A former top U.S. official has alleged that President Hamid Karzai is obstructing the fight against Afghanistan's burgeoning narcotics trade and protecting drug lords for political reasons.
Thomas Schweich, who until June was one of State Department's top counternarcotics officials wrote in an article for the New York Times that appeared online late Wednesday that "narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government."
He wrote that although the Taliban insurgency fighting Karzai's government profits from drugs, the president is reluctant to move against big drug lords in the country's south where most opium and heroin is produced because it is his political power base.
"Karzai had Taliban enemies who profited from drugs but he had even more supporters who did," wrote Schweich, who used to serve as coordinator for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan.
Next year sees presidential elections in Afghanistan, and Karzai has indicated he will likely run for another term in the office.
Afghan officials were not immediately available to respond to Schweich's allegations.
In 2007, Afghanistan produced 93 percent of the world's supply of opium, the raw material of heroin.
Schweich also accused the Pentagon and some U.S. generals of obstructing attempts to get military forces to assist and protect eradication drives against the lucrative opium crop, now a valuable source of funds for the Taliban-led insurgency.
"Karzai was playing us like a fiddle," Schweich wrote.
"The U.S. would spend billions of dollars on infrastructure development; the U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai's friends could get richer off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term."
Drug production has skyrocketed since the U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime, which virtually eradicated opium cultivation.
NATO and U.S. military commanders have been reluctant to get involved in the drug fight, arguing that destroying farmers' crops would alienate tribesmen and increase support for the Taliban.
In 2003, about 198,000 acres (80,000 hectares) of land was used to cultivate poppy. By 2007, it rose to 476,900 acres (193,000 hectares). Opium production topped 9,000 tons, enough to make over 880 tons of heroin with a street value of US$4 billion, the United Nations says.
Figures for 2008 are not yet available, but counternarcotics officials expect only a slight drop in land being cultivated for opium compared with 2007. Poor weather, however, will mean a lower yield per hectare so the total quantity of opium produced should fall.
The Ministry of Counter Narcotics says that 20 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces will be poppy-free this year — compared with 13 provinces in 2007. But in the Taliban's heartland in the south where most of the opium is grown, cultivation remains rampant — particularly in Helmand province.