In other Afghan war, drugs are winning

Posted in Broader Middle East | 16-May-07 | Author: James Risen| Source: International Herald Tribune

Plans to clear poppy fields and pursue major drug figures have been frustrated by corruption in the Afghan government.

KABUL: In a walled compound near Kabul, two members of Colombia's counternarcotics police force are trying to teach raw Afghan recruits how to wage close-quarter combat.

Using mock wooden AK-47 assault rifles, Lieutenant John Castaneda and Corporal John Orejuela demonstrate commando tactics to about 20 new members of what is intended to be an elite Afghan drug strike force. The recruits - who U.S. officials say lack even basic law enforcement skills - watch wide-eyed.

"This is kindergarten," said Vincent Balbo, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration chief in Kabul, whose office is overseeing the training. "It's Narcotics 101."

Another DEA agent added, "We are at a stage now of telling these recruits, this is a handgun, this is a bullet."

It is a measure of Afghanistan's virulent opium trade, which has helped revive the Taliban while corroding the credibility of the government, that U.S. officials now hope that Afghanistan's drug problem will someday be only as bad as that of Colombia. While the Latin American country remains the world's cocaine capital and is still wracked by drug-related violence, U.S. officials argue that decades of counternarcotics efforts there have at least helped stabilize the country.

"I wanted the Colombians to come here to give the Afghans something to aspire to," Balbo said. "To instill the fact that they have been doing this for years, and it has worked."

To fight a Taliban insurgency flush with drug money for recruits and weapons, the Bush administration recognizes that it must also combat the drug trafficking it largely ignored for years. But plans to clear poppy fields and pursue major drug figures have been frustrated by corruption in the Afghan government and derided by critics as belated half measures or missteps that are unlikely to have much impact.

"There may have been things one could have done earlier on, but at this stage, I think there are relatively limited good options," said James Dobbins, a former State Department official who served as the administration's special representative on Afghanistan.

Poppy growing is endemic in the countryside, and Afghanistan now produces 92 percent of the world's opium. But until recently, U.S. officials acknowledge, fighting drugs was considered a distraction from fighting terrorists.

The State Department and Pentagon repeatedly clashed over drug policy, according to interviews with current and former officials. Pentagon leaders refused to bomb drug laboratories and often balked at helping other agencies and the Afghan government destroy poppy fields, disrupt opium shipments or capture major traffickers, the officials say.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and military officials also played down or dismissed growing signs that drug money was being funneled to the Taliban, the officials say. And the CIA and military turned a blind eye to drug-related activities by prominent warlords or political figures they had installed in power, Afghan and U.S. officials say.

Not so long ago, Afghanistan was touted as a success, a country freed from tyranny and Al Qaeda. But as the Taliban's grip tightens, some American officials say that failing to disrupt the drug trade was a critical strategic mistake.

"This is the Afghan equivalent of failing to deal with looting in Baghdad," said Andre Hollis, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics. "If you are not dealing with those who are threatened by security and who undermine security, namely drug traffickers, all your other grandiose plans will come to naught."

Administration officials say they believed they could eliminate the insurgency first and then tackle the drug trade.

"Now people recognize that it's all related, and it's one issue," said Tom Schweich, the State Department's coordinator for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan. "It's no longer just a drug problem, it is an economic problem, a political problem, and a security problem."

To step up efforts, President George W. Bush privately urged President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan last fall to curb opium production and vowed publicly in February to provide more help.

While the Drug Enforcement Administration has brought Colombian trainers to Kabul, Justice Department officials are helping Afghanistan build from scratch a judicial system to deal with drug cases. State Department officials, meanwhile, have helped found the Afghan Eradication Force to destroy opium poppy crops. The U.S. military is providing logistic support for raids and eradication.

The symbolic heart of the Bush administration's efforts is a construction site amid tin shanties and junkyards near Kabul International Airport - a new $8 million Counter Narcotics Justice Center. After its scheduled opening in July, the center will be a one-stop center for drug cases, with two courts, offices for 70 prosecutors and investigators and jail cells for 56 high-value drug suspects.

The new Afghan drug prosecutors, though, are charging hundreds of messengers and truck drivers with drug offenses, while major dealers, often with ties both to government officials and the Taliban, operate virtually at will.

A U.S. counternarcotics official in Washington said a classified list late last year developed by several U.S. agencies had identified more than 30 top Afghan drug suspects, including at least five government officials. But they are unlikely to be arrested any time soon, several U.S. officials cautioned.

In part, that is because the Afghan drug prosecutors are eager but their legal skills are weak. "You look at the indictments and it looks like a sixth grader wrote it," said Rob Lunnen, a U.S. attorney in Salt Lake City assigned to the Afghan drug task force. Added another American prosecutor: "If we try to go after deputy ministerial or ministerial level corruption cases, then you are not going to have a system that can handle it, and they would just get released."

Many Afghans are hostile to opium eradication, saying it deprives farmers of their livelihoods.

Barnett Rubin, a New York University professor, and others say that destroying crops drives villagers into the arms of the Taliban.

But the United States has not embraced massive aid and employment programs that might deter farmers from planting poppies.

Instead, anti-drug teams venture out into the countryside, where some have been killed by suicide bombers and Taliban forces allied with drug lords.

Fearing a backlash from the populace, the Afghan government has rejected U.S. proposals for chemical spraying, permitting only manual eradication. That requires hundreds of men with sticks and tractors - often surrounded by Americans providing security - to slowly knock down poppy bulbs by hand.

So far this year, about 8,000 hectares, or 20,000 acres, have been destroyed, compared with a United Nations estimate that 165,000 hectares have been planted with opium poppy. The crop is expected to yield more than 6,000 tons of opium, exceeding global demand. The export value - about $3.1 billion - is equivalent to about half the total Afghan gross domestic product.

The Bush administration was reluctant to take on the drug issue even from the start of the war.

Soon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States, military and intelligence analysts turned over to the Pentagon a list of targets linked to Al Qaeda - and its Taliban hosts - in Afghanistan. It included military targets, as well as drug labs and warehouses, where the Taliban was believed to have stockpiled opium after banning poppy cultivation in 2001. Destroying the Taliban's principal source of revenue would help put it out of business, the analysts said.

But when the air campaign over Afghanistan began, top military officials removed all drug-related targets, according to one analyst who attended meetings where the bombing raids were discussed.

After the Taliban's rule collapsed in late 2001, farmers began to plant opium across the countryside.

Some warlords and commanders that the CIA and military helped put in power - including tribal figures who had been in exile in Pakistan and members of the American-backed Northern Alliance - quickly began to enrich themselves through drug trafficking, several U.S. officials say.

"At the time of our intervention, there wasn't an active drug trade going on," Dobbins of the State Department said. "But some of the people we supported became involved and active as the drug trade took hold."

U.S. officials say that the postwar chaos left the United States with no choice but to work with militia leaders involved in drug dealing.

"You've got to consider the time and the context," said Craig Chretien, a counternarcotics official at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. "DEA wasn't here. There was no investigative arm to look into any of their activities of these people after whatever cooperation they gave the CIA. You had virtually no institutions to look into what they were doing," he said.

"If someone expected something to be done with these people about their involvement in drugs at the time, it was probably unrealistic."

Some Afghans do not share that view.

"The CIA should have moved swiftly against those people," Attorney General Abdul Jabbar Sabit said, arguing that ignoring drug dealing encouraged lawlessness.

It was not until the fall of 2004, when both the United Nations and the CIA issued high estimates of Afghan opium cultivation, that the White House expressed alarm about the issue.

That November, Bush discussed a drug strategy for Afghanistan for the first time with his top advisors. Colin Powell, who was secretary of state then, argued for using aggressive measures that had been employed in Colombia: aerial spraying, promoting alternative crops, targeting drug labs and disrupting drug shipments.

Bush expressed support, saying he did not want to "waste another American life on a 'narco-state,' " recalled Bobby Charles, a former State Department counternarcotics official who attended the session. But the president relented after lobbying by Rumsfeld and Khalilzad, then the U.S. ambassador in Kabul, according to Charles.

A spokesman for Khalilzad, now U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said Khalilzad did not want to discuss his recommendations to the president. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on Rumsfeld's decisions, as did a spokesman for the former defense secretary.

Drug Enforcement Administration officials were also thwarted in their attempts to stem drug corruption. In 2005, Agents and their Afghan counterparts found nine tons of opium in the office of Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, the governor of Helmand Province.

But the counternarcotics team was blocked from taking any action against the governor, who had close ties to U.S. and British military, intelligence and diplomatic officials.

Sher Mohammed said in a recent interview that he was storing opium that had been seized as contraband. He was eventually forced from office but now serves in the Afghan Senate.

The Taliban offensive in the spring of 2006 finally forced military and Pentagon officials to drop their opposition to fighting drugs.

In Afghanistan, the Drug Enforcement Administration is trying to move ahead, if only in small steps like training the Afghan drug force. "The Colombians are here to instill the heart of the lion," said Balbo, the DEA official. But even that appears daunting.

Balbo counseled patience. Drug wars are long, he said, and there are no quick solutions.

"This is going to take 20 or 30 years," he said. "DEA has been in Thailand for 40 years. Here, we're in year two."