Losing the war on drugs in Afghanistan

Miranda Kennedy Sep 26, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Aghanistan’s president Hamid Karzai was at the White House today. He and President Bush spoke about the war on terror. And the Taliban in Afghanistan. Karzai called on Pakistan to stop terrorists at the border and keep them out of his country. But at least part of Afghanistan’s problems are more homegrown. Last year the production of opium there more than doubled. Despite the U.S. and other countries spending billions there to shut down the drug trade. Makes you wonder where all the money’s going. We sent Marketplace’s Miranda Kennedy to find out.


MIRANDA KENNEDY: Nine scrawny guys in mismatching uniforms pile into the back of a land cruiser. They’re a group of newly trained counter narcotics police. Colonel Zamin Zafique is in charge of the force. He’s a lean man with an earnest moustache, and an earnest promise that I’m in good hands.

ZAMIN ZAFIQUE [interpreter]: Because of the military secrets I cannot tell you where we will go, but be sure that we are with you. Wherever we go we will take care of you.

Then he floors it, and I scrabble for something to hold on to in the back of the jeep. For hours, we bully and screech our way through Kabul’s congested streets. The colonel may have pledged to protect me today, but his bigger mission is to protect what he calls “our very expensive x-ray machine.”

The Pentagon donated this brand-new, million-dollar Rapiscan truck that can detect drugs hidden inside other vehicles. It’s the same screening device the U.S. uses on the border with Mexico. Today we’re part of a convoy, escorting it to the Kandahar highway, which is a major drug trafficking route.When we get stuck in traffic, which happens a lot, Colonel Zafique gets out and bangs on the hoods of cars until they make way for us to pass. He reminds us more than once that this is sensitive equipment that would be seriously damaged if it hit a pothole. He’s well aware that the scanner might just be the most valuable piece of technology Afghanistan has to fight its drug war.

And that’s part of the problem. Zalmay Afzadi, with the government’s counter narcotics unit, says the world hasn’t helped Afghanistan enough.

ZALMAY AFZADI: We need more money, the money’s not enough. Because our police, with having three bullets and an AK-47 or Kalashnikov and he’s fighting a drug mafia. The police need to be equipped with the latest technology, with the latest intelligence technology in order to tackle a drug trafficker.

It’s more than equipment, he says. The police and army need to be better paid. Like Colonel Zafique. He works for a specialized foreign-trained police unit, but he still only makes $180 a month. That may account for the lack of results. So far Afghanistan has only caught a few drug traffickers. That’s out of the hundreds who run drugs out of the country.

After fighting our way through traffic for three hours, we finally reach the Kandahar highway. The team sets up the scanner on a shoulder of the highway, and gets the sniffer dogs ready to check vehicles. The colonel pulls over a rusty truck piled high with flour and sugar, and waves the driver out.

The team swings the x-ray arm out from the body of the machine, and drives Mohammed Ali’s truck under it. He watches on the side of the road.

Mohammed’s visibly relieved when the scan comes up clean. He tells the colonel he lives in fear that powerful drug lords will smuggle heroin or opium into his truck without him knowing.

KENNEDY: Have you been approached by traffickers who’ve asked you to carry goods for them?

MOHAMMED ALI [interpreter]: Well, if you live in a society like Afghanistan, then you do . . . it’s something natural that you are faced with, drug lords. But I have refused them. Because if I deal with a drug lord, then the first person who would be arrested and put in jail, it would be me.

Mohammed says traffickers make billions from heroin, but they never get caught. When I ask him why, he looks at me like I’m an idiot. Everyone knows why, he says. The police and government are underpaid. So the drug lords give them a cut, and they look the other way.

KENNEDY: So you’re gonna let him go?

ZAFIQUE [interpreter]: Then he’s going to fill out that form and he’s gonna go . . .

On the Kabul-Kandahar Highway, I’m Miranda Kennedy for Marketplace.

We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.

Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.

In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.

Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.