INTERVIEW: Afghan govt members fuelling opium trade - minister

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By Jonathon Burch

KABUL, Dec 27 (Reuters) - Members of the Afghan government are sponsoring slices of the country's lucrative opium trade, a senior Afghan minister said, at a time when the president is under mounting pressure to stamp out state corruption.

President Hamid Karzai, whose own reputation has been tainted after winning a fraud-marred election, is under increasing pressure from the West to tackle corruption in his government head on.

General Khodaidad, who has been nominated to continue his job as counter-narcotics minister in a new cabinet, said people at all levels were profiting off the drug -- from the lowly police recruit to government officials running major smuggling networks.

While catching small dealers was one thing, rooting out corrupt officials and ringleaders was near impossible, Khodaidad, who has served as Afghanistan's counter-narcotics minister for the past three years, told Reuters in an interview.

"We can catch small (traffickers) everyday. It is very difficult to identify ... big drug dealers. They are not involved themselves but they are ... behind it, they are behind the network," said Khodaidad, who goes only by one name.

Asked who these big players were, Khodaidad said: "They are inside the government, they are outside of Afghanistan ... they are behind these networks."

Although poppy cultivation fell by 22 percent this year, Afghanistan still produces around 90 percent of the world's opium, a thick paste from poppy that is processed to make highly addictive heroin and smuggled abroad.


The Taliban are said to siphon off millions of dollars from the trade and nearly all cultivation is in areas they control.

Khodaidad points to a map of Afghanistan on his office wall where a large swathe of bright red represents the country's southern provinces.

"Those areas in the map which are red ... Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Farah (and Nimroz), in these provinces most of the area is under control of the insurgents," Khodaidad said.

"The people are under the pressure of ... the insurgents ..., that is why they are growing poppy," he said.

Khodaidad said he was confident the 30,000 new troops Washington was sending to Afghanistan would make a difference.

"More troops are coming, conducting operations, eliminating, destroying and disrupting the network of terrorism ... it is very good news for the counter-narcotics issue," Khodaidad said.

Some 10,000 U.S Marines have been pushing through southern Helmand province since spring, where around 60 percent of the country's opium is produced. That Marine force is set to double in the south over the next few months.

Khodaidad said while foreign troops do not target the crop directly as this simply alienates the poor farmers, the offensives helped cut off supply routes for the drug.

Despite the decrease in cultivation over the last two years, poppy cultivation has soared since the Taliban were overthrown in late 2001 and this year's drop seems to be a result of simple economics, rather than law enforcement efforts.

Prices for the drug plummeted this year, causing farmers to switch to other crops. Only 4 percent of the crop was eradicated -- at a great cost to human lives -- and only 2 percent of the harvested product was seized. Khodaidad said it was not enough.

"It is not enough. I think from my side, we should do more."

(Editing by Sugita Katyal) (For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see:

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