Narcotics cop Mohammad Wais quit his job in Afghanistan's poppy heartland of Kandahar after getting Taliban death threats; his friend Mohammad Tariq Aziz Hashimi, an intelligence officer, fled after an assault by traffickers.
Their decision to abandon their posts is a reminder of the challenges facing a newly ramped-up U.S. and Afghan bid to cut back a business that has helped fund three decades of conflict.
"They beat me with their rifles and told me if I ever went back there they would kill me," said Aziz, 29, of the attack in north Baghlan province. Both are seeking political asylum abroad.
Officials shifted gear in the war on drugs as the Afghan conflict rose up the political agenda in Washington and other capitals with troops committed, but also because the trade is becoming more than just a supply of funds for insurgency.
Afghan opium is spreading addiction in Iran and Russia and risks become a funding channel for violent Islamist movements in Central Asia. The trade is also becoming more sophisticated.
Afghanistan churns out nearly all the world's opium, a thick paste made from poppies that is refined into heroin. It has also emerged as the biggest producer of hashish, or cannabis resin.
Drugs provide $100 million to $400 million dollars a year to the Taliban, who use it to pay wages and buy arms, making stamping out the trade crucial to containing the conflict.
And the challenge of bringing trafficking under control is made worse by massive political corruption and the willingness of senior officials to support or dabble in the trade.
Hopes to end this flow of cash are pinned on building Afghan capacity, with the U.S. in particular ramping up staff and spending to train agents like Aziz and Wais -- and then persuade them to stick with a grim and dangerous job.
"In the end it's going to be the Afghans and their system, and their rule of law, that's going to make a difference," said Jay Fitzpatrick, assistant regional director with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). He says it could take decades.
BUILDING A MODERN FORCE
Afghan police are sometimes slammed as inept, drug-addled, illiterate, and infiltrated by insurgents and traffickers.
But various elite units have a better track record, including the Afghan National Civil Order Police, and the U.S. and Afghan governments aim to add the drugs team to the list.
Since 2008, the DEA has built up to a larger presence in Afghanistan than at any time in its history, and now includes scores of trainers, special agents and intelligence analysts.
At a facility ringed by blast walls outside Kabul, the agents are shaping vetted Afghan counter-narcotics police into an elite force to lead the fight. It will eventually have 900 agents.
The National Interdiction Unit (NIU) trainees learn to shoot, break down doors and storm into drug laboratories, skills they use in helicopter-borne raids across the mountainous country.
Agents of the Sensitive Investigative Unit, or SIU, meanwhile, study how to gather intelligence, conduct surveillance such as wiretaps, and the painstaking process of gathering evidence to prosecute mid- to high-level traffickers in court.
"I can see and feel the reforms being made, especially in leadership," NIU chief Colonel Mohammad Gul told Reuters in a recent interview at the compound. "I am confident," he added.
Being a policeman in Afghanistan always means being a target for insurgents, but counter-narcotics cops face added hazards.
The Taliban captured two NIU agents in southern Helmand province in 2005, cut off their ears, gouged out their eyes and then beheaded them in a particularly savage reprisal.
Last year, three DEA agents died when a helicopter slammed into a mountainside in western Afghanistan, shortly after a gun battle with insurgents in Badghis province.
Nor is government support guaranteed, with corruption and complex politics undermining even the new elite units.
Confidence in President Hamid Karzai's own commitment to the fight was shaken last year when he pardoned five traffickers sentenced to terms of 16 to 18 years by a special drug court.
Leaked U.S. diplomatic cables described his younger brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, a powerful official in the southern city of Kandahar, as "corrupt and a narcotics trafficker".
And critics point out that kingpins remain free.
"When you have your top officers involved, and when the elite is involved, it's very difficult for the guy on the beat to really do anything effective," said Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Afghan politics and security.
At the base in Kabul, 32 year-old Roya was going through her paces, blasting a Kalashnikov rifle at a target and then repeatedly drilling in techniques for entering drug compounds.
"It's dangerous, but I like my job very much," she said, dressed in a flak jacket, white hijab and plum-coloured lipstick.
While trainees may be optimistic, some who have experienced the grim realities of life on the frontline of the world's most complex, violent and long-running drugs wars are less so.
Wais, who proudly shows off a certificate proving him a DEA-trained wire tap specialist, is adamant he will never go back to his job in Kandahar after the Taliban added his name to a "night list" of assassination targets pinned up in the city.
"Even if you give me 20 guards along with ammunition and tell me to go where the drug dealers are working ... I will not go there," he said. "If we go there, we will be beheaded." (Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Sanjeev Miglani) (If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to [email protected])
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