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U.S. increasing counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan

With opium production soaring, and funding Taliban activities, the U.S. is sending dozens of DEA agents to help break trafficking rings, a shift in policy from crop eradication.

July 20, 2009|Josh Meyer

WASHINGTON — 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.

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