic.

But he said that alternative routes were easily arranged.

"There is a desert area close to the Iranian border. From there you can move drugs to Iran and to Pakistan and Iraq.

"We use land cruiser cars to take the drugs to this area and we pay people to bury it there in the sand and guard it.

"We pay these people 100,000 Pakistani rupees ($1,680) each."

'Air strikes'

"They carry arms to guard the drugs from robbers or the police.

"After a week or a month or whenever the dealers from across the borders arrive, they come down and take the drugs out from the sand and hand them over."

There was only one fear that the smuggler would admit to - the threat from US airpower. "The planes can follow us anywhere. The people are afraid of air strikes. They are not afraid of attacks from the ground," the smuggler said.

Afghan poppy destruction
Poppy eradication programmes have had mixed success

He claimed that there was no single dominant dealer in Kandahar and its neighbouring major drug producing province, Helmand.

"There are about 1,000 big smugglers," he said.

Smugglers were unconcerned by the threat of eradication in the short term, he said.

While they retained large stocks of stored opium, the insatiable demand of European heroin addicts ensured massive price inflation when supply was squeezed.

The smuggler said that the value of his stock had increased by 50-75% in the week following the attempted mass eradication at Maiwand.

'Escalating violence'

"If they eradicate all the land in Kandahar, even the poorest farmers have two or three reserve parcels of opium at their homes.

"They can eradicate but the farmer can get the profit of one acre of opium from one kilo because of the price rise," he said.

Violence would begin to escalate significantly once the stocks of dry opium began to dwindle, he said, and that is expected to take place next year.

We asked whether he was aware of the consequences of drug addiction in foreign countries.

"Whatever I am, I am not killing people, I am not looting people, I am not doing any other kind of illegal job," he replied.

"I have my own life. I have a wife, children, sisters, mother, brothers. I belong to a family who live within the limits of Islam."

As the smuggler drove with us back into the city we reached a police road block. The police greeted the smuggler with warm familiarity. "They are my friends," he said.

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