Pubdate: Fri, 05 Oct 2001
Source: U.S. News and World Report (US)
Copyright: 2001 U.S. News & World Report


In The Afghan Badlands, Add Drugs To A Devil's Brew

King Mohammed Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's last monarch, is likely to play a 
principal role in organizing a new Afghan government should the U.S. 
coalition or internal forces topple the militant Taliban government. The 
86-year-old Zahir Shah, seen as a unifying figure by some anti-Talbian 
forces, ruled Afghanistan for decades before he was deposed in 1973.

But, information is now emerging that could damage his new standing. 
According to the former number 2 official in the U.S. Drug Enforcement 
Administration, Zahir Shah's inner circle was heavily involved in drug 
trafficking during the early 1970s, even using his plane to smuggle hashish 
to Italy.

The king himself was not linked to the drug business, says Terrence Burke, 
the former deputy DEA administrator who was based in Afghanistan from 1971 
to 1973. But, he says, a top powerful aide named Mohammed Rahim Panjshiri 
and others close to Zahir Shah were profiting from the drug trade. He says 
his information came from reliable informers and also from Sardar Sultan 
Ghazi, whom he described as a first cousin of the king and a powerful 
official in his own right. Burke says he has kept detailed notes from his 
days in Afghanistan.

In June 1973, he says, Prince Ghazi pledged to inform King Zahir Shah of 
the drug running but warned that Panjshiri was very powerful. "He selects 
the ministers," Prince Ghazi said, according to Burke's recollection. 
"People around the king were involved," says Burke, who nows run an 
international investigative firm outside Denver.

Zahir Shah lives in Rome, his home since a cousin deposed him in August 
1973. In an interview, Yusuf Nuristani, a close aide, says Zahir Shah had 
no idea of any drug smuggling by his inner circle. He says Panjshiri, who 
is dead, was a close of friend of the king.

Should Zahir Shah become a power broker in a new government, Burke's 
disclosures could prove troublesome. Afghanistan has been a country awash 
in opium and many of its leaders have been the principal feeders at the 
trough. The militant Islamic Taliban government, terrorist Osama bin Laden 
and, to a degree, the resistance group known as the Northern Alliance all 
profit from heroin trafficking, according to American officials. "Heroin is 
to Afghanistan," says one, "what oil is to Saddam Hussein."

Bin Laden's ties to the drug trade have been difficult to pin down. But, 
American officials say that reliable intelligence reports from U.S. allies 
have linked him and his terrorist al Qaeda network to the drug trade. Two 
years ago, they say, Bin Laden even sought to develop a supercharged form 
of heroin that he called the "Tears of Allah." He hoped the drug would 
worsen addiction and even kill Americans and their allies, an official 
says, but it proved to be "a chemical dud."

Opium and heroin may become a target of the U.S. war against the Taliban. 
Some U.S. officials are convinced that drugs, stockpiled by the Taliban 
after a ban in July 2000 in a reported scheme to drive up prices, must be 
destroyed. Afghanistan became the world's largest producer of raw opium in 
the 1990s, and the drug trade is seen as an important revenue stream, 
particularly to the Taliban. In a recent report, the United Nations said 
the Taliban buys arms and trains terrorists with some of the drug profits.

American officials estimate that the Taliban makes at least $50 million a 
year by taxing and selling opium and by providing protection for smugglers. 
Bin Laden also profits, they say, by providing armed fighters to protect 
shipments. They say he did not need the money to finance his terrorist war 
but wanted to cement his relationship with the Taliban, which has provided 
him a safe haven since 1996.

It is not a pretty picture. In Afghanistan, explains one official, "nobody 
wears a cape or a white hat."

- -- With Gordon Witkin and Eleni E. Dimmler
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom