Kunduz, Afghanistan

Like a frustrated hunter, the head of the local anti-drug squad keeps snapshots of the ones who got away.

One photo shows a prisoner wearing a flat, round pakol hat, standing in front of 10 pounds of opium packaged in plastic bags laid out on a table. Lt. Nyamatullah Nyamat took the picture on the February day he arrested the suspect. Hours later, the man was freed.

The stocky, plain-spoken cop glumly tossed another photo onto a desk in his basement office as if playing a losing hand of cards. In this one, a man in a white pillbox cap is handcuffed to a police officer and standing next to 62 pounds of opium. A local judge sentenced him to 10 years in prison. A higher court ordered his release.

One of Nyamat's biggest catches, arrested with 114 pounds of heroin, a derivative of opium, hadn't even appeared in court when the local prosecutor let him go in late March.

Nyamat said that was normal in Kunduz, a hub on one of the world's busiest drug-smuggling routes.

Three and a half years after the United States led an invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban regime, the United Nations and the U.S. government warn that the country is in danger of becoming a narco-state controlled by traffickers. The State Department recently called the Afghan drug trade "an enormous threat to world stability." The United Nations estimates that Afghanistan produces 87% of the world's opium.

For decades, poor farmers trying to make a living in Afghanistan's mountain valleys have harvested the opium poppies that feed the world's drug pipeline. Now the trade is booming, partly the result of the U.S. strategy for overthrowing the Taliban and stabilizing the country after two decades of war.

U.S. troops forged alliances with warlords, who provided ground forces in the battle against the Taliban. Some of those allies are suspected of being among Afghanistan's biggest drug traffickers, controlling networks that include producers, criminal gangs and even members of the counter-narcotics police force. They are willing to make deals with remnants of the Taliban if the price is right.

The U.S.-backed Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, has brought some of those warlords into his popularly elected government, a recognition of their political clout and a calculated risk that keeping them close might make it easier to control them.

"Drug money is absolutely supporting terrorist groups," said Alexandre Schmidt, deputy head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan. And regardless of their allegiance, Schmidt said, most suspects are released within 48 hours because of intervention by higher authorities.

Kunduz, in northeastern Afghanistan, is one of the front lines in what Karzai calls a holy war on drugs. It is just a 90-minute drive from the border with Tajikistan, where low-grade smack starts the next leg of its journey to the streets of Europe.

Nyamat says that as fast as he and his men can catch the smugglers, corrupt officials spring them. Many others are untouchable because they have important friends.

Nyamat carries a handwritten list, four neatly folded pages, to record his losing score. Reading it recently, he shook his head in disgust. Only three of 17 suspects arrested this year were still in prison.

"We have the complete ID list of all smugglers … but we cannot arrest them because they have the power now, not us," he said.

The list of those suspected of involvement in the drug trade reaches high into Karzai's government.

Nyamat and an Afghan trafficker singled out Gen. Mohammed Daoud, a former warlord who is Afghanistan's deputy interior minister in charge of the anti-drug effort.

An official of a human rights commission in eastern Afghanistan said police in Nangarhar province routinely ignored drug traffickers and other well-connected criminals, even though they took a strict stand against poppy growing. The provincial police are under the command of Hazrat Ali, a warlord who provided the bulk of the Afghan ground force that aided U.S. soldiers in the attempt to capture Osama bin Laden at Tora Bora in late 2001.

Daoud and Ali deny the charges.