KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- In the former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, where his $100 million empire is based, inquiries about Haji Bashir Noorzai elicit an anxious frown, a shrug or the vague explanation that he left years ago.
On a U.S. government most-wanted list established under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, however, he was named in June as an international kingpin. The list names him as the top heroin dealer in Afghanistan -- and one of the biggest in the world.
He also is among the key beneficiaries of a massive rise in drug cultivation in Afghanistan described Thursday in a report by the United Nations, which says production of opium and its derivative, heroin, has rocketed to near record levels.
The discouraging numbers have highlighted the simmering discontentment among hardliners in the Bush administration with anti-drug efforts by Britain, which was assigned the lead in stamping out the Afghan opium trade after the U. S.-led campaign to oust the Taliban in 2001.
"In Afghanistan, drugs are now a clear and present danger," said Antonio Maria Costa, director of the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, on the release of the 2004 Afghanistan opium survey. "The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is becoming a reality."
Opium poppy cultivation, the U.N. report says, has risen by two-thirds, compared with last year, to more than 320,000 acres -- more than 10 times the area of San Francisco. The harvest in 2004 was estimated at 4,200 metric tons, an increase of 17 percent from last year. A metric ton equals about 2, 205 pounds.
The report shows that the drug trade has been rising steadily for decades -- except for an abrupt one-year decline in opium poppy cultivation in 2001 that followed a ban imposed by the Taliban regime. "The drug problem in Afghanistan has been allowed to become ever more serious. If it persists, the political and military successes of the last three years will be lost," the report warned.
Since 95 percent of Afghan heroin ends up in Europe, U.S. interest in foreign drug kingpins traditionally has focused on Latin America. But the report says Afghanistan has surpassed Colombia as the world's biggest gross producer of illicit narcotics, heroin being the "main engine of economic growth" and the "strongest bond" among tribes that previously fought constantly.
Until now, "narco-sheikhs" such as Noorzai have been virtually unknown outside their war-torn fiefdoms. But their days of peaceful criminal obscurity may be at an end.
In a move that signals a new front in its worldwide drug war, the Bush administration hopes to extradite Noorzai and up to a dozen other drug lords as part of an "urgent" strike against Afghanistan's spiraling $2.8 billion-a- year heroin trade.
"We are interested in getting people like these indicted and then extradited to the U.S.," said one senior Kabul-based U.S. official. "It sends out a very strong message to the others that no matter how rich and powerful they are, there is a risk attached to what they do."
Yet the extradition move, which requires the permission of newly elected President Hamid Karzai, is sensitive.
"What we have here now is a narco-economy where 40 to 50 percent of the GDP is from illicit drugs," said the Kabul-based official. "The heroin traffickers are naturally interested in supporting terrorism and doing what they can to destabilize the central government because the last thing they want is the establishment of the rule of law. In those terms, it is a matter of national security to the U.S. and Europe."
Officially, both U.S. and British diplomats insist that just as in the war on terror, Washington and London see exactly eye to eye on drug eradication. But at a House International Relations Committee hearing in February, a senior Bush administration official accused Britain of being squeamish about eradicating opium poppy fields before Afghan farmers had found other means of income.
"Our priority should not be some kind of misplaced sympathy for someone who will have to do a little bit more work to grow other, less-lucrative crops, such as wheat or barley," said Robert Charles, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement.
British officials believe the more robust U.S. approach, which also may involve crop-dusting raids, could simply alienate the very farmers they are trying to win over, by putting the stick too far ahead of the carrot. They also complain that the 18,000-strong U.S. military in Afghanistan has turned a blind eye to warlords' involvement in the opium trade in exchange for help against al Qaeda and Taliban remnants.
But with the U.N. report confirming Charles' misgivings by revealing a massive rise in opium cultivation, the United States now seems set to steal the lead from Britain by targeting the narco-sheikhs directly.
"We need to turn this thing around quickly," said the Kabul-based official. "It may take 10 or 20 years to completely eradicate it, but we definitely need some success in the next year or two."
Britain has trained a squad of elite counternarcotics police that has seized 50 tons of opium this year, but as of yet not a single drug lord has been brought to court on criminal drug-trafficking charges. The Afghan justice system, which is being rebuilt by Italian officials experienced in dealing with the Mafia, still lacks the necessary investigation teams, secure jails and witness protection programs to begin prosecutions in earnest.
Haji Juma Khan, another kingpin accused by U.S. officials of funding al Qaeda, still freely travels between his homes in Afghanistan and Pakistan and regularly visits Dubai, where he has extensive investments. "Plenty of Afghans will tell you that he is a big player, but getting proof that will stand up in court is another matter," said one official.
U.S. troops arrested Khan two years ago during the hunt for Osama bin Laden, only to release him -- a decision they now bitterly regret.
© 2004 San Francisco Chronicle