KABUL, Afghanistan – With scarves hiding some faces and guns at the ready, a new secretive Afghan anti-drug squad zoomed into a desert village as part of a crackdown on the country's booming narcotics trade, authorities said Tuesday.
They seized 2 1/2 tons of opium and 550 pounds of heroin, but hundreds of smugglers sneaked out the back and fled to safety across the Pakistani border just 80 yards away. No one was arrested.
Under fire for not being tough enough on drugs, the government Tuesday showed a video of the weekend raid which it said proves it is cracking down on an industry that last year produced nearly 90 percent of the world's opium.
The market in Bahram Shah village in southern Helmand province (search) is used by up to 1,000 drug traffickers every day and is on smuggling routes to Pakistan and Iran. It had not been targeted before because it was considered too remote and too well protected, the Interior Ministry said.
But the latest raid by dozens of squad members "totally disrupted the activities of drug traffickers," the ministry said in a statement.
"We are determined to bring to justice the drug smugglers and you will soon witness that all smugglers will be brought to justice," Gen. Mohammed Daoud (search), deputy interior minister for counternarcotics, said at a news conference in the capital, Kabul.
When asked why the anti-drug forces didn't manage to arrest any of the traffickers, he noted the proximity of the Pakistani border and said a framework for cooperation between security forces on both sides of the frontier was still being finalized.
The video shows members of the Afghan Special Narcotics Force (search) riding across the desert on the back of pickup trucks toward the drug market. It then cuts to a shot of a small fire, which the deputy minister said depicted the seized drugs being destroyed.
Also seized in the raid were 31/2 tons of chemicals used to process opium into heroin, Daoud said.
He said anti-drug forces have arrested 26 suspected smugglers across the country recently, but he declined to elaborate.
The government says figures in the past three years -- since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban (search) -- show police are confiscating larger amounts of opium, from 3 tons in 2002 to more than 135 tons in 2004, and 50 tons so far this year.
Despite the numbers, many fear Afghanistan is fast becoming a "narco-state," less than four years after the U.S.-led invasion ended its role as a haven for al-Qaida.
A U.S. presidential report in March said the area devoted to poppy cultivation in Afghanistan last year was more than triple the figure for 2003 and set a record at 510,000 acres. Opium poppy is the raw material for heroin.
The Afghan narcotics situation "represents an enormous threat to world stability," the report said.
A diplomatic cable sent May 13 from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the crackdown on the narcotics industry had not been very effective, partly because President Hamid Karzai (search) "has been unwilling to assert strong leadership," according to a New York Times report.
During a visit to Washington last week, Karzai rejected the criticism and vowed opium poppy production would be reduced by up to 30 percent this year and his country would be rid of the drug in five or six years.
The United States, Britain and other countries are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the anti-drug campaign. The cash is being used to train police units to destroy laboratories, arrest smugglers and destroy opium crops, as well as to fund projects to help farmers grow legal crops.
However, the drug traffickers have hit back. Earlier this month in two attacks on subsequent days, gunmen killed 11 people associated with a U.S.-sponsored project encouraging farmers not to grow poppies.