ABC TV (AUS) Foreign Correspondent: Afghanistan - America's Blind Eye [transcript]
Reporter: Mark Corcoran
[NOTE: Michael appears four times; those sections are noted in bold type]
CORCORAN: Whoever controls the opium poppy controls southern Afghanistan – such is the power of this humble plant. It was a lesson quickly learned by the Soviets, the Mujahudeen, then the religious zealots of the Taliban. Now it is the turn of the Americans, descending from clear skies on Operation “Enduring Freedom” with lofty ideals of good versus evil – only to find they’ve landed in a grey world of compromise.
This airport is the gateway to Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second city, capital of the biggest opium growing region in the world. It’s now a base for more than four thousand troops, an American led Coalition of Canadians, Australians, Danes and Germans, all fighting the so-called “War on Terror”.
MAJOR ROPER: [US Army] We have to eliminate, reduce, fight, do everything we can to wipe out terrorism here in Afghanistan.
CORCORAN: This massive military presence serves only one purpose, to act as a base for the US led special forces teams, now combing the mountains and deserts of southern Afghanistan, hunting for Taliban and Al Qaeda fugitives. But in their haste to fill the power vacuum left by the departing Taliban, the Americans have helped install a Governor in Kandahar with close links to this country’s drug lords. In essence what you have today, is an alliance between the Americans, the Governor of Kandahar and the men responsible for producing some 70% of the world’s opium and heroin.
Thirty kilometres outside the city of Kandahar, the Dogs of War are unleashed. Among the crowd are warlords, opium merchants and poppy farmers. This gathering is illegal. Like opium production, traditional dogfights have been banned by Afghanistan’s interim administration. Here, both edicts are viewed with contempt, seen as little more than a sop to western sensibilities.
Four point five billion US dollars of foreign aid has been pledged on the condition that opium is eradicated but sport and business still continues apace, a suitable distance from the west’s offended gaze.
Up until two years ago, these fields produced more than 70% of the world’s opium - some four and a half thousand tonnes a year, enough to refine four hundred and fifty tonnes of heroin. But then in a bid to win favour with the west, Taliban Supreme Leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, declared a ban on poppy cultivation and the crops vanished overnight. Now with the Taliban gone, the poppies are back and despite the fact that this country has been in the grip of its worst drought in fifty years, the farmers are using what little water they have on the crops and are expecting a bumper harvest in May.
Of course opium never really disappeared under the Taliban. Over-production has created a massive stockpile, more than two years global supply. The ban simply helped ease the glut and drive up prices but now stockpiles are falling and farmers such as sixty year old Mohammed Zai Akar have planted for another season, indebted to the drug barons who provided loans during the Taliban prohibition. He says he’d like to grow other crops but simply has no choice.
MOHAMMED ZAI AKAR: It is necessary that I grow this. I borrowed money from lots of Muslims and I am obliged. If it was not for that, I wouldn’t do it.
CORCORAN: Thousands of other poppy farmers are also caught in Mohammed’s poverty trap, working as little more than indentured labourers for the syndicates In war ravaged Afghanistan, opium is simply too lucrative too ignore. Poppies require only half the water needed for wheat, yet reap thirty times the profit. Effective western crop substitution schemes would be prohibitively expensive but also be difficult to enforce because too many officials get a cut of the drug profits. Ten per cent from the farmers, twenty per cent from the traffickers.
MOHAMMED ZAI AKAR: These people are actually destroying the nation. They’re just looking after themselves – they don’t care about me.
CORCORAN: And the top United Nations Drug Control expert here confirms what everyone anticipates, that officials of the new regime will also expect a cut of the action.
BERNARD FRAHI: However they could get a profit in a different formula so it will not be under an official tax but it will be a different formula again and get some income yeah could be.
CORCORAN: But again it’s a better bet than foreign aid isn’t it? No strings?
BERNARD FRAHI: No, you are perfectly right yeah, yes.
CORCORAN: To drive into Kandahar is to enter a city much the same as the Taliban left it. This deeply conservative town was the ideological heartland of the Taliban movement and home to Mullah Omar. The streets are full of demobilised but surly ex-Taliban fighters, watched from the shadows by a thirty strong team of American Special Forces and CIA tasked with keeping Kandahar’s new Governor in power.
‘Hi you guys. Where you guys from? Where you guys from?’
MAN IN CAR: ‘Kandahar.’
CORCORAN: ‘Yeah? Oh right. Is it safe to film in around here? Is it OK for us to film around here?’
MAN IN CAR: ‘I guess so.’
CORCORAN: That night we are summoned to meet the new Governor of southern Afghanistan at his heavily guarded compound. Following the Taliban surrender, Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, backed by his American minders, seized power after a brief gun battle with Kabul’s nominee for the job. It appears ‘might is still right’ in the new Afghanistan but Sherzai knows he sits in the Governor’s office at the American’s pleasure.
GOVERNOR SHERZAI: The Americans gave me a citation for being a hero and that’s why all the people think I’m a military officer.
CORCORAN: This is Sherzai’s second term as Governor. He previously ran Kandahar during the chaotic rule of the Mujahadeen in the early 90’s, when the city first emerged as Afghanistan’s opium capital. Top of his agenda he insists, is the destruction of the new opium crop.
GOVERNOR SHERZAI: I will fight very strongly against the cultivation of opium and the production of heroin.
CORCORAN: Given his track record, no one really takes him seriously. Sherzai’s one anti-narcotics achievement to date has been the forced closure of the city’s opium market but as we discover, the trade is flourishing elsewhere.
MICHAEL WARE: We’re driving into what use to be the opium market now.
CORCORAN: Michael Ware is Time Magazine’s man in Kandahar. Since the collapse of the Taliban, this Australian journalist has spent more time than any other foreigner delving into the dangerous labyrinth of Kandahari politics.
MICHAEL WARE: You take away the opium and you suck the oxygen out of this economy and you’ll be treading on the toes of significant players who have built empires around the opium trade, and that includes political and military figures as well as criminal and business figures here in Kandahar.
CORCORAN: The real business of the opium and heroin trade is still conducted far from the city. We set off on the three hour drive across the desert in search of what the Governor doesn’t want us to see – the biggest drug market in the country.
On the way, we run straight into what initially appears to be every foreigner’s nightmare – a roadblock of heavily armed Taliban, many still wearing their distinctive black or white turbans but nothing in Afghanistan is ever as it seems. These gunmen are surrendered Talibs. Granted an amnesty, they’re now enthusiastic recruits on America’s war on terror.
AFGHANI MAN AT ROADBLOCK: ‘Listen to what I’m saying! This area is desert and there is a lot of banditry. That’s why we block the road.’
CORCORAN: ‘Some people say that you are Taliban who have changed sides.’
INTERPRETER: [Interprets Corcoran’s comment] [Reply by Afghan man at roadblock] ‘He says if you people provide us with a uniform, we will change, we will change.’
CORCORAN: A shave and a new uniform and these former Islamic holy warriors will happily fight alongside the American infidels, their loyalty shifting faster than the sands. It’s a trait of Afghan politics that continues to confound US commanders attempting to distinguish friend from foe but for today at least, these re-badged Talibs are content to relieve travellers of money and valuables on the pretext of searching for weapons.
AFGHAN MAN AT ROADBLOCK: ‘We are hungry and for the past two days we haven’t had a proper meal. Give us money. Give us dollars.’
CORCORAN: We managed to depart with our wallets intact, the gunman fearing that we are somehow connected to the Americans. Their strategically placed roadblock just happens to guard the turnoff to Sangin, the largest opium market in Afghanistan.
Warned against openly filming, we use a hidden camera. Our security escort of hired gunmen, necessary for travel outside Kandahar, clearly feel uneasy. Governor Sherzai’s mandate is meaningless here and we have no wish to provoke a confrontation.
‘Just one man. Just one man, one guy following behind not with us’.
Sangin is obviously under the control of the Taliban or surrendered Taliban, a distinction impossible for us to make. Either way, it’s still very much business as usual for thirty wholesalers and brokers.
‘And is it good quality, good quality product at the moment? Good quality opium?’
TRANSLATOR: ‘Bad quality, good quality, most special quality.’
CORCORAN: ‘Yeah. If I want to buy some, how much for a kilo in US dollars?’
TRANSLATOR: ‘One kilo fifty thousand rupees per kg, that is around, that comes around eight hundred dollars.’
CORCORAN: The shops only hold samples. Serious traffickers wishing to buy in bulk are taken to secret warehouses in the mountains.
‘Can, can we see some product? Just show us some good quality stuff and some ordinary quality stuff? Stay here yeah?’
The economics of trafficking are straightforward. These men pay the farmers around three hundred US dollars a kilo. I’m quoted eight hundred dollars for a kilo that would fetch me sixteen thousand dollars were I to smuggle it to the streets of Europe. Refined into heroin, it’s worth ten times that again.
TRANSLATOR: ‘Shall he open?’
CORCORAN: ‘Yeah why not. Open it up, yeah.’
TRANSLATOR: ‘He says do you want to taste it?’
CORCORAN: ‘Not for me’ [everyone laughing].
AFGHAN MAN AT MARKET: ‘We are buying it from the farmers here’.
TRANSLATOR: ‘So you guys are buying it from them?’
AFGHAN MAN AT MARKET: ‘Yes, then we take it to the border, then Iran.’
CORCORAN: ‘It must be very dangerous. I’ve been to Iran. If they catch you in Iran with this they will execute you.’
AFGHAN MAN AT MARKET: ‘It doesn’t matter. I don’t care.’
CORCORAN: ‘So, these are all, these are all opium shops too?’
Initially after the collapse of the Taliban, there was unease here but the traders say they are now relieved that the Americans show no intention of closing down their operations.
TRANSLATOR: ‘Did the Americans come here?’
AFGHAN MAN AT MARKET: ‘Yes, the military came and also another group of foreigners. They promised us a lot and they asked us who we were – what we needed. They asked us about the road and the irrigation channels.’
TRANSLATOR: ‘Did the Americans ask you to close these shops?’
AFGHAN MAN AT MARKET: ‘No, no.’
CORCORAN: One puzzling contradiction has been the American’s lack of interest in destroying the drug industry, the source of so much terrorist wealth. The reason for the crop remaining untouched is an open secret in Kandahar but one both the Americans and the United Nations top drug control official are unwilling to share.
‘There’s a large American contingent at Kandahar which is a key opium poppy growing area. Why don’t they simply go out and destroy the crops?’
BERNARD FRAHI: Just ask them. I don’t know. Just ask the Americans. We don’t know ourselves.
CORCORAN: Why aren’t the American forces destroying the opium crop as it is a key source of income for the warlords, for the Taliban, for a whole range of unpleasant people in this area?
MAJOR ROPER: Well see that’s another question that’s really outside the purview of Task Force Rockason let me, I don’t know if I can give you a good answer on that.
CORCORAN: The answer lies with this man – Haji Bashar. He is the heroin and opium overlord of southern Afghanistan whose operations continue unimpeded by the US presence. Bashar’s drug empire help finance the Taliban and he was a close friend of Supreme Leader Mullah Omar. Today he quite literally owns Kandahar.
MICHAEL WARE: From this point on in the centre of Kandahar, from this roundabout all the way down this main road, the buildings on both side of the street for another kilometre or a little bit more, are all owned by a man named Haji Bashar. He’s the most powerful drug lord in southern Afghanistan. With each new administration that comes to Kandahar, they have to face the choice of either taking Haji Bashar on or making a deal with him. Invariably, every government that has taken office, has quickly come and made a deal with Haji Bashar.
CORCORAN: On the 23rd of January this year, this great survivor of Afghan politics surrendered his twelve thousand man private army and promptly struck a deal with the Americans.
MICHAEL WARE: He was brought into the new government as an ally. He now provides much needed military muscle that this relatively weak Governor needs. The Americans for their part, received intelligence on a level that I do not believe they had been receiving before. Haji Bashar intimately knows senior members of the Taliban. He more than anyone, has information on where these leaders went, how they got away and he is now proving pivotal in negotiating the surrenders of countless Taliban commanders.
CORCORAN: Haji Bashar’s narcotics empire remains untouched. No one has ever dared to take him on and live, until now. One man who says he’ll try is Kandahar’s new Police Chief, Brigadier Mohammed Akram, though his motives for doing so are open to question. As a former warlord and political opponent of the new Governor, he may crave a slice of the trade for himself. Brigadier Akram confirms that Bashar is still very much in business and seems to relish the prospect of a showdown with Washington’s favourite drug baron.
MOHAMMED AKRAM: Yes, Haji Bashar’s name is mentioned constantly. Haji Bashar is a great smuggler of the last twenty years. His business deals in heroin and opium and he is exporting it to Europe. Haji Bashar is the person whose heroin has killed or addicted thousands around the world and he is still doing the same work.
CORCORAN: The reality in Kandahar contradicts the message now being peddled to the world. Much has been made of recent drug seizures. In this haul on the border with Iran, thirty million US dollars worth of opium, heroin and hashish is laid out for the cameras. One foreign aid official told us the captured shipments belong to Haji Bashar’s few remaining rivals.
Brigadier Akram estimates the Taliban warehoused some five thousand tonnes of opium and heroin. He claims up to fifteen hundred tonnes is still in secret locations near Kandahar, most of it owned by Haji Bashar.
‘Are the Americans aware of his background? Have you told them about this?’
BRIGADIER AKRAM: Definitely, definitely the Americans know about this, that he was a great smuggler before he surrendered to the Americans. The Americans raided his home and they wanted to find out how much opium and heroin was stockpiled there but he’d already moved the stockpile and nothing was left in his house. The Americans know everything about him.
CORCORAN: But a visit to Haji Bashar’s new house in Kandahar reveals another surprise – the family of Governor Sherzai.
MICHAEL WARE: Well we’re now coming to Haji Bashar’s house. This is by far the most impressive and luxurious house in Kandahar. As a sign of the closeness of their relationship, the Governor of Kandahar’s family is currently staying in this house. In fact you’re now looking at the Governor’s soldiers guarding the drug baron’s house with the Governor’s family inside.
CORCORAN: ‘Do you have a personal relationship with him? What’s the extent that you know each other?’
GOVERNOR SHERZAI: I cannot call him a personal friend and I cannot trust him personally but he and his tribe are guaranteeing and they also guarantee America that he will not be involved in anti-state activities in the future
CORCORAN: But for a man who denies any personal connection with Haji Bashar, Governor Sherzai makes a great public display of demonstrating his bond with Kandahar’s power broker as they chat on their US supplied satellite phones.
ASSISTANT: [Answers phone] It’s Haji Bashar. Hello Haji! Don’t hang up! Don’t hang up!
GOVERNOR SHERZAI: [Takes phone from assistant] Hello, peace be upon you. May God bring you to me. Are you well? Are you OK? Thanks be to God. God willing it will be done. Tomorrow or the day after, you will have to do it because we don’t have much time.
CORCORAN: Haji Bashar was out of town, apparently on business with the Americans. We made numerous attempts to contact him until warned that Bashar had given orders for his gunmen to shoot any journalist who persisted in annoying him.
The Americans insist that amid the war on terror they’ve continued to wage war on drugs, calling in air strikes and the special forces to destroy opium warehouses and the estimated four hundred heroin labs in the country but on the ground, there’s simply no evidence to support these claims.
MICHAEL WARE: In the American consciousness, all that really matters is Al Qaeda and the risks to the American’s themselves. Anything else, be it liberating these people, be it establishing a new democratic government, be it rebuilding this country or be it putting a stop to the opium trade are much, much lower priorities so I do not think it is something that the American public or the American Government really has at the forefront of their agenda.
CORCORAN: America now dominates this city that secretly thrives upon the profits of the drug trade yet chooses not to confront the problem. 90 per cent of Europe’s heroin originates from here. Almost none of it ends up on American streets. One question remains – if it were the other way around, if Afghan heroin was finding its way into the veins of America’s youth, would the US have been so ruthlessly pragmatic in enlisting the help of Afghanistan’s most powerful drug lord for the war on terror?