Pubdate: Thu, 13 Nov 2014
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2014 The New York Times Company
Author: Rod Nordland


KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan opium cultivation again rose to historic 
levels in 2014, United Nations officials reported on Wednesday. And 
in a sign of how deeply entwined drug trafficking and the Afghan 
political system have become, the officials said the protracted 
elections this year were at least part of the cause.

"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.

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.

In 2011, Mr. Ishaqzai was designated a drug kingpin by President 
Obama, a procedure that imposes financial sanctions on major drug 
lords. The Afghans arrested him in 2012 and convicted him in a 
special drug court in Kabul in 2013.

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."

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."

Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan, and 
Jawad Sukhanyar from Kabul.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom