Afghanistan: Addicted To Heroin

<b>Steve Kroft</b> Reports On Afghanistan's Booming Heroin Trade

For much of 2005, the news out of Iraq has overshadowed what has been going on in Afghanistan, where 18,000 U.S. troops are still fighting and dying along the Pakistan border in battles with the Taliban, al Qaeda and other Muslim extremist groups.

The rest of Afghanistan, at least compared to Iraq, appears relatively peaceful. But the country is facing another threat to its stability — its growing addiction the production and trafficking of heroin, which is controlled by some of the most powerful people in the country.

Correspondent Steve Kroft reports.

Afghanistan is now the world's largest exporter of heroin, and the opium used to produce it, supplying 87 percent of the world market. And it is creating an infrastructure of crime and corruption that threatens the government of President Hamid Karzai.

The heroin trade begins with fields of opium poppies grown in almost every province of Afghanistan. Last year, according to the U.S. state department, 206,000 hectares were cultivated, a half a million acres, producing 4,000 tons of opium, most of which was converted into 400 tons of illegal morphine and heroin in laboratories around the country.

How much opium and heroin is that?

"It is not only the largest heroin producer in the world, 206,000 hectares is the largest amount of heroin or of any drug that I think has ever been produced by any one country in any given year," says Robert Charles, who until last spring was assistant secretary of state for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, overseeing anti-drug operations in Afghanistan.

Charles says Afghanistan is producing more heroin than Colombia is producing cocaine.

After 25 years of war, it is the country's main cash crop, contributing nearly three billion dollars a year in illegal revenues to the Afghan economy, which equals 50 percent of the gross national product.

The laundered proceeds are no doubt funding much of the rebuilding of Kabul, which is experiencing a major construction boom.

But the best way to illustrate the sheer volume of the drug trade is to tour the basement vault underneath Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics police in Kabul, where one and a half tons of heroin, just seized in the provinces, was awaiting destruction.

One and a half tons of pure heroin is much larger than the biggest shipment ever seized in the United States, and once cut and repackaged it is worth hundreds of millions of dollars on the streets of a western city.

Yet the seizure is less than one percent of all the heroin produced in Afghanistan last year, production which has increased more than 2,000 percent since 2001.

"That acceleration should be sending a blinking red light to all of us right now. Drug money is going to accelerate the disintegration of democratic institutions," warns Charles.

What is happening, Charles says, is the transformation of a poor, war torn country struggling with democracy into a narco state where power emanates from a group of drug kingpins far more powerful than the new government.

The process began in 2001 when the United States forged military alliances with powerful warlords and used their private armies to drive al Qaeda and the Taliban out of the country.

But some of Afghanistan's biggest warlords also happen to be some of the country's biggest drug lords. Now that they are part of the government, often in high places, a few are even charged with eradicating the drug traffic that many people believe they're still involved in.

One former warlord suspected of being involved in the opium trade is Hazrat Ali, whose private army fought against al Qaeda at the battle of Tora Bora. In appreciation of his efforts, he was placed in charge of security for Nangahar province until he resigned recently to run for parliament.

He also happens to be named in a United Nations report as one of the provincial officials suspected of being heavily involved in drug trafficking.

Ali doesn't deny that the heroin business flourishes in the region but denied that he is involved in the trade. "No. You can ask anyone. I am opposed to drugs. If everyone was like me, there wouldn't be an opium plant in Afghanistan."

60 Minutes had no difficulty finding people to make the allegations; proving them is another matter since there is virtually no criminal justice system in place to pursue them.

In all of Afghanistan there are barely 100 people in jail for drug offenses, most of them small time players.