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War in Afghanistan

US Counter-Narcotics Operations

Project: War in Afghanistan
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According to one former National Security Council official, Undersecretary of Defense Doug Feith argues in a White House meeting that since counter-narcotics is not part of the war on terrorism, the Pentagon doesn’t want to get involved in it. The former official complains, “We couldn’t get [the US military] to do counter-narcotics in Afghanistan.” Author James Risen comments, “American troops were there to fight terrorists, not suppress the poppy crop, and Pentagon officials didn’t see a connection between the two. The Pentagon feared that counter-narcotics operations would force the military to turn on the very same warlords who were aiding the United States against the Taliban, and that would lead to another round of violent attacks on American troops.” (Risen 2006, pp. 154) Immediately after 9/11, the US had decided not to bomb drug-related targets in Afghanistan and continued not to do so (see Shortly After September 11, 2001).

An Afghani farmer stands in his opium poppy fields.An Afghani farmer stands in his opium poppy fields. [Source: Shaul Schwarz/ Corbis]“American officials have quietly abandoned their hopes to reduce Afghanistan’s opium production substantially this year and are now bracing for a harvest large enough to inundate the world’s heroin and opium markets with cheap drugs.” They want to see the new Afghan government make at least a token effort to destroy some opium, but it appears that the new government is not doing even that. Afghan leader Hamid Karzai had announced a total ban on opium cultivation, processing, and trafficking, but it appears to be a total sham. The new harvest is so large that it could be “enough opium to stockpile for two or two and a half more years.” (Golden 4/1/2002) Starting this month, Karzai’s government offers farmers $500 for every acre of poppies they destroy, but farmers can earn as much as $6,400 per acre for the crop. The program is eventually cancelled when it runs out of money to pay farmers. (Shah 3/27/2003)

Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the nonprofit think tank the International Crisis Group, later says that during a trip to Afghanistan in November 2003, he is told by US military commanders and State Department officials that they are frustrated by rules preventing them from fighting Afghanistan’s booming illegal drug trade. Author James Risen notes the US military’s rules of engagement in Afghanistan states that if US soldiers discover illegal drugs they “could” destroy them, which is “very different from issuing firm rules stating that US forces must destroy any drugs discovered.” An ex-Green Beret later claims that he was specifically ordered to ignore heroin and opium when his unit discovered them on patrol. Assistant Secretary of State Bobby Charles, who fights in vain for tougher rules of engagement (see November 2004), will later complain, “In some cases [US troops] were destroying drugs, but in others they weren’t. [Defense Secretary] Rumsfeld didn’t want drugs to become a core mission.” (Risen 2006, pp. 152-162)

A British special forces team in Afghanistan calls in a US air strike on a drug lab. The damage leads to a 15 percent spike in heroin prices. It is unclear if US commanders knew that the proposed target was a drug lab. However, this seems to be nearly the only such strike on drug-related targets since 9/11. Shortly after 9/11, the US military decided to avoid such targets (see Shortly After September 11, 2001). The US continued to gain new intelligence on the location of drug facilities and continued not to act. Assistant Secretary of State Bobby Charles later will complain, “We had regular reports of where the labs were. There were not large numbers of them. We could have destroyed all the labs and warehouses in the three primary provinces involved in drug trafficking… in a week. I told flag officers, you have to see this is eating you alive, that if you don’t do anything by 2006 you are going to need a lot more troops in Afghanistan.” (Risen 2006, pp. 152-162)

The Independent reports that “there is mounting evidence that [Afghanistan’s] booming opium trade is funding terrorists linked to al-Qaeda.” The governor of Kandahar, in a joint press conference with a US general, states, “One of the most important things prolonging terrorism is drugs. We are 100 percent sure that some of the top terrorists are involved in drug smuggling, and eradication of this industry would not only benefit Afghanistan but would be a step towards eradicating terrorism [worldwide].” The Independent comments, “Patrolling US troops routinely turn a blind eye to opium farming and trading, ignoring poppy fields, and have recruited warlords suspected of being drug dealers to fight al-Qaeda.” Troops are explicitly told not to engage in drug eradication (see November 2003). It is believed that the US and allied military forces are overstretched in Afghanistan, and would face a violent backlash if they took more steps to confront drug trafficking. The Independent notes, “The drugs business is widely believed to have corrupted officials up to cabinet level, and many Afghans fear that they may have exchanged Taliban fundamentalism for rule by narco-mafias in the future.” Defense Secretary Rumsfeld has raised the possibility of using the 17,000 US soldiers still stationed in Afghanistan to take a more active role against the drug trade. (Meo 8/14/2004) However, nine months later, no such change of policy will be evident. It will be reported that US and Afghan officials decided in late 2004 that a more aggressive anti-poppy effort is “too risky.” (Cloud and Gall 5/22/2005)

The US Defense Department admits that it lacks a strategy for victory in Afghanistan even as it prepares to deploy 17,000 additional troops to that beleaguered country, but it has made some recommendations to change the US strategy there. Last week, during President Obama’s meeting with Defense Secretary Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Obama asked, “What is the end game” in the military’s strategy for Afghanistan? According to one military official present in the briefing, the response was, “Frankly, we don’t have one.” Senior military officials confirm that the Joint Chiefs have delivered a classified memo to Obama that recommends refocusing the military’s mission in Afghanistan to defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and leaving the “hearts and minds” aspect of the war to other US agencies—particularly the State, Justice, and Agriculture Departments—and NATO. “This is a classic counnterinsurgency strategy, but the military cannot do it alone,” says one official. The officials admit that the Taliban “has definitely gained the upper hand” in some areas of Afghanistan, particularly the south, because there’s just too much territory and too few American forces to “clear and hold” an area. “The Taliban is no match” for US forces, the officials say, but once the Americans drive the Taliban from a region, then leave, the Taliban immediately filter back in and regain control. “In many remote areas, the Taliban have established ‘shadow governments’ and in some cases gained the confidence and support of the locals,” says an official. “We need a strategy that will convince the Afghan people [in the remote areas] that the Taliban’s extremism is no longer attractive as a government or a career,” the officials say. Such a strategy must increase Afghan security, then establish strong, fair local governments and create jobs and educational opportunities. “But that is not the military’s job,” one military official says. “We can build the schools, we can build the courthouses, but we cannot help them establish the good governance, justice and educations systems” that are needed. The new strategy also targets the Afghani drug trade, and loosens the previous rules of engagement that only allowed for eradication of poppy fields and confrontation with drug lords after it had been established that those activities were directly connected to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. The new rules assume any drug activities help the insurgency and are, therefore, “fair game.” (Miklaszewski and Kube 2/4/2009)

US officials reveal that the CIA is expanding its teams of spies, analysts, and paramilitary operatives in Afghanistan as part of a larger intelligence “surge” led by the Pentagon, in which its station is expected to rival the size of the massive CIA stations in Iraq and Vietnam at the height of those wars. A Los Angeles Times report outlines a distinctly militarized CIA role in Afghanistan, with enhanced paramilitary capacity to support an expanding covert war led by Special Operations and military intelligence. Among other things, the escalation in covert operations reportedly aims to collect information on Afghan officials involved in the drug trade and increase targeted raids to counter an increasingly effective insurgency. Interestingly, one US intelligence official tells the Los Angeles Times that the spy agencies “anticipated the surge in demand for intelligence” in Afghanistan.
Militarized CIA Role to Support Pentagon - The Los Angeles Times reports that the CIA is preparing to deploy Crisis Operations Liaison Teams—small paramilitary units that are attached to regional military commands—to give the military access to information gathered by the CIA and other sources, while General Stanley McChrystal, commander of allied forces in Afghanistan, is expanding the use of teams known for raids and assassinations that combine CIA operatives with Special Operations commandos. These developments are in line with Pentagon programs established this year (see August 26, 2009 and October 7, 2009) to integrate military and civilian spy operations and develop intelligence capabilities dedicated to Afghanistan and Pakistan for the long term. Furthermore, the CIA’s Afghanistan station, based at the US Embassy in Kabul, is now headed by an operative with an extensive background in paramilitary operations, according to US officials. The Times notes that most CIA operatives in the country have been deployed to secret bases and scattered military outposts, with the largest concentration of CIA personnel at Bagram Air Base, headquarters for US Special Operations forces and the site of a secret agency prison.
Operatives to Trace Ties between Drug Kingpins and Corrupt Officials - Officials say that the spies are being used in various assignments, from teaming up with Special Forces units pursuing high-value targets and tracking public sentiment in provinces that have been shifting toward the Taliban, to collecting intelligence on drug-related corruption in the Afghan government. The Times notes that US spy agencies have already increased their scrutiny of corruption in Kabul, citing a recent Senate report that described a wiretapping system activated last year aimed at tracing ties between government officials and drug kingpins in the country. (US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations 8/10/2009; Miller 9/20/2009)


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