| SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan
SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan One of the most important trade routes in Asia was closed last week while a boyish-looking man everyone calls "the general" showed around the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
General Stanley McChrystal clambered to the top of a roof, where "the general" -- officially a colonel in the Afghan Border Police -- pointed out the area where NATO forces plan to build a new $20 million border station.
U.S. forces are not allowed near the teeming border when it is open, so they have never seen quite how Colonel Abdul Razziq, the 30-something Afghan border police boss in Spin Boldak, single-handedly rules over billions in international trade.
They say he has done a good job keeping the border moving and secure. They also believe he is, as one senior military official put it, "a crook".
Or, as Lieutenant-Colonel Pat Keane, head of a NATO unit trying to improve Afghanistan's border controls, put it more delicately: "He keeps the peace down here. Trucks flow, commerce flows. At the same time, he is getting additional incomes."
McChrystal's visit to Razziq -- at least his second so far this year -- shows the tough choices U.S. officials face trying to fight corruption in Afghanistan, while relying on officials they believe are themselves corrupt.
For now Razziq is the Americans' man in Spin Boldak, where U.S. forces expect him to help them dramatically increase their own shipments of supplies for their growing military presence.
Razziq, a leader of one of the two main tribes in the border area of Kandahar province, commands a few thousand local policemen in blue-grey uniforms at the frontier, one of only two legal highway crossing points between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
A man with an easy smile and a friendly air who denies illegal activity, Razziq beamed beside the U.S. commander as McChrystal praised him in front of local television cameras.
"Colonel Razziq is trying to make some changes that allow traffic to move more smoothly," McChrystal said. "I am very optimistic that with the plans that I've heard, we can increase efficiency and decrease corruption."
Just how much profit Razziq makes from his total control of the border is impossible to gauge. About 700 trucks cross the frontier each day, linking Pakistan with southern Afghanistan, Iran and central Asia beyond.
During a briefing with McChrystal and his top aides before the trip to meet Razziq, the head of Afghan customs, Bismullah Kammawie, told the American officers that corruption at Razziq's border post was "total".
The Afghan government collects about $40 million in customs revenue in Kandahar Province per year, about a fifth of what it should collect, Kammawie told Reuters, adding that the target was just an estimate since nobody really knows what comes in.
Razziq and his men control one of the main outgoing routes from the southern Afghan agricultural heartland that produces nearly all the world's illegal opium.
A 7,500 word investigative story in Harper's Magazine last year, which included interviews with Pashtun drug traders and smugglers on both sides of the frontier, described Razziq as controlling an empire worth millions in annual kickbacks.
It described his own lavish compound, filled with armored vehicles, and said he runs a network of private prisons for those who cross him. According to the Washington Post, the Harper's story is being used to teach U.S. intelligence agents about the reality on the ground in Afghanistan.
Yet despite their clear suspicions, U.S. forces have so far agreed essentially to give Razziq a free hand. Under a deal reached on the ground, U.S. troops in the area have pledged not to visit the border when it is open.
One of the aims of McChrystal's visit was to sign a document that would allow his troops unfettered access. No luck.
After a two-hour meeting full of speeches on the importance of cooperation, Razziq and his boss from Kabul, border police commander Mohammad Younus Noorzai, politely declined to sign in the absence of two cabinet ministers.
With 30,000 additional U.S. troops arriving as part of President Barack Obama's escalation strategy this year -- most to Kandahar and neighboring areas -- NATO will need to double its own supply traffic through Spin Boldak in coming months. They need Razziq to keep the border open longer so more traffic can pass.
They will also have to deal with other officials they say they have questions about, above all the head of Kandahar's provincial council, President Hamid Karzai's half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, considered the most powerful man in the province.
Ahmad Wali Karzai has long denied Western media reports that he is involved in the drug trade. The New York Times also reported last year that he was on the CIA's payroll.
Being so closely allied to officials they suspect of graft makes military commanders uncomfortable, but they are wary of disrespecting the Afghan authorities they are there to protect.
Last week, NATO officials made clear they would not intervene despite learning that the man chosen to run Marjah, a town U.S. Marines fought for last month, may have spent four years in a German prison for attempting to stab his step-son to death.
In an interview after meeting Razziq, McChrystal said fighting corruption is crucial because it is what drives Afghans into the arms of insurgents. But he declined to address specific accusations against Razziq and Ahmad Wali Karzai.
"To the degree that (corruption) is one of the causes of the insurgency, it worries me more than the insurgency itself," McChrystal said. "We can fight the insurgency: we can defeat the forces of the insurgency, the ground forces and whatnot. But if we don't have effective governance, credible governance, than you don't defeat the cause of the insurgency."
Before his trip to see Razziq, McChrystal listened as staff described plans for the new $20 million customs depot.
"This is what we're good at: building stuff and projects," McChrystal said. "We're not so good at the cultural stuff."
(Editing by Megan Goldin)