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Opium, banned under the Taliban regime, now flourishes in Afghanistan under the noses of Canadian and U.S. personnel—and often directly under the boots of Canadian soldiers, who are occasionally pictured in newspapers walking through poppy fields while on the prowl for Taliban rebels.
Opium generates $1.5 billion to $4 billion for Afghanistan’s economy each year and accounts for 10 to 50 percent of the country’s GDP, depending on harvests, according to reports from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Depending on various factors, the poppy employs between 1.5 million and 3.3 million Afghans at different times of the growing season.
A big part of all those billions goes into the pockets and Dubai bank accounts of Afghan officials and warlords who are our allies. The Taliban rebels, who are widely accused of profiting from the opium trade, take in only two to 12 percent of total opium revenue, mostly by taxing shipments, according to an April 2011 analysis by the journal Foreign Policy.
One of the most conspicuous manifestations of opium’s huge role is the Kabul neighbourhood of Sherpur, the country’s wealthiest enclave. An empty hillside as recently as 2001, Sherpur now boasts extravagant mansions that Afghans dub “poppy palaces” and “narcotecture”.
All this prompted Hillary Clinton to call Afghanistan a “narco state” during the confirmation hearing prior to her appointment as U.S. secretary of state.
But that hasn’t stopped Canadian and other western governments from cultivating friendly ties with Afghan officials and warlords known or strongly suspected to be involved in the flourishing opium trade.
One of Canada’s closest allies in Afghanistan is the so-called King of Kandahar—Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of President Harmid Karzai. Often known by his initials, AWK, he is the powerful head of the provincial council in Kandahar province, where Canada’s 2,800 soldiers are headquartered.
He is also widely suspected of being linked to opium trafficking. An October 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by the whistle-blowing group WikiLeaks in November 2010 said AWK “is widely understood to be corrupt and a narcotics trafficker”.
Reports about Wali Karzai go back years. A 2006 Newsweek investigation quoted sources saying AWK was a “major figure” in the opium trade. One Afghan Interior Ministry official said he “leads the whole trafficking structure” in the country’s south.
(Wali Karzai has denied the claims of drug involvement, saying there’s no proof.)
He has also been accused of vote-rigging in the 2009 Afghan presidential election and engaging in widespread corruption.
And despite it all, U.S. and Canadian officials have entertained cozy ties with Wali Karzai. He has reportedly received payments from the CIA, the New York Times stated in 2009. He was also said to be renting a large compound outside Kandahar to the CIA and U.S. special forces. “He’s our landlord,” one U.S. official was quoted as telling the newspaper.
Wali Karzai has denied he’s on the CIA payroll, but he acknowledges passing intelligence to coalition forces. “I’m the only one who has the majority of intelligence in this region,” he told the Times last year. “I’m passing tons of information to them.”
That intel seems to have helped shield Wali Karzai from awkward questions about his alleged drug ties. “U.S. and Canadian diplomats have not pressed the matter, in part because Ahmed Wali Karzai has given valuable intelligence to the U.S. military, and he also routinely provides assistance to Canadian forces, according to several officials familiar with the issue,” the Washington Post reported in 2009.
Wali Karzai is far from being the only Karzai with seemingly dirty hands. Another U.S. diplomatic cable, from April 2009, also released by WikiLeaks last November, said that President Karzai has personally intervened in several drug cases. In one, he reportedly pardoned five Afghan policemen convicted of transporting 124 kilos of heroin.
President Karzai also raised eyebrows in 2007 when he appointed a convicted heroin dealer, Izzatullah Wasifi, as his government’s anticorruption chief. “The Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power,” wrote Thomas Schweich, the former U.S. counternarcotics coordinator in Kabul, in a New York Times Magazine story in 2008.