When Afghan security forces found an enormous cache of heroin hidden beneath concrete blocks in a tractor-trailer outside Kandahar in 2004, the local Afghan commander quickly impounded the truck and notified his boss. Before long, the commander, Habibullah Jan, received a telephone call from Ahmed Wali Karzai, the brother of President Hamid Karzai, asking him to release the vehicle and the drugs, Jan later told American investigators, according to notes from the debriefing obtained by The New York Times. He said he complied after getting a phone call from an aide to President Karzai directing him to release the truck.
Two years later, American and Afghan counternarcotics forces stopped another truck, this time near Kabul, finding more than 110 pounds of heroin. Soon after the seizure, United States investigators told other American officials that they had discovered links between the drug shipment and a bodyguard believed to be an intermediary for Ahmed Wali Karzai, according to a participant in the briefing.
The assertions about the involvement of the president's brother in the incidents were never investigated, according to American and Afghan officials, even though allegations that he has benefited from narcotics trafficking have circulated widely in Afghanistan.
Both President Karzai and Ahmed Wali Karzai, now the chief of the Kandahar Provincial Council, the governing body for the region that includes Afghanistan's second largest city, dismiss the allegations as politically motivated attacks by longtime foes.
"I am not a drug dealer, I never was and I never will be," the president's brother said in a recent phone interview. "I am a victim of vicious politics."
But the assertions about him have deeply worried top American officials in Kabul and in Washington. The United States officials fear that perceptions that the Afghan president might be protecting his brother are damaging his credibility and undermining efforts by the United States to buttress his government, which has been under siege from rivals and a Taliban insurgency fueled by drug money, several senior Bush administration officials said. Their concerns have intensified as American troops have been deployed to the country in growing numbers.
"What appears to be a fairly common Afghan public perception of corruption inside their government is a tremendously corrosive element working against establishing long-term confidence in that government — a very serious matter," said Lieutenant General David Barno, who was commander of coalition military forces in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 and is now retired. "That could be problematic strategically for the United States."
The White House says it believes that Ahmed Wali Karzai is involved in drug trafficking, and American officials have repeatedly warned President Karzai that his brother is a political liability, two senior Bush administration officials said in interviews last week.
Numerous reports link Ahmed Wali Karzai to the drug trade, according to current and former officials from the White House, the State Department and the United States Embassy in Afghanistan, who would speak only on the condition of anonymity. In meetings with President Karzai, including a 2006 session with the United States ambassador, the Central Intelligence Agency's station chief and their British counterparts, American officials have talked about the allegations in hopes that the president might move his brother out of the country, said several people who took part in or were briefed on the talks.
"We thought the concern expressed to Karzai might be enough to get him out of there," one official said. But President Karzai has resisted, demanding clear-cut evidence of wrongdoing, several officials said. "We don't have the kind of hard, direct evidence that you could take to get a criminal indictment," a White House official said. "That allows Karzai to say, where's your proof?"
Neither the Drug Enforcement Administration, which conducts counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan, nor the fledgling Afghan anti-drug agency has pursued investigations into the accusations against the president's brother.
Several American investigators said senior officials at the DEA and the office of the Director of National Intelligence complained to them that the White House favored a hands-off approach toward Ahmed Wali Karzai because of the political delicacy of the matter. But White House officials dispute that, instead citing limited DEA resources in Kandahar and southern Afghanistan and the absence of political will in the Afghan government to go after major drug suspects as the reasons for the lack of an inquiry.
"We invested considerable resources into building Afghan capability to conduct such investigations and consistently encouraged Karzai to take on the big fish and address widespread Afghan suspicions about the link between his brother and narcotics," said Meghan O'Sullivan, who was the coordinator for Afghanistan and Iraq at the National Security Council until last year.
Humayun Hamidzada, press secretary for President Karzai, denied that the president's brother was involved in drug trafficking or that the president had intervened to help him. "People have made allegations without proof," Hamidzada said.
Spokesmen for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
The concerns about Ahmed Wali Karzai have surfaced recently because of the imprisonment of an informant who tipped off American and Afghan investigators to the drug-filled truck outside Kabul in 2006.
The informant, Hajji Aman Kheri, was arrested a year later on charges of plotting to kill an Afghan vice president in 2002. The Afghan Supreme Court recently ordered him freed for lack of evidence, but he has not been released. Nearly 100 political leaders in his home region protested his continued incarceration last month.
Kheri, in a phone interview from jail in Kabul, said he had been an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration and United States intelligence agencies, an assertion confirmed by American counternarcotics and intelligence officials. Several of those officials, frustrated that the Bush administration was not pressing for Kheri's release, came forward to disclose his role in the drug seizure.
Ever since the American-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, critics have charged that the Bush administration has failed to take aggressive action against the Afghan narcotics trade, because of both opposition from the Karzai government and reluctance by the United States military to get bogged down by eradication and interdiction efforts that would antagonize local warlords and Afghan poppy farmers. Now, Afghanistan provides about 95 percent of the world's supply of heroin.
Just as the Taliban have benefited from money produced by the drug trade, so have many officials in the Karzai government, according to American and Afghan officials. Thomas Schweich, a former senior State Department counternarcotics official, wrote in The New York Times Magazine in July that drug traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials. "Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government," he said.
Of the suspicions about Ahmed Wali Karzai, Representative Mark Steven Kirk, an Illinois Republican who has focused on the Afghan drug problem in Congress, said, "I would ask people in the Bush administration and the DEA about him, and they would say, 'We think he's dirty.' "
In the two drug seizures in 2004 and 2006, millions of dollars' worth of heroin was found. In April 2006, Jan, by then a member of the Afghan Parliament, met with American investigators at a DEA safe house in Kabul and was asked to describe the events surrounding the 2004 drug discovery, according to notes from the debriefing session. He told the Americans that after impounding the truck, he received calls from Ahmed Wali Karzai and Shaida Mohammad, an aide to President Karzai, according to the notes.
Jan later became a political opponent of President Karzai, and in a 2007 speech in Parliament he accused Ahmed Wali Karzai of involvement in the drug trade. Jan was shot to death in July as he drove from a guesthouse to his main residence in Kandahar Province. The Taliban were suspected in the assassination.
Mohammad, in a recent interview in Washington, dismissed Jan's account, saying that Jan had fabricated the story about being pressured to release the drug shipment in order to damage President Karzai.
But Khan Mohammad, the former Afghan commander in Kandahar who was Jan's superior in 2004, said in a recent interview that Jan reported at the time that he had received a call from the Karzai aide ordering him to release the drug cache. Khan Mohammad recalled that Jan believed that the call had been instigated by Ahmed Wali Karzai, not the president.
"This was a very heavy issue," Mohammad said. He provided the same account in an October 2004 interview with The Christian Science Monitor. Mohammad said that after a subordinate captured a large shipment of heroin about two months earlier, the official received repeated telephone calls from Ahmed Wali Karzai. "He was saying, 'This heroin belongs to me, you should release it,' " the newspaper quoted Mohammad as saying.
In 2006, Kheri, the Afghan informant, tipped off American counternarcotics agents to another drug shipment. Kheri, who had proved so valuable to the United States that his family had been resettled in Virginia in 2004, briefly returned to Afghanistan in 2006.
The heroin in the truck that was seized was to be delivered to Ahmed Wali Karzai's bodyguard in the village of Maidan Shahr, and then transported to Kandahar, one of the Afghans involved in the deal later told American investigators, according to notes of his debriefing. Several Afghans — the drivers and the truck's owner — were arrested by Afghan authorities, but no action was taken against Karzai or his bodyguard, who investigators believe serves as a middleman, the American officials said.
In 2007, Kheri visited Afghanistan again, once again serving as an American informant, the officials said. This time, however, he was arrested by the Karzai government and charged in the 2002 assassination of Hajji Abdul Qadir, an Afghan vice president, who had been a political rival of Kheri's brother, Hajji Zaman, a former militia commander and a powerful figure in eastern Afghanistan.
Kheri, in the phone interview from Kabul, denied any involvement in the killing and said his arrest was politically motivated. He maintained that the president's brother was involved in the heroin trade.
"It's no secret about Wali Karzai and drugs," said Kheri, who speaks English. "A lot of people in the Afghan government are involved in drug trafficking."
Kheri's continued detention, despite the Afghan court's order to release him, has frustrated some of the American investigators who worked with him.
In recent months, they have met with officials at the State Department and the office of the Director of National Intelligence seeking to persuade the Bush administration to intervene with the Karzai government to release Kheri.
"We have just left a really valuable informant sitting in jail to rot," one investigator said.
by James Rosen Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan.