- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan — Drug lords, not the Taliban, were behind an assassination attempt on President Hamid Karzai’s running mate just days before the country holds a trail-blazing direct ballot tomorrow to elect a new president, a top Afghan official said.

The remote-controlled land-mine attack Wednesday on a convoy carrying Ahmed Zia Masood in northeastern Badakshan province killed one person and injured five, including a former provincial governor.

The Taliban was quick to claim responsibility, even though, officials say, it has no presence in Badakshan.

However, Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said in Kabul yesterday that “the evidence shows it was the work of drug smugglers, because [the election] is against their interests”.

The attack highlighted an issue that had received little attention during the monthlong election campaign — the role of the drug mafia in financing and influencing the presidential ballot.

Poppy cultivation has boomed in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban regime nearly three years ago. Last year, almost 4,000 tons of opium was produced, and a survey by the United Nations warned that poppy farmers planned to increase production this year.

Heroin derived from this bumper crop is valued at $2.5 billion and amounts to three-quarters of the world’s supply, officials say. Almost all of it was smuggled into Europe via Tajikistan and other Central Asian states, with only 5 percent reaching the United States.

Narcotics analysts say the drug business has developed strong roots in Afghanistan, involving everyone from small farmers and provincial traders to regional warlords and powerful ministers in Kabul.

The U.N. survey showed that in northeast provinces such as Badakshan, local mujahideen commanders are deeply involved in the business, even providing credit to poppy farmers.

“The warlords and commanders still have armed fighters under their command, and would do anything to protect their fiefdoms,” an official said.

A Russian crime syndicate responsible for smuggling the narcotics out of Afghanistan also is said to be particularly active, especially in the north.

“There are reports the Russians are telling Afghan traders who to finance in the [Afghan] presidential elections,” the official said. “They don’t want the narcotics traffic to be disturbed.”

The drug mafia has demonstrated its ability to hit back fiercely. Several attacks blamed on the Taliban are said to actually be the handiwork of drug lords.

There is speculation that a drug syndicate in central Wardak province was responsible for an Aug. 28 bombing at the Kabul offices of the Virginia-based DynCorp security agency, which killed 10 persons, including three Americans. Besides protecting Mr. Karzai, DynCorp is training anti-narcotics police in the provinces.

There also is speculation that the election campaigns of some candidates were financed with drug money. Afghans are being offered up to $100 to vote for certain candidates tomorrow.

“It is obvious where some candidates have acquired so much money, especially to anyone who has seen the blooming fields of poppy in the provinces,” said German political nonprofit group, Friedrich Ebert foundation in a study of the campaigns.

Beyond the occasional raid on a poppy farm or heroin lab, neither the Afghan government nor the U.S.-led coalition forces have done much in the past three years to snuff out the illegal opium business.

“In this area, the story is very negative,” said U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. “We have to make examples of people involved in the narcotics trade.”

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