U.S. to Hunt Down Afghan Drug Lords Tied to Taliban

Posted in Afghanistan | 10-Aug-09 | Author: James Risen| Source: New York Times

WASHINGTON — Fifty Afghans believed to be drug traffickers with ties to the Taliban have been placed on a Pentagon target list to be captured or killed, reflecting a major shift in American counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, according to a Congressional study to be released this week.

United States military commanders have told Congress that they are convinced that the policy is legal under the military’s rules of engagement and international law. They also said the move is an essential part of their new plan to disrupt the flow of drug money that is helping finance the Taliban insurgency.

In interviews with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which is releasing the report, two American generals serving in Afghanistan said that major traffickers with proven links to the insurgency have been put on the “joint integrated prioritized target list.” That means they have been given the same target status as insurgent leaders, and can be captured or killed at any time.

The generals told Senate staff members that two credible sources and substantial additional evidence were required before a trafficker was placed on the list, and only those providing support to the insurgency would be made targets.

Currently, they said, there are about 50 major traffickers who contribute money to the Taliban on the list.

“We have a list of 367 ‘kill or capture’ targets, including 50 nexus targets who link drugs and the insurgency,” one of the generals told the committee staff. The generals were not identified in the Senate report, which was obtained by The New York Times.

The shift in policy comes as the Obama administration, deep into the war in Afghanistan, makes significant changes to its strategy for dealing with that country’s lucrative drug trade, which provides 90 percent of the world’s heroin and has led to substantial government corruption.

The Senate report’s disclosure of a hit list for drug traffickers may lead to criticism in the United States over the expansion of the military’s mission, and NATO allies have already raised questions about the strategy of killing individuals who are not traditional military targets.

For years the American-led mission in Afghanistan had focused on destroying poppy crops. Pentagon officials have said their new emphasis is on weaning local farmers off the drug trade — including the possibility of paying them to grow nothing — and going after the drug runners and drug lords. But the Senate report is the first account of a policy to actually place drug chieftains aligned with the Taliban on a “kill or capture” list.

Lt. Col. Patrick Ryder, a Pentagon spokesman, would not comment on the Senate report, but said that “there is a positive, well-known connection between the drug trade and financing for the insurgency and terrorism.” Without directly addressing the existence of the target list, he said that it was “important to clarify that we are targeting terrorists with links to the drug trade, rather than targeting drug traffickers with links to terrorism.”

Several individuals suspected of ties to drug trafficking have already been apprehended and others have been killed by the United States military since the new policy went into effect earlier this year, a senior military official with direct knowledge of the matter said in an interview. Most of the targets are in southern and eastern Afghanistan, where both the drug trade and the insurgency are the most intense.

One American military officer serving in Afghanistan described the purpose of the target list for the Senate committee. “Our long-term approach is to identify the regional drug figures,” the unidentified officer is quoted as saying in the Senate report. The goal, he said, is to “persuade them to choose legitimacy, or remove them from the battlefield.”

The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were discussing delicate policy matters.

When Donald H. Rumsfeld was defense secretary, the Pentagon fiercely resisted efforts to draw the United States military into supporting counternarcotics efforts. Top military commanders feared that trying to prevent drug trafficking would only antagonize corrupt regional warlords whose support they needed, and might turn more of the populace against American troops.

It was only in the last year or two of the Bush administration that the United States began to recognize that the Taliban insurgency was being revived with the help of drug money.

The policy of going after drug lords is likely to raise legal concerns from some NATO countries that have troops in Afghanistan. Several NATO countries initially questioned whether the new policy would comply with international law.

“This was a hard sell in NATO,” said retired Gen. John Craddock, who was supreme allied commander of NATO forces until he retired in July.

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the secretary general of NATO until last month, told the Senate committee staff that to deal with the concerns of other nations with troops in Afghanistan, safeguards had been put in place to make sure the alliance remained within legal bounds while pursuing drug traffickers. Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, is also informed before a mission takes place, according to a senior military official.

General Craddock said that some NATO countries were also concerned that the new policy would draw the drug lords closer to the Taliban, because they would turn to them for more protection. “But the opposite is the case, since it weakens the Taliban, so they can’t provide that protection,” General Craddock said. “If we continue to push on this, we will see progress,” he added. “It’s causing them problems.”

In a surprise, the Senate report reveals that the United States intelligence community believes that the Taliban has been getting less money from the drug trade than previous public studies have suggested. The Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency both estimate that the Taliban obtains about $70 million a year from drugs.

The Senate report found that American officials did not believe that Afghan drug money was fueling Al Qaeda, which instead relies on contributions from wealthy individuals and charities in Persian Gulf countries, as well as aid organizations working inside Afghanistan.

But even with the new, more cautious estimates, the Taliban has plenty of drug money to finance its relatively inexpensive insurgency. Taliban foot soldiers are paid just $10 a day — more if they plant an improvised explosive device.

Not all those suspected of drug trafficking will end up on the Pentagon’s list. Intelligence gathered by the United States and Afghanistan will more often be used for prosecutions, although American officials are frustrated that they still have not been able to negotiate an extradition treaty with the Afghan government.

A major unresolved problem in the counternarcotics strategy is the fact that the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan remains wide open, and the Pakistanis are doing little to close down drug smuggling routes.

A senior American law enforcement official in the region is quoted in the report as saying that cooperation with Pakistan on counternarcotics is so poor that traffickers cross the border with impunity.

“We give them leads on targets,” the official said in describing the Pakistani government’s counternarcotics tactics, adding, “We get smiles, a decent cup of tea, occasional reheated sandwiches and assertions of progress, and we all leave with smiles on our faces.”