KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — When it's harvest time in the poppy fields of Kandahar, dust-covered Taliban fighters pull up on their motorbikes to collect a 10 percent tax on the crop. Afghan police arrive in Ford Ranger pickups — bought with U.S. aid money — and demand their cut of the cash in exchange for promises to skip the farms during annual eradication.
Then, usually late one afternoon, a drug trafficker will roll up in his Toyota Land Cruiser with black-tinted windows and send a footman to pay the farmers in cash. The farmers never see the boss, but they suspect that he's a local powerbroker who has ties to the U.S.-backed Afghan government.
Everyone wants a piece of the action, said farmer Abdul Satar, a thin man with rough hands who tends about half an acre of poppy just south of Kandahar. "There is no one to complain to," he said, sitting in the shade of an orange tree. "Most of the government officials are involved."
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's opium, which was worth some $3.4 billion to Afghan exporters last year. For a cut of that, Afghan officials open their highways to opium and heroin trafficking, allow public land to be used for growing opium poppies and protect drug dealers.
The drug trade funnels hundreds of millions of dollars each year to drug barons and the resurgent Taliban, the militant Islamist group that's killed an estimated 450 American troops in Afghanistan since 2001 and seeks to overthrow the fledgling democracy here.
What's more, Afghan officials' involvement in the drug trade suggests that American tax dollars are supporting the corrupt officials who protect the Taliban's efforts to raise money from the drug trade, money the militants use to buy weapons that kill U.S. soldiers.
Islam forbids the use of opium and heroin — the Taliban outlawed poppy growing in 2000 — but the militants now justify the drug production by saying it's not for domestic consumption but rather to sell abroad as part of a holy war against the West. Under the Taliban regime, the biggest Afghan opium crop was roughly 4,500 tons in 1999, far below the record 8,200 tons in 2007.
The booming drug trade threatens the stability of the Afghan government, and with it America's efforts to defeat the Taliban and al Qaida in Afghanistan. The threat has grown not only because of the cozy relationships among drug lords, militants and corrupt officials, but also because of apathy by Western powers.
From the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks until last year, the United States and other NATO countries did little to address the problem, according to a Western counter-narcotics official in Afghanistan.
"We all realized that it will take a long time to win this war, but we can lose it in a couple years if we don't take this (drug) problem by the horns," said the official, who asked for anonymity so that he could speak more freely.
To unravel the ties among militants, opium and the government, McClatchy interviewed more than two dozen current and past Afghan officials, poppy farmers and others familiar with the drug trade. Seven former Afghan governors and security commanders said they had firsthand knowledge of local or national officials who were transporting or selling drugs or protecting those who did.
Most of the sources feared retribution. One man was killed a week after he spoke to McClatchy. Another called back a week after the interview and said he hadn't left his home in days, fearful that McClatchy's calls to verify his story would bring trouble. A third met on the condition that a reporter promised not to tell anyone that he still lives in Kabul.