The Pentagon, engaged in a difficult fight to defeat a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan, has resisted entreaties from U.S. anti-narcotics officials to play an aggressive role in the faltering campaign to curb the country’s opium trade.
Military units in Afghanistan largely overlook drug bazaars, rebuff some requests to take U.S. drug agents on raids and do little to counter the organized crime syndicates shipping the drug to Europe, Asia and, increasingly, the United States, according to officials and documents.
While the Pentagon and the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the DEA, have been at odds, poppy cultivation has exploded, increasing by more than half this year. Afghanistan supplies about 92% of the world’s opium, and traffickers reap an estimated $2.3 billion in annual profits.
“It is surprising to me that we have allowed things to get to the point that they have,” said Robert B. Charles, a former top State Department counter-narcotics official. “It we do not act aggressively against the narcotics threat now, all gains made to date will be washed out to sea.”
The bumper crop of opium poppies, much of it from Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan, finances the insurgency the U.S. is trying to dismantle.
The DEA’s advocates in Congress argue that the Pentagon could undermine the insurgency by combating the drugs that help finance it. Military officials say they can spare no resources from the task of fighting the Taliban and its allies.
Outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has said that Afghanistan’s flourishing opium trade is a law enforcement problem, not a military one. It would be “mission creep” if the 21,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan were to turn their attention to opium, and it would also set a precedent for future combat operations, military officials say.
Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said Afghanistan’s police forces and British troops in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization peacekeeping operation have the primary responsibility for fighting the Afghan drug problem.
Military officials also fear that cracking down on opium traffickers could alienate the Afghan people and warlords who profit from the trade. An estimated one-eighth of the population is involved in poppy cultivation, and the opium trade is one-third of the country’s economy.
The Pentagon has cooperated some with the DEA, but its resistance to doing more has drawn criticism from prominent congressmen, including Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the International Relations Committee.
Hyde and other lawmakers say the Bush administration is making a crucial mistake in not directing U.S. forces to collaborate with the DEA to take down those supplying the Taliban with cash, high-tech weapons and trucks.
“If we don’t change the policy soon, and fight both drugs and terrorism simultaneously, Afghanistan may well fall into a failed narcotics state status,” Hyde said in a statement.
Hyde has urged the White House and the Pentagon to look to Colombia as a model. Anti-narcotics agents there work closely with the military to target terrorism and drug trafficking.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials have asked for more help from the Pentagon, especially stronger support for the DEA.
“We are disappointed that there isn’t more and closer cooperation between these two,” said M. Ashraf Haidari, Afghanistan’s Washington liaison to U.S. military and law enforcement agencies. “We have been saying this since 2003.”
Haidari said the DEA and Afghan authorities needed “maximum military support both from ground and air.” He complained that there was little coordination between the U.S. and international anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan.
The DEA has about 10 agents in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and rotates small teams of agents and intelligence analysts into the country, two at a time. The teams train and work with Afghan narcotics police, but also do their own investigations.
But DEA agents can’t move about the mountainous terrain without helicopters and, in many cases, can’t infiltrate well-protected drug operations without backup from troops.
Several dozen kingpins have emerged in the Afghan drug trade who are allied with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, current and former U.S. and Afghan officials said. In the last year, the drug bosses have become more brazen, richer and powerful.
U.S. and Afghan officials say the major traffickers and their hundreds of criminal associates prey on poor Afghan poppy farmers, openly run huge opium bazaars and labs that turn opium into heroin, and truck vast quantities of drugs into neighboring countries. They often return with night-vision goggles, land mines, sniper rifles and other high-tech weapons to use against U.S. and NATO forces.
Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, said in a recent interview that the location of major drug operations were “well-known to us and to the authorities.” He said he recently watched a video of a heavily armed drug convoy of about 20 vehicles crossing into Iran.
“When you see narcotics trafficking that has the connotation of military operations, I am afraid we can only cope with them with military muscle,” he said.
U.S. efforts have largely focused on small drug arrests and the State Department’s program to eradicate poppy fields.
Publicly, DEA officials praise the Pentagon for its help and say coordination has improved. But two senior congressional aides said DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy had been quietly campaigning for more Pentagon assistance.
“Behind closed doors she has been very adamant about how we need this stuff over there,” a DEA official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Without the helicopters, we can’t move. We’re sure not going to go out in caravans with a couple of pistols.”
Tandy testified in June that although DEA agents had developed leads in Afghanistan, the agency had “no operational infrastructure, assets or support to conduct operations” in Helmand province, where as much as half of Afghan heroin is grown and processed.
The Pentagon has promised as many as eight MI-17 helicopters for Afghan authorities to use in collaboration with U.S. military and law enforcement officials. But only two have arrived and are being used solely for training, DEA spokesman Steve Robertson said. DEA officials cannot say when helicopters will be available for drug operations, he said.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Todd Vician said that in the last two years U.S. troops had worked to support DEA efforts to combat the drug trade in Afghanistan “in the form of intelligence, planning, transportation of interdiction forces, medical evacuation and close air support if needed.”
He also said Rumsfeld had authorized federal authorities, including DEA agents, to go on military operations in areas of known or suspected drug activity.
But in many cases the Pentagon has balked at drug interdiction efforts even when it had the resources, said a former senior U.S. anti-drug official, who declined to give details of what he said were classified operations.
“There were [drug] convoys where military people looked the other way, and situations where DEA sought [Pentagon] intelligence and it wasn’t given to them,” the former official said.
“DEA would identify a lab to go hit or a storage facility and [the Pentagon] would find a reason to ground the helicopters,” the former official added. “They would say we don’t want you to create a disturbance in an area where we’re trying to chase down terrorists and the Taliban.”
A recent congressional report said the DEA asked the Pentagon for airlifts on 26 occasions in 2005, and the requests were denied in all but three cases. The Pentagon said it had done better in 2006, approving 12 of 14 DEA requests for air support.
Several current and former DEA officials said the Pentagon efforts were mostly administrative and not related to raids and other enforcement efforts.
Hyde and Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), a former naval intelligence officer, told Rumsfeld in an Oct. 12 letter that they wanted the Pentagon to allow DEA agents to ride along on more military missions in Afghanistan and to call them in when soldiers found a large drug stash or operation.
Eight days later, Rumsfeld wrote that he had asked one of his undersecretaries, Eric S. Edelman, “to look into this matter.”
“We will get back to you as soon as possible,” Rumsfeld wrote.
Hyde’s aides say the congressman hasn’t heard back.