The Pentagon, which has resisted appeals to play a bigger role in the campaign to curb Afghanistan's opium trade, is pledging more support for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's counter-narcotics efforts.
Although the $2.3-billion profit from opium trafficking has helped to arm the Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents, the Pentagon has said drug interdiction is primarily a law enforcement responsibility that rests with Afghan authorities and British troops in the NATO force in Afghanistan.
But Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the House Committee on International Relations, and other critics have urged the Pentagon to do more, including transporting and protecting DEA agents.
In a letter Hyde received Wednesday, Undersecretary of Defense Eric S. Edelman wrote, "We have taken your concerns seriously and will work more closely with DEA to make use of this important capability."
Edelman's letter arrived a day after The Times reported that U.S. military units in Afghanistan largely overlook drug bazaars, rebuff some requests to take U.S. drug agents on raids and do little to counter organized crime syndicates.
Hyde, U.S. and U.N. counter-narcotics experts and Afghan officials told The Times that the Defense Department needed to target major drug traffickers, well-known labs that process opium into heroin, bazaars where drugs are sold openly and convoys that carry the drugs out of Afghanistan for shipment to Europe, elsewhere in Asia and, increasingly, the United States.
In particular, the officials said, U.S. and allied North Atlantic Treaty Organization troops needed to provide DEA agents with helicopter airlifts and armed escorts to allow them to investigate trafficking rings.
Hyde praised the Pentagon on Thursday for its pledge of assistance. "I welcome the support from our Department of Defense," Hyde said in a statement. "Now we can better target the narco-terrorism which threatens Afghanistan today."
Also on Thursday, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), asked for a classified briefing on the status of the military's counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan. The hearing was set for today.
Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who heads a House subcommittee that deals with drug policy, said in a statement, "I've been really disappointed by the lack of cooperation between our federal agencies. In particular, DEA -- our government's lead enforcement agency -- has not had adequate support from the Defense Department to perform its mission."
While the Pentagon and the DEA have been at odds, poppy cultivation has exploded in Afghanistan, increasing by more than half this year. The country supplies about 92% of the world's opium, and the bumper crop of poppies, much of it from Taliban strongholds, finances the insurgency the U.S. is trying to dismantle.
On Oct. 12, Hyde and Rep. Mark Steven Kirk (R-Ill.), a onetime naval intelligence officer, sent Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld a letter asking for more military help for the DEA.
Eight days later, Rumsfeld wrote that he had asked Edelman, his undersecretary for policy, to look into the matter. Nearly seven weeks later, The Times' article noted, Hyde had not received a formal response.
Edelman wrote in the letter that the Pentagon has in fact been working closely with the DEA in Afghanistan.
He said Rumsfeld had authorized troops more than a year ago to embed DEA agents and other nonmilitary counter-narcotics personnel on missions in areas of known or suspected drug-related activity. And he said U.S. troops have been instructed to notify the DEA "regarding the disposition of significant drug caches discovered during operations."
Edelman's letter does not make clear how the Pentagon intends to work more closely with the DEA. Connie LaRossa Fabiano, a Pentagon counter-narcotics official, said she could not comment on either the new steps being taken or on the current cooperative efforts.
On Thursday, two experts on Capitol Hill said they had seen no evidence of those efforts.
"They had an ad hoc policy where the guys on the ground, a colonel here or there, would occasionally bring DEA along. What we've been pushing for is a more formal institutional policy," said a senior staff member with the House Committee on International Relations. "Right now, the DEA are like puppy dogs, scratching on the DOD door saying, 'I want a ride.' "
He quoted a recent e-mail from a U.S. counter-narcotics official in Afghanistan who said he had seen virtually no cooperation between the Pentagon and the DEA on tactical operations. If Rumsfeld had ordered troops to work with drug agents, the official wrote, "it was not well known, understood or accepted."
"DEA had not been provided information on any discoveries of drug caches on routine missions," the official continued, "nor has there been any type of coordination for ride-alongs."
A senior staff member with the House subcommittee that deals with drug policy reported similar findings. "We were told in briefings that there were multiple times that DEA asked for help and for intelligence and it was never honored," the staff member said.
Both staff members spoke on condition of anonymity, citing committee policies that prohibit them from discussing such matters publicly.
Meanwhile, indications of other problems in the U.S. counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan have surfaced.
The Pentagon has promised as many as eight Russian-made MI-17 helicopters to the Afghan Interior Ministry for its agents to use on drug raids, but only two have arrived. And the Pentagon is still training the Afghan pilots.
In a Nov. 3 letter to DEA Administrator Karen P. Tandy, Edelman said he shared her concerns about significant delays. He blamed them on several setbacks, including training and maintenance problems and a lack of instructors.
Edelman said the Pentagon was "making every effort to accelerate progress on this important program" and hoped the helicopters would be flying missions by the end of January. One more instructor and as many as six helicopters were slated to arrive this month, he said.
"Despite the setbacks," Edelman said, "this program is gaining considerable momentum."