Prague, 26 April 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Federal prosecutors in the United States say the arrest of Hajji Bashir Nurzai in New York is a major step forward in their battle against the international heroin trade.
U.S. President George W. Bush in June identified Nurzai as one of the world's most-wanted drug traffickers under the so-called Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act. That law is designed to identify drug traffickers who pose threats to U.S. security, foreign policy, or the economy.
Speaking at a federal courthouse in New York yesterday, U.S. prosecuting attorney David Kelley alleged that Nurzai built up a fortune by producing and smuggling Afghan heroin.
"We are here to announce the arrest of Nurzai, who is perhaps the most notorious Afghan drug lord and has built over the last 15 years a multimillion-dollar heroin business by forging an unholy alliance with Mullah Mohammad Omar and the Taliban," Kelley said.
The indictments against Nurzai charge that he has led an international drug-trafficking organization since 1990 that used laboratories in Afghanistan and Pakistan to manufacture heroin.
The indictments against Nurzai charge that he has led an international drug-trafficking organization since 1990 that used laboratories in Afghanistan and Pakistan to manufacture heroin. The indictment says Nurzai controlled fields in Afghanistan where opium poppies were grown and harvested.
Kelley said Nurzai's organization arranged to smuggle large shipments of heroin into the United States and Europe.
"We unsealed a two-count indictment charging Nurzai with conspiring to import into the United States and to possess with the intent to distribute more than five hundred kilograms of Afghan heroin worth more than $50 million," Kelley said.
Kelley said the case highlights the relationship that existed between the former Taliban regime and the Afghan drug trade.
"In case there is any doubt about the relationship between the Taliban and the Afghanistan drug lords, the indictment also alleges that Nurzai and the Taliban had a symbiotic relationship," Kelley said. "Between 1990 and 2004, Nurzai and his organization provided demolitions, weaponry, and militia manpower to the Taliban. In exchange, the Taliban permitted Nurzai's business to flourish and served as protection for Nurzai's opium crops, heroin laboratories, and drug-transportation routes out of the country."
Today, Taliban spokesman Abdul Havee Motmaeen told the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press that Nurzai never helped the Taliban regime with money or weapons. Motmaeen said the Taliban government struggled hard against narcotics and banned poppy cultivation during its last year in power.
But Alexandre Schmidt, the UN Office of Drug Control's deputy country director in Afghanistan, disagreed with Motmaeen's claim.
Schmidt told RFE/RL that poppy cultivation increased every year under the Taliban until its final year -- 2001. He said the Taliban's one-year ban on poppy cultivation came only under international pressure -- and that the ban actually increased the ability of the Taliban to profit from stockpiles of opium it had built up.
"That the Taliban had decided, in fact, in the last year of their regime to have a total ban on opium poppy cultivation is true. And there was a tremendous decrease in cultivation," Schmidt said. "But at the same time, [this caused] an increase in the price due to the market trends. And stocks were still available under the Taliban regime. So, of course, they were making profits from it. But to say that [the Taliban] were totally intolerant of drug cultivation -- I would not phrase it like that. They were using a situation [of first] promoting cultivation, [and later] having a ban on cultivation. It was a matter of getting more income."
Schmidt also said he supports the allegation by U.S. prosecutors that Nurzai gave equipment to the Taliban regime.
"Definitely, [his arrest] is a major step because Mr. Hajji Bashir Nurzai is one of the most known Taliban supporters and drug traffickers in Afghanistan," Schmidt said. "So, definitely, having this person arrested is a major step in the counternarcotics efforts. We know that Mr. Nurzai is part of the Nurzai tribe from Kandahar Province. He is a quite wealthy person. And Mr. Nurzai was supporting the Taliban during the Taliban regime in providing required equipment."
Schmidt said his UN office does not expect other Afghan drug traffickers to step into the void seemingly created in the illegal market by Nurzai's arrest.
"We do not have any major concerns that a vacuum might be created," Schmidt said. "To the contrary, the fact that a major drug trafficker has been arrested is going to have a major impact on the drug trafficking system, as such. And have more of a kind of risk assessment for other drug traffickers."
But officials in Kabul suggested Nurzai's arrest does not reflect a direct crackdown by Afghan authorities against major Afghan drug lords.
Mirwais Yassini, the deputy minister in charge of Afghanistan's counternarcotics campaign, told RFE/RL today that his officers did not play any role in the Nurzai case. He said the charges against him originated in the United States rather than in Afghanistan.
Still, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told journalists in Kabul today that he is pleased with the results of poppy-eradication programs this year -- the focus of Afghanistan's counternarcotics campaign.
"We have had successes this year, fortunately, on this issue," Karzai said. "We have destroyed the poppy fields and people themselves are refraining from planting poppies. They are turning back to normal agricultural commodities. So it is likely that the poppy production will be 30 percent to 40 percent this year [compared to the record level of cultivation seen in 2004] -- as the UN and British sources estimate. But we will have to wait to know exactly how less poppy production there is."
The UN's Schmidt said it will not be possible to estimate the size of this year's opium poppy crop in Afghanistan until the summer.
If convicted, Nurzai faces a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 10 years and a maximum sentence of life in prison. Kelley said U.S. authorities also could seize at least $50 million of Nurzai's alleged illicit profits.