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CBS - 18 October 2005 For much of 2005, the news out of Iraq has overshadowed what has been going on in Afghanistan, where 18,000 U.S. troops are still fighting and dying along the Pakistan border in battles with the Taliban, al Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups. The rest of Afghanistan, at least compared to Iraq, appears relatively peaceful. But the country is facing another threat to its stability - its growing addiction the production and trafficking of heroin, which is controlled by some of the most powerful people in the country. Correspondent Steve Kroft reports. Afghanistan is now the world's largest exporter of heroin, and the opium used to produce it, supplying 87 percent of the world market. And it is creating an infrastructure of crime and corruption that threatens the government of President Hamid Karzai. The heroin trade begins with fields of opium poppies grown in almost every province of Afghanistan. Last year, according to the U.S. state department, 206,000 hectares were cultivated, a half a million acres, producing 4,000 tons of opium, most of which was converted into 400 tons of illegal morphine and heroin in laboratories around the country. How much opium and heroin is that? "It is not only the largest heroin producer in the world, 206,000 hectares is the largest amount of heroin or of any drug that I think has ever been produced by any one country in any given year," says Robert Charles, who until last spring was assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, overseeing anti-drug operations in Afghanistan. Charles says Afghanistan is producing more heroin than Columbia is producing cocaine. After 25 years of war, it is the country's main cash crop, contributing nearly three billion dollars a year in illegal revenues to the Afghan economy, which equals 50 percent of the gross national product. The laundered proceeds are no doubt funding much of the rebuilding of Kabul, which is experiencing a major construction boom. But the best way to illustrate the sheer volume of the drug trade is to tour the basement vault underneath Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics police in Kabul, where one and a half tons of heroin, just seized in the provinces, was awaiting destruction. One and a half tons of pure heroin is much larger than the biggest shipment ever seized in the United States, and once cut and repackaged it is worth hundreds of millions of dollars on the streets of a western city. Yet the seizure is less than one percent of all the heroin produced in Afghanistan last year, production which has increased more than 2,000 percent since 2001. "That acceleration should be sending a blinking red light to all of us right now. Drug money is going to accelerate the disintegration of democratic institutions," warns Charles. What is happening, Charles says, is the transformation of a poor, war torn country struggling with democracy into a narco state where power emanates from a group of drug kingpins far more powerful than the new government. The process began in 2001 when the United States forged military alliances with powerful warlords and used their private armies to drive al Qaeda and the Taliban out of the country. But some of Afghanistan's biggest warlords also happen to be some of the country's biggest drug lords. Now that they are part of the government, often in high places, a few are even charged with eradicating the drug traffic that many people believe they're still involved in. One former warlord suspected of being involved in the opium trade is Hazrat Ali, whose private army fought against al Qaeda at the battle of Tora Bora. In appreciation of his efforts, he was placed in charge of security for Nangahar province until he resigned recently to run for parliament. He also happens to be named in a United Nations report as one of the provincial officials suspected of being heavily involved in drug trafficking. Ali doesn't deny that the heroin business flourishes in the region but denied that he is involved in the trade. "No. You can ask anyone. I am opposed to drugs. If everyone was like me, there wouldn't be an opium plant in Afghanistan." 60 Minutes had no difficulty finding people to make the allegations; proving them is another matter since there is virtually no criminal justice system in place to pursue them. In all of Afghanistan there are barely 100 people in jail for drug offenses, most of them small time players. Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, who is considered honest and well intentioned, outlawed the cultivation and trafficking of opium three years ago, but has neither the power nor the prosecutors to enforce it. "It is the top priority. Not one of the top - the top priority now," says Karzai. "There have been lots of reports that many of the people in the provinces, many of the former commanders, have been involved with drug trafficking in the past. And some believe still continue to be involved in drug trafficking," Kroft says. Karzai agrees. "A lot of people are still involved in drug trafficking," he says. "Maybe even there are people in the government who may be involved in drug trafficking. Drug trafficking, drug cultivation, poppy cultivation, was a major way of life in this country. Now that the country's going back toward stability, now that we have a better hope for tomorrow, that we have hope for tomorrow, the Afghan people have begun to distance themselves. Slowly, slowly." Things are moving much too slowly for the country's top law enforcement officer, interior minister Ali Amad Jalali, who resigned earlier this month after complaining about the lack of progress in stemming the opium trade, and bringing government officials involved in it to justice. Last June, his elite Afghan anti-drug force, trained and assisted by the British, raided the offices of Sher Muhammed Akhundzada, the Governor of Helmand Province, another warlord widely suspected of being involved in the drug trade. They seized nine and a half tons on opium, but the investigation went nowhere. Governor Akhunzada said the drugs were not his but that they had been seized by police and were just being stored at his headquarters. He showed 60 Minutes a locker now loaded with another two and a half tons of opium. "This is opium that we confiscated. We have to keep the confiscated opium in a safe place. And this is where we keep it," says Akhunzada, through a translator. Not everyone bought that argument, especially the chief counter-narcotics officer for Helmand Province. When the investigation stalled, Abdul Samad Haqqani went on Radio Liberty, which is funded by the U.S. Congress, and denounced the governor as a major narcotics trafficker. Haqqani has since disappeared and President Karzai says he would look into the matter. As for the tons of opium in the Governor's office, Karzai wasn't the least bit surprised. "It's almost half of the economy," he says. "Why would it surprise me if there was poppy found in a governor's office? Or administrative offices? Whether they were confiscated or whether they belonged to somebody. In both cases, it doesn't surprise me." Asked how his government would deal with the governor amid these allegations, Karzai says little can be done. "This governor of Helmand, he has come to me a number of times to say that he is tired of working in Helmand precisely because of these allegations," Karzai says. "He says, 'Well remove me' and we have not removed him. Because right now, under the circumstances, any replacement would find it difficult to continue the fight against terrorism the way he's doing it there - in that province and at the borders." Karzai went on to say that no investigation was needed and that the governor would be removed and assigned to other government work. Antonio Maria Costa, director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, says he has pleaded with Karzai to do something about senior officials and governors involved in the drug business. "These people who have been involved, senior officials and governors who were involved in the drug economy should be removed," says Costa. "Removed from office and possibly removed from the country." Costa says the need to fight terrorism and defeat the insurgency should not be used as an excuse to ignore the opium trade. "I think it is the responsibility of the Afghan government and the foreign powers assisting it to fight both narcotics and the insurgency. I will say that fighting one is equal to fighting the other." The British, who have overall responsibility for counter narcotics in Afghanistan, and the Americans have limited their role to assisting the Karzai government in training anti-drug units and providing occasional logistical support for their missions to confiscate opium and destroy drug labs. So far they have destroyed 150 labs. The American military has no direct role in counter narcotics. Its responsibility is fighting terrorism and providing security and stability. If U.S. troops come across opium they can take action but it is not part of their mission. Robert Charles says the U.S. military has limited resources to commit to the effort and feels that aggressive action could disrupt the flow of intelligence. "It is easy to say, 'We will get to this issue in time' the way we get to other social issues. But we don't have time." And Charles doesn't think it is just a threat to the mission. "I think it is a threat to the Democracy. Why is it a threat to democracy? First, it has a potential for public corruption. Second, it funds the violent elements in society. Finally, it sends a signal that the rule of law doesn't matter." One U.S. counter-narcotics official told Kroft that corruption is worse in Afghanistan than it is in Columbia, and estimated that 90 percent of the police chiefs are either directly involved in the drug business or protecting those who are. The British trained mobile unit says it is under orders to stop police cars and official motorcades as well as ordinary buses. Official vehicles are the preferred means of transporting opium. There have been a few small successes. The government has stepped up a modest poppy eradication program, and with the help of the U.S. state department is trying to persuade farmers to grow alternative crops. The number of acres of poppy under cultivation actually dropped 20 percent in 2005, although opium and heroin production remained about the same. In the village of Kushkak, farmers told 60 Minutes that they voluntarily quit growing opium poppy after the government promised to build them health clinics, schools and roads. But the promises have not materialized and they are growing impatient. "We did promise them alternative livelihoods," says Karzai. "We have told them that they should stop growing poppy, that we'll be there to help them. And if we don't do that, people out of desperation will go back to poppies, and we should not allow that." But illegal profits from the opium and heroin trade are not only helping warlords and corrupt officials expand their influence over the government. There is evidence that some of the money is ending up with the Taliban and al Qaeda, who elicit tolls, protection money and drugs from traffickers in areas they control. "Narcotics is such an insidious, creeping, potentially lethal problem in that country that it needs to be elevated to a rank that is commensurate with that threat," says Charles. Asked whether he is saying that this issue is as important as fighting terrorism, he said, "I am."

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