WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. government’s former point man in the fight against the heroin trade in Afghanistan has accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai of obstructing counter-narcotics efforts and protecting drug lords.
Karzai on Thursday vehemently rejected Thomas Schweich’s comments, saying international criminal gangs were the main beneficiaries and culprits of the trade.
Schweich, who resigned last month from the State Department’s narcotics bureau, said in an article to appear on Sunday in the New York Times magazine that the Afghan government was deeply involved in shielding the opium trade.
“While it is true that Karzai’s Taliban enemies finance themselves from the drug trade, so do many of his supporters,” Schweich wrote in article posted on the newspaper’s Web site.
“Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government,” he wrote, adding that drug traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials.
Karzai, in Kabul at a joint press conference with the visiting NATO chief Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, said Afghanistan should not be blamed for the booming narcotics trade, although his government deemed it a menace to the future of Afghanistan.
“As I had said two years ago, Afghanistan never takes the blame (for the drugs threat). The Afghan nation due to desperation, war... has been forced to (resort to) this issue,” Karzai replied when asked to comment about Schweich’s comments.
He said his government had put behind bars hundreds of drugs traffickers and pressed for a substantive solution of the drugs threat.
“Without doubt, some Afghans are drugs smugglers, but majority of them are the international mafia who do not live in Afghanistan,” he said.
Schweich also criticized the Pentagon for refusing U.S. military support for drug eradication efforts and arguing that it was someone else’s job to clean up the drug business after the war is over.
“The trouble is that the fighting is unlikely to end as long as the Taliban can finance themselves through drugs — and as long as the Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power,” he said.
Schweich said NATO allies have also resisted the anti-poppy offensive. “The British military were even more hostile to the anti-drug mission than the U.S. military,” he wrote.
Poppy cultivation has expanded rapidly in Afghanistan since 2006 and the country is supplying 90 percent of the world’s heroin.
Schweich, who was the senior counter-narcotics official in the U.S. embassy in Kabul for two years, said Karzai resisted drug enforcement arrests and eradication of poppy fields in wealthy areas of the Pashtun south, his power base.
“Karzai was playing us like a fiddle,” Schweich wrote. “The U.S. and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai’s friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term.”
Poppy eradication this year will be less than a third of the 20,000 hectares (50,000 acres) that Afghanistan eradicated in 2007, he said.
“An odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats and the Taliban were preventing the implementation of an effective counter-drug program,” he said.
With additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi in Kabul, Writing by Anthony Boadle; Editing by David Fogarty