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  December 4, 2001  

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US turns to drug baron to rally support
By Syed Saleem Shahzad

KARACHI - Pakistan and the United States have turned to a tried and trusted "friend" in their efforts to exert control over events in Afghanistan - convicted Pakistani drug baron and former parliamentarian, Ayub Afridi.

Whatever the outcome of the United Nations-sponsored Bonn talks on the establishment of a Post-Taliban administration in Afghanistan, sensing too much Russian influence being exerted on the Northern Alliance, the US and its allied intelligence networks have decided to cultivate support from within the majority Pashtun belt in the eastern and southern Afghan provinces.

Although the minority groups under the umbrella of the Northern Alliance, which has a firm foothold in Kabul, are also fragmented on the question of a power-sharing formula, most of its central leaders, including President Burhanuddin Rabbani and General Mohamad Fahim, are leaning towards Russia.

Afridi will be central in moves to bring together the shattered Afghan warlords, whom it is hoped will not only become a force to be reckoned with in any future interim set-up, they will also be able to assist in the the tracking down of Osama bin Laden. The Pashtun tribes, although they have no clear vision of ideology or politics at present, are the only ray of hope for American designs in the region.

At present, the Pashtun belts in the south and east are divided among warlords, each of whom is locked into his area of interest, and who cannot see beyond their limited perspectives. Further, many small tribes have taken refuge inside Pakistan and it seems that if the present situation persists, there will be a massive erosion of the Pashtun population in Afghanistan.

Conversely, since northern Afghanistan has been restored to its indigenous strength in the north and in Kabul, the Hazara, Uzbek and Tajik populations that had emigrated to Iran and Pakistan will start returning to these areas, making the pro-Russian Northern Alliance case that they are not a minority more powerful.

Afridi is probably the only person capable of gathering the Pashtun commanders and tribal chiefs together to broker their interests to get them to agree on one leadership - which could be either former monarch Zahir Shah or any of his nominees - to initially form an interim set-up leading to the formation of a constitutional framework to establish an elected government in Afghanistan.

Without fanfare, Afridi was freed from prison in Karachi last Thursday after serving just a few weeks of a seven-year sentence for the export of 6.5 tons of hashish, seized at Antwerp, Belgium, in the 1980s. (He had been in custody for over two years). He had also been fined 5 million rupees (US$82,000). No reasons were given for Afridi's release, or under which legislation he was allowed to return to his home town in Khyber Agency in North Western Frontier Province.

Afridi was a key player in the Afghan war of resistance against the Soviet Union's occupying troops in the decade up to 1989. It is a matter of record that top US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officials believed in the early 1980s that they would never be able to justify a multibillion-dollar budget from the government to provide support to the mujahideen in the fight against the Red Army. As a result, they decided to generate funds through the poppy-rich Afghan soil and heroin production and smuggling to finance the Afghan war. Afridi was the kingpin of this plan. All of the major Afghan warlords, except for the Northern Alliance's Ahmed Shah Masoud, who had his own opium fiefdom in northern Afghanistan, were a part of Afridi's coalition of drug traders in the CIA-sponsored holy war against the Soviets.

Sources say that Afridi's constituencies in eastern and southern Afghan provinces have been revived following the withdrawal of the Taliban, and with them the drugs trade. Commanders such as Haji Abdul Qadeer, Haji Mohammed Zaman and Hazrat Ali are once again ruling the roost in these areas. These commanders used to be the biggest heroin and opium mafia in Afghanistan's Pashtun belt.

They are all friends and will play a vital part in helping Afridi forge an alliance to push for a strong representation in any future interim council in Afghanistan, and if they can set aside their mutual differences they could work out an effective strategy to nail bin Laden, who is now strongly believed to be in Jalalabad and who has a $25 million price tag on his head.

The saga of Afridi is a good illustration of the troubling links between traffickers and politicians in Pakistan, as well as the shady deals made by the United States with both sides.

Afridi, Pakistan's most wanted drug baron, returned to Pakistan on August 25, 1999, after serving a three-and-a-half year sentence in a US prison and paying a $50,000 fine. His imprisonment is said to have been a face-saving gesture. From his refuge inside Afghanistan, and with an Afghan passport, Afridi voluntarily traveled to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates, where he "negotiated" with American authorities and from where he boarded a cargo flight to the US in December 1995 to hand himself over as a drug baron.

At the time there was much hue and cry in the international media about Afridi's unholy nexus with drug lords, who happened also to be the leading Afghan warlords. He served his full term before being released by US authorities and returning to Pakistan.

Hardly had his feet touched Pakistani soil, though, when the Anti-Narcotics Force arrested him and detained him, for the first six weeks at a secret location. But it was not until two weeks ago that he was formally sentenced.

Afridi owns a palace straight out of fairy-tale books, reminiscent of A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, in Landi Kotal, part of the Khyber tribal agency not far from the Afghan border. The palace was built on about 15 acres at a cost of more than $2 million about 15 years ago. The sumptuous and many rooms are stocked with precious European goods, and each room is named after a Western fashion brand, such as Armani and Lagerfeld.

A warrant for the police to bring Afridi before the courts was first issued in 1983 following the discovery of 17 tons of hashish in a warehouse in Balochistan. Three years later, he was the subject of a wanted notice issued after a smuggler arrested in Belgium denounced him as his supplier. At that time, he was under the protection of the authorities in the virtually autonomous tribal agency, which in theory he was not allowed to leave.

The military conspiracy against then premier Benazir Bhutto on August 6, 1990, leading to her ouster and the installation of Nawaz Sharif allowed allowed Afridi to become one of eight deputies elected to parliament from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and to consequently benefit from parliamentary immunity.

He won under the ticket of the Islamic Democratic Alliance, the coalition headed by Nawaz Sharif. This alliance had been built by an Afghan war hero and former lieutenant-general, Hamid Gul, to fight (unsuccessfully) Benazir Bhutto in the 1988 elections.

However, sensing that the military would not tolerate for too long the corruption and chaos that characterized Nawaz Sharif's first government, the barons of the tribal zones, including Afridi, switched their support to the opposition Pakistan People's Party of Benazir Bhutto, and participated in the maneuvers that allowed the Pakistani President, Ishaq Khan, to dismiss Sharif on April 18, 1993. This favor earned him a new immunity.

However, his candidacy in the following elections was rejected and he was forced to go into hiding, dividing his time between the Pakistan tribal areas, Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates. He was approached by the Americans, (with Benazir Bhutto herself acting as an intermediary), who allegedly promised him a lenient sentence in recognition of the "services" he had provided during the Afghan war, and Afridi accepted to go to the US.

In August, 1999, when Afridi was arrested on his return to Pakistan, many observers believed that his arrest was a ploy on the part of Sharif as the move violated international norms by which a person should not be tried twice for the same crime. It is thought that Sharif hoped to use Afridi's testimony to implicate Benazir Bhutto's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who had been imprisoned on corruption charges since October 1996, and against Rehmat Shah Afridi, the owner of the Frontier Post, a newspaper sympathetic to the opposition, who had been arrested in April 1999.

Arrest warrants were issued for Afridi and half a dozen members of his family in July 1995 by a special court in Peshawar, which also called for the seizure of his assets, estimated at $2.7 million. The case has been in the courts ever since, which observers attribute mainly to his vast resources.

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