U.S. increasing counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan
The U.S. government is deploying dozens of Drug Enforcement Administration agents to Afghanistan in a new kind of “surge,” targeting trafficking networks that officials say are increasingly fueling the Taliban insurgency and corrupting the Afghan government.
The move to dramatically expand a second front is seen as the latest acknowledgment in Washington that security in Afghanistan cannot be won with military force alone.
For much of its eight-year tenure, the Bush administration’s counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan were focused on destroying the vast fields of poppy that have long been the source of the world’s heroin. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, Afghanistan’s contribution to the global heroin trade has risen to 93%, according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime.
But the Obama administration believes that the effort drove many farmers and influential tribesmen into supporting the Islamist insurgency. The Afghan government and some NATO allies in the country agree.
The United States is now shifting to a counterinsurgency campaign that in addition to sending more troops is funding nation-building efforts and promoting alternative crops to farmers who have long profited from poppy production.
The increased DEA effort is aimed at more than a dozen drug kingpins whose networks are producing vast amounts of hashish, opium, morphine and heroin, some of which ends up in the United States.
Some of these figures belong either to the Taliban or to influential tribes allied with it, and they are assisted by international drug trafficking rings that have flourished for decades in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and nearby countries, DEA officials say.
In interviews, more than a dozen current and former U.S. counter-narcotics officials said they were alarmed by the growing ties between drug traffickers and insurgents and the Afghan government’s inability or lack of interest by many Afghan officials to go after them.
As hundreds of millions of dollars in aid from the U.S.-led coalition was allocated to build Afghan police and security agencies, the forces were being corrupted simultaneously at the highest levels by the very traffickers they were supposed to be capturing, said Bruce Riedel, who chaired the Obama administration’s interagency review of policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan.
“Our whole effort at developing security in Afghanistan was undermined by having a Ministry of Interior that was interested in facilitating the drug trade rather than combating it,” said Riedel, who retired from the CIA in 2006 after three decades of advising administrations on South Asia national security issues. The current Afghan interior minister, Mohammed Hanif Atmar, Riedel said, is honest and well-intentioned -- and in mortal danger because of it.
“If we can keep him alive, he’ll do a great job. But he’s got a lot of enemies,” said Riedel, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution Saban Center for Middle East Policy.
With the Taliban now controlling large swaths of Afghanistan, traffickers and their networks pay the militants as much as $500 million a year, according to U.S. and U.N. intelligence estimates, to grow and protect the poppy fields, smuggle the drugs and run sophisticated processing labs and drug bazaars in Afghanistan and neighboring countries.
Similar drug trafficking activity is flourishing in the tribal belt that includes northwestern Pakistan, and it is providing huge amounts of cash to the Pakistani Taliban and possibly Al Qaeda, the officials said.
“We see their involvement through just about every stage of drug trafficking, and in each of the four corners of Afghanistan,” Thomas Harrigan, deputy administrator and chief of operations for the DEA, said of the Taliban. “They use the money to sustain their operations, feed their fighters, to assist Al Qaeda.”
In response, the number of DEA agents and analysts in Afghanistan will rise from 13 to 68 by September, and to 81 in 2010. More agents will also be deployed in Pakistan. It is “the most prolific expansion in DEA history,” Harrigan said.
Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Congress in June that the Obama administration was redirecting resources that lawmakers had appropriated for opium eradication toward the new strategy of “interdiction, rule of law -- going after the big guys. And those involve people in the government.”
The DEA also has been designated as the lead in a multi-agency “Afghan Threat Finance Cell” that will go after not only the suspected drug kingpins, but also corrupt politicians and other sources of funding for the insurgency, including cash from wealthy Persian Gulf donors, extortion and kidnappings, according to DEA documents and interviews.
It will also expand a U.S. program to train Afghan counter-narcotics police.
“A surge not only of military but law enforcement is exactly what we need. It is something we have always demanded of the U.S. government,” said M. Ashraf Haidari, political counselor at the Afghan Embassy in Washington, who oversees counter-narcotics and national security issues.
Haidari said the new U.S. focus would allow the Afghan government to go after corrupt elements in government and the security forces, in part through specially trained and vetted Afghan narcotics police units.
DEA agents in Afghanistan will seek to cultivate informants and conduct sting operations. In battle zones, particularly in the south, they will receive military protection and support when needed.
“There are a lot of black holes in Afghanistan regarding intelligence,” Harrigan said. “If the military stops a drug caravan, we want to get out there, exploit the evidence, interview the traffickers.”
Many counter-narcotics officials, current and former, praised the DEA expansion, which they said they had pushed for since late 2006 but had faced seeming indifference or outright opposition from others in the Bush administration, including elements of the military and intelligence communities.
Some of these officials said that their warnings about the growing danger of the Taliban-drug trafficker alliances went unheeded in the years after Sept. 11, when America’s focus on counter-terrorism and, later, the war in Iraq, took precedence over counter-narcotics efforts.
In March 2006, the DEA was given additional authorization by Congress to investigate international drug traffickers if it could show a connection to terrorism. That allowed it to target and arrest a few top traffickers in Afghanistan.
The next year, a key interagency task force recommended sending more DEA agents into Afghanistan. But DEA officials say they couldn’t deploy the agents because of hiring freezes, a lack of administration support, and the Pentagon’s failure to get involved in interdiction efforts or to help the drug agents already in the country.
“We would have needed State Department and White House approval and, moreover, had we sent them over, we knew we would not be able to get them into the field where they needed to be” without military support, said Michael Braun, who played a lead role in lobbying for the DEA expansion until his retirement seven months ago as its chief of operations.
By 2007, as the Taliban and Al Qaeda were regrouping, the drug trade reached a record level, with potential opium production up nearly 42% from the year before, according to DEA and CIA reports.
“Clearly there was a mistake made early on,” between 2001 and 2006, said Thomas Schweich, who became the Bush administration’s coordinator for counter-narcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan in 2007. “Had we taken this more seriously early on, it never would have gotten as bad as it is.”
DEA officials pushing for an Afghan expansion in 2007 were supported by then-deputy national security advisor Juan Carlos Zarate, who was in charge of global counter-terrorism and finance issues. But, Zarate said, deployment was held up again amid negotiations over what kind of role they would play.
Riedel said the Bush White House “never focused its attention on this until the very, very last days.”
“They created the perfect storm: We’re losing the war against the Taliban, and we’ve allowed the development of a huge drug industry which corrupts the very state we’re trying to help,” he said.
Two months ago, nine DEA agents participated in the largest U.S. special forces mission in Afghanistan since 2001, a four-day battle to take out a major Taliban stronghold and drug bazaar in the town of Marjeh in Helmand province.
Authorities say they seized a huge cache of weapons, explosives and bomb-making materials, as well as many tons of drugs in all stages of production.
DEA agents were able to help Afghan authorities arrest and obtain statements from those at the scene and to seize and exploit their cellphones, satellite phones and drug ledgers, said DEA Special Agent Nick Brooke.
“The beauty of this is that we get evidence out of it,” Brooke said. “And since the operations are bilateral, we can prosecute these people under Afghan law,” or in some cases under U.S. law.
Several weeks ago, DEA agents led another suspected Afghan drug kingpin, Haji Bagcho, off a plane at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, after arresting him on U.S. federal drug charges tied to his alleged financing of the Taliban.
At the same time, some current and former officials question whether Afghan government corruption and indifference are too rampant to turn the tide. Recently, President Hamid Karzai pardoned at least five convicted major drug traffickers, prompting a rare U.S. State Department rebuke.