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Afghanistan: Pinning The Drug Kingpins

Seizures of opium in Afghanistan in May 2005 (AFP) The United States Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on 24 October announced the extradition of alleged drug kingpin Baz Mohammad from Afghanistan to the United States on charges of heroin trafficking.

Baz Mohammad is suspected of having manufactured and distributed some $25 million worth of heroin in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as arranging for the drug to be imported into the United States and other countries. Earlier this year, his name was included by the Bush administration in the so-called Foreign Narcotic Kingpin Designation Act.

"We've made history today," a DEA statement quotes agency administrator Karen Tandy as having said in New York on 24 October, while being flanked by Major General Sayyed Kamal Sadat, the director-general of Afghanistan's Counternarcotics Police.

Quiet In Kabul

The Afghan authorities, however, were less upbeat. On 25 October, Afghan presidential spokesman Karim Rahimi told a news conference in Kabul that Baz Mohammad's extradition was a routine issue involving a person who was on "the international criminal list." Rahimi did not discuss details of the case or whether the decision by his government to extradite one individual reflected a change in the policy that has so far not allowed the extradition of Afghan citizens. Article 28 of the Afghan Constitution that was approved in January 2004 states, "No citizen of Afghanistan accused of a crime can be extradited to a foreign state unless according to mutual agreements and international conventions that Afghanistan has joined."

Other Cases

Baz Mohammad's is not the only case involving an Afghan citizen with narcotics-related charges pending in the United States in which Afghan authorities have either chosen to stay on the sidelines or tried hard to disassociate their country from involvement in the case.

In the DEA's case against Baz Mohammad, Bashir Rahmani is mentioned as someone who was "among other things" responsible for distribution of heroin produced by Baz Mohammad's organization. According to the DEA, Rahmani was arrested in New York in July and "remains in custody awaiting trail."

The Afghan authorities have made little mention of Rahmani's arrest; nor has the DEA detailed the way Rahmani ended up in New York or whether Afghan authorities have provided any assistance in the case.

When the United States announced in April that it had arrested Bashir Nurzai, who has been on the U.S. kingpin list since 2004, in New York, the Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry issued a statement that emphasized that the arrest was made on U.S. territory and did not indicate Afghan involvement in the case. At the time, the case marked the most significant arrest to date of a major player in Afghanistan's growing narcotics industry.

Reform Needed

After welcoming Nurzai's arrest, the Counternarcotics Ministry, in its April statement, noted that Kabul "with support of the international community, is committed to the fight against narcotics, and is working hard to reform law enforcement, the judicial sector, and prisons to ensure more and more people like Bashir Nurzai are arrested, prosecuted, and [imprisoned] here in Afghanistan."

The ineffectiveness of the Afghan counternarcotics police -- in a country plagued by inadequate law enforcement -- is unsurprising. And Afghanistan's judicial sector is arguably in worse shape. But despite such shortcomings, Afghanistan can do more to arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate major drug lords on its own. While trying to avoid the perception that they are totally dependent on foreign countries to rein in drug lords, Afghan officials have shied away from taking such steps.

Perhaps Afghanistan's counternarcotics efforts were instrumental in both Nurzai's and Rahmani's cases, but Kabul chose not to take credit for political reasons. It is possible -- and seemingly more plausible -- that these two men did not fly to New York to be arrested but rather were extradited (like Baz Mohammad) or arrested in or around Afghanistan by Afghan or foreign law-enforcement agents.

The fact that Afghanistan has decided publicly to extradite Baz Mohammad to the United States is unprecedented. The true test, however, will be whether representatives in the new Afghan National Assembly will be prepared to name and prosecute major drug kingpins -- even if some of those individuals have links to, or are part of, the very institutions that should by trying to put them out of business.