Pubdate: Wed, 17 Feb 2016
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2016 The New York Times Company
Author: Azam Ahmed


ZARANJ, Afghanistan - Shortly after sunrise, an Afghan special 
operations helicopter descended on two vehicles racing through the 
empty deserts of southern Afghanistan, traversing what has become a 
superhighway for smugglers and insurgents.

Intelligence showed that the men were transporting a huge cache of 
drugs and weapons from Helmand Province to Nimruz Province, a hub for 
all things illegal and a way station on the global opium trail. 
Hovering above, the troops fired tracer rounds into the sandy earth 
beside the vehicles, which skidded to a stop.

It was an impressive take for the Afghan forces that day, July 12, 
2014. They seized nearly a metric ton of opium in various phases of 
processing, three AK-47 assault rifles, an automatic handgun, a PKM 
machine gun, a rocket-propelled grenade, hundreds of rounds of 
ammunition, four two-way radios and two satellite phones.

But the biggest coup was neither the drugs nor the weapons. It was a 
passenger who gave his name as Muhammad Eshaq, a 40-year-old carpet 
seller from Nimruz. After a later inquiry by international officials, 
the police discovered that Mr. Eshaq was actually Mullah Abdul Rashid 
Baluch, the Taliban shadow governor of Nimruz Province: a man with 
blood on his hands and with direct links to the top Taliban leaders 
in Pakistan.

In many respects, Mullah Rashid embodies the evolution of the Taliban 
movement in Afghanistan. As a hardened insurgent, most notorious for 
planning a mass suicide attack in Nimruz during the holy month of 
Ramadan, he had become among the most powerful drug smugglers in all 
of southern Afghanistan.

That he was picked up during a drug raid, not a counterterrorism 
operation, was a fitting end. He was, in the eyes of many, more of a 
criminal than an insurgent ideologue. Prosecutors brought him to the 
country's elite drug court, and within four months, he was convicted 
and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Mullah Rashid is just one of dozens of senior Taliban leaders who are 
so enmeshed in the drug trade that it has become difficult to 
distinguish the group from a dedicated drug cartel. While the Taliban 
have long profited from the taxation and protection of the drug trade 
in Afghanistan, insurgents are taking more direct roles and claiming 
spots higher up in the opium chain, according to interviews with 
dozens of Afghan and Western officials, as well as smugglers and 
members of the communities where they reside.

This includes high-level commanders, like Mullah Rashid, personally 
escorting large shipments. And it goes straight to the top: The new 
Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour, is at the pinnacle of 
a pyramid of tribal Ishaqzai drug traffickers and has amassed an 
immense personal fortune, according to United Nations monitors. That 
drug money changed the entire shape of the Taliban: With it, Mullah 
Mansour bought off influential dissenters when he claimed the supreme 
leadership over the summer, according to senior Taliban commanders.

In some areas of Afghanistan, the Taliban have provided seeds for 
farmers to grow opium on the insurgents' behalf, or paid middlemen to 
purchase opium for them to store while they wait for prices to increase.

In its most recent monitoring report, the United Nations warned that 
the Taliban's deeper drift into the drug business was bad news for 
the prospect of peace. "This trend has real consequences for peace 
and security in Afghanistan, as it encourages those within the 
Taliban movement who have the greatest economic incentives to oppose 
any meaningful process of reconciliation with the new government," 
the authors wrote.

Some of the change in the nature of the Taliban movement can be 
attributed to the devastating military campaign to take out its 
leaders, leaving younger, more radical commanders on the battlefield. 
With competing conflicts diminishing some of the money from 
traditional donors in the Persian Gulf, the Taliban have been forced 
into greater self-reliance, cobbling money together from a variety of 
sources. Those sources include gem and lumber smuggling, but drug 
trafficking has become, by far, the Taliban's most important and 
steady revenue source.

Mullah Rashid is one of the highest-ranking Taliban members to be 
directly implicated in drug smuggling in recent years. He owned homes 
in the notorious smuggling haven of Baramcha and controlled narcotics 
traffic through the open deserts in southern Helmand Province that 
connect Nimruz, Pakistan and Iran.

"He started as an idealist but became a professional smuggler," said 
one top intelligence official in Nimruz Province, who has tracked 
Mullah Rashid for five years. "When he became the shadow governor, 
the trade became so lucrative, he could not give it up."

According to government officials, Mullah Rashid was appointed to the 
governorship of Nimruz more than four years ago, after his 
predecessor was killed. He was a strategic pick for the Taliban, 
which hoped to benefit from his ethnicity as well as his experience. 
He is of Baluch descent, which made it easier for him to operate and 
recruit in the borderlands, where his tribesmen are prominent.

As an insurgent commander, his highest-profile acts were a series of 
suicide attacks in Zaranj in August 2012, which claimed the lives of 
nearly 30 people during Ramadan, officials familiar with his tenure 
said. He was also a key figure in coordinating contacts between the 
Taliban and Al Qaeda, setting up high-level meetings in Pakistan 
between the two groups.

But soon, his main focus became the drug business. Mullah Rashid 
consolidated his power in the smuggling zones of southern 
Afghanistan, a vast expanse of desert used for decades by smugglers 
hoping to evade detection. Knowledge of the routes and landscape, 
which has no formal maps or roadways, is the difference between life 
and death. The police, for the most part, are unable to patrol or 
secure this area outside of a few highly selective special operations missions.

Government and law enforcement officials familiar with Mullah Rashid 
said he had monitored and overseen a majority of drug smuggling 
through his area of influence. On July 12, 2014, he took a 
particularly active hand, personally joining a convoy transporting 
nearly a ton of opium, most of it in the cooked-down form that 
precedes heroin processing.

In the lead vehicle, a pickup truck, two men transported the drugs, 
along with some of the weaponry. One man involved, Noor Ahmad, was 
driving the shipment to pay off a $4,000 debt. Another was hoping to 
earn the $2,000 promised for such journeys, the authorities said.

In the tail car, a Toyota Corolla, four others traveled: a mixed bag 
of men, including a businessman, a farmer and another mullah in 
addition to Mullah Rashid, all trailing the main convoy by about 500 
feet and carrying most of the weapons that were seized, according to 
court records. During questioning after their arrests, the men 
claimed that the weapons had been planted on them and that they had 
not been a part of any convoy.

Around 6:30 a.m., as the convoy was traveling through the Garmsir 
district, helicopters piloted by coalition forces appeared on the 
horizon. Special forces units from the Afghan police's 444 division 
emerged and fired warning shots at the vehicles. The passengers in 
the last car fled but were quickly caught.

It was not until weeks later that the Afghan government came to find 
out, almost accidentally, that the man who had identified himself as 
Muhammad Eshaq was really Mullah Rashid.

According to the chief prosecutor of the criminal justice task force, 
Yar Mohammad Husseinkhel, British officials asked to speak with Mr. 
Eshaq, who was imprisoned at the time in Kabul.

Two Czech women had been kidnapped in the deserts of Baluchistan 
Province, Pakistan, and Western officials hoped that Mr. Eshaq might 
help. They knew at the time what the Afghan government in Kabul did 
not: that Mr. Eshaq was in fact the shadow governor of Nimruz, Mullah 
Rashid, an ethnic Baluch who they hoped might be able to share 
information or broker the women's release.

Mr. Husseinkhel declined to say whether Mullah Rashid had provided 
information or helped in any way. But in the spring of 2015, more 
than two years after their abduction and about 10 months after 
officials sought Mullah Rashid's help, the women were finally 
released. Mullah Rashid remains in the custody of Afghan officials.

After the women's release, the United States Treasury Department 
designated Mullah Rashid a global terrorist - a year after his arrest.

Mujib Mashal contributed reporting from Zaranj and Taimoor Shah from 
Kandahar, Afghanistan.


The Opium War

This is the second in a two-part series examining the fight to 
control the Afghan drug trade. Read Part 1: How Afghan Officials 
Profit From the Opium Trade
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom