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Afghanistan/Pakistan: U.S. Indicts 11 In Connection With Drug Ring

U.S. authorities have indicted 11 men in connection with an international drug-trafficking operation linked to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Those indicted include members of the ethnic Pashtun "Afridi" clan, which has a history of trafficking drugs from Afghanistan through Pakistan's North West Frontier Province and on to markets in the West.

Prague, 17 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. authorities in Maryland this week announced indictments against 11 men targeted in a two-year investigation into a drug-smuggling and money-laundering operation with ties to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

U.S. court records describe a sophisticated, large-scale heroin-smuggling and money-laundering group with operatives in Pakistan, Thailand, and Canada, as well as in the U.S. states of California, Maryland, and Virginia. Several Afghans operating a jewelry shop in Bangkok also have been arrested on charges they served as a financial conduit for multimillion-dollar heroin deals.

Those indicted in the case include two members of the ethnic Pashtun Afridi clan in Pakistan, which has a decades-long history of trafficking opium and heroin from Afghanistan. The Afridi clan and its allies control key customs posts and local administrative offices on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border crossing at Torkham, near the Khyber Pass.

Bill Samii is an RFE/RL regional analyst for Southwest Asia who specializes in counternarcotics issues. He said the indictments highlight a new trend involving heroin smuggled from the Afghan province of Nangarhar through Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

"There is absolutely no question that this is part of the Afghan drug trade. [The UN Office on Drugs and Crime expects Afghanistan] to produce about [3.4 million kilograms] of opium this year. That far surpasses anything coming out of any other country in the world. The interesting thing is that until now, most of the Afghan opium has headed for Europe. Now, it is going the other direction -- through Southeast Asia to the United States. I think that is the new trend and that is a very worrisome sign," Samii said.

Samii said the discovery of deals in the United States involving the Afridi clan suggests that major changes are taking place within the international drug trade. "Up until now, most of the heroin and opiates that were abused in the United States originated [either in Latin America] or in the 'Golden Triangle' of Southeast Asia," he said. "So now, what we are seeing is the 'Golden Crescent' of Southwest Asia possibly taking over from that. The Golden Crescent has already taken over in terms of overall opium production. So they may be filling a gap or an opening of some sort in the American market."

Samii said U.S. drug-enforcement officials have known for decades about the involvement of the Afridi clan in the smuggling of heroin and other opium-based drugs from Afghanistan into Pakistan and on to destinations in Europe.

He cited the saga of Haji Ayub Afridi as an illustration of the clan's reach within the world of drug smuggling. Haji Ayub Afridi has built a $2 million luxury home at Landi Kotal, not far from the Afghan border, in the relatively impoverished Khyber tribal agency of Pakistan.

During the rule of the Taliban in Afghanistan, Haji Ayub Afridi served a 3 1/2-year prison sentence in the United States on charges of international drug trafficking. He also has been convicted and sentenced in Pakistan, where authorities in the 1980s once found 17 tons of hashish at one of his warehouses in Baluchistan. And he has been jailed in Pakistan in connection with a 6.5-ton shipment of hashish that was seized in Antwerp, Belgium, during the 1980s.

Samii said Haji Ayub Afridi's smuggling network has benefited from his leadership role within the Afridi clan -- a role that included a brief term of office in Pakistan's parliament during the early 1990s. He said the Afridis are well entrenched along the area on the Afghan side of the Torkham border crossing, as well as in Peshawar, Pakistan, and along the North West Frontier Province. "They've also got good connections with some of the Afghan so-called warlords who operated along the eastern side of Afghanistan," Samii said. "Even before current events -- i.e., during the Taliban period -- they had some connections with them. And then, especially back in the 1980s and into the early 1990s, they had connections with some of these people smuggling opium and opium products across the border."

The UN drug-control program says control of the opium market in Nangarhar Province is far more centralized than in the rest of Afghanistan.

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy analyzed Afghan drug-smuggling routes in March for the London-based defense-industry publication "Jane's Intelligence Review." He said the opium trade around the Torkham border crossing tends to be monopolized by the Shinwari tribe on the Afghan side and the Afridi clan in the NWFP. Chouvy believes that heroin is easily trafficked in the NWFP from Afghanistan across Afridi territory and the Khyber Pass through what has been termed a "drug pipeline."

Samii explained that the traditional clan system in the region gives tribes like the Afridis a degree of autonomy that has allowed them to have a dominant role in the drug trade. "[The Afridi clan is] an extended clan. And the clan system is very influential in that part of the world -- especially in those provinces [of southern and eastern Afghanistan and the autonomous tribal agencies of Pakistan]. In the NWFP, in fact, the Pakistani central government has no [legal] right to actually operate without the permission of local leaders. And so, whatever the clans decree is going to be the law of the land in that part of the world," he said.

Thomas M. DiBiagio, the U.S. prosecuting attorney involved with issuing this week's indictments, said the ties to Afghanistan and Pakistan have led investigators to explore the possibility of links to terrorist organizations. But DiBiagio said no such links have been found.

Nine of the 11 suspects in the case -- including the members of the Afridi clan -- are either in the custody of U.S. officials or are awaiting extradition to Maryland by authorities in Canada and Thailand.