U.S. Drug Agents Target Afghan Poppy Pushers

Afghan farmers i i

hide captionAfghan farmers work in an opium poppy field in the Nawa district of Helmand province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, in April. As the Taliban gain power in Afghanistan and Pakistan, their money is coming mostly from extortion, crime and drugs.

Abdul Khaleq/AP
Afghan farmers

Afghan farmers work in an opium poppy field in the Nawa district of Helmand province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, in April. As the Taliban gain power in Afghanistan and Pakistan, their money is coming mostly from extortion, crime and drugs.

Abdul Khaleq/AP

The Drug Enforcement Administration is beefing up its presence in Afghanistan, sending dozens more agents to go after caches of opium that are a main source of money for Taliban insurgents.

The DEA is also drawing up a list of the top 10 or 20 narco-traffickers in Afghanistan, and plans to work with Afghan officials to track them down and arrest them.

"One year ago, we had 13 personnel in Afghanistan working counternarcotics," says Jay Fitzpatrick, a DEA assistant regional director who is based in the Afghan capital of Kabul. "We're in the process of increasing the number of personnel to 81. We hope to be at that ceiling by December."

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the Taliban make hundreds of millions of dollars off the burgeoning opium trade in Afghanistan, as much as $400 million, that helps them buy weapons and pay local Afghan citizens, who need a job and might not necessarily agree with Taliban ideology. Military officers call them "$10 Tabies" because they are only in it for the money.

"The money from narcotics is very critical to the insurgents," Fitzpatrick says.

The DEA's increased presence is all part of a U.S. government effort to move away from poppy crop eradication, which was seen as unduly harming farmers, and moving instead to mid-level drug operators, drug labs and high-level traffickers.

Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, talked about that shift just last week.

"This administration set out to reverse the counternarcotics program by de-emphasizing crop eradication and emphasizing interdiction," Holbrooke told The Associated Press. "The forces in the south are actually making that a reality. It's a historic change if it's successful, and the first indications were very, very promising."

Photo Gallery: Afghan Drug Use

Drug user in Afghanistan

hide captionAccording to the U.N., one in 12 Afghans abuse heroin.

Photo Gallery: Addicts In Kabul
Holly Pickett for NPR

Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda, writes that U.S. policy focusing on crop eradication — through such efforts as aerial spraying — only made matters worse.

"Wide-scale spraying would play into the hands of traffickers and terrorists," Peters writes. "If implemented, this policy would drive up opium prices, thus increasing profits for drug dealers and the Taliban, and make life even harder for already debt-ridden Afghan farmers — exactly the results the U.S. government and NATO don't want."

The DEA's Fitzpatrick says some of the high-level traffickers they plan on targeting have stronger ties to the Taliban than others, but all have some connection with the insurgent forces.

DEA agents along with Special Forces already are rolling up processed poppies — black tar opium — especially in village bazaars in Helmand province, the main location for poppy production. And they say they are gearing up for more operations into the summer.

The increased DEA presence includes special agents, intelligence analysts and program analysts.

The DEA will have officers in the cities of Kabul, Konduz, Jalalabad, Khandahar and Herat.

"The key, at least for the Kabul officer folks, is to concentrate on high-value targets, significant traffickers, in order to disrupt and dismantle the command and control of these international organizations," Fitzpatrick says. "Right now, we're compiling information of who these folks are and identifying them."

There is a discussion among DEA officials about whether to release the list once it is compiled.

Already the DEA has helped grab one suspected trafficker. His name is Haji Bagcho, and he was arrested along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by DEA agents in June, flown to Washington and ordered held by a federal magistrate before his trial. He has been charged with two counts for trying to move heroin into the U.S.

DEA says it hopes most of them can be prosecuted in Afghanistan, and that's why the U.S. is working to build up the Afghan judicial system. Much of the opium moves from Afghanistan through Pakistan and Iran and eventually into Europe. So it's possible that some of these suspected drug lords could be tried in Europe.

One challenge will be working with Afghanistan's government. There is a lot of corruption among government officials, so it could be very touchy politically as they move forward. It may be that these investigations also lead to corrupt Afghan officials.

Fitzpatrick says there are parallels between Afghanistan and Colombia, where businessmen or criminals rose up the ranks and became major dealers. DEA agents back in the 1990s were involved in helping pinpoint Pablo Escobar, head of the notorious Medellin cartel.

Escobar was killed in December 1993 by Colombian security forces.

DEA agents are focusing on Helmand province in particular, the southern Afghan heartland for both the Taliban and opium production.

In May, a raid on the town of Mahjer in Helmand by American Green Berets netted some 40,000 pounds of black tar opium. It was the largest drug seizure ever in Afghanistan. Also seized was equipment for building roadside bombs.

Despite the large amount of drugs, military officers told NPR that it probably amounted to less than one-half percent of the country's opium production.

Earlier this month, there was another raid in the Afghan city of Garmshir, also in Helmand. DEA agents and Marines grabbed 33 bags of opium and 270,000 pounds of poppy seeds, along with 20 roadside bombs and 130,000 pounds of fertilizer that can be used to make explosives.

Those roadside bombs are of particular concern to the U.S. military — and account for at least half the casualties of both American and Afghan forces. July is turning out to be the deadliest month for U.S. forces since the war began in 2001. As of July, 39 American servicemen have lost their lives in Afghanistan.

U.S. military officers are very worried about the number of these bombs growing throughout the summer. They're finding more caches of bomb-making materials, homemade explosives that include fertilizer, that are sometimes difficult to detect with sophisticated equipment.

So Marines in particular are using dogs to help sniff for some of these components.

In May, there was an increase of 10,000 Marines in Helmand province, and as they move into combat outposts this summer along the Helmand River Valley, there is a sense that their supply lines will be a particular target of these bombs.

There are even greater casualties among the Afghans, especially the police. There are estimates that they are losing as many as a company of men each month. That's about 140. The Afghan police are seen as what is known as a soft target because they have little armor or weaponry.

In June, a bomb explosion one night in the Shindand area wounded seven Afghan policemen, two of them seriously. They were in a Ford Ranger pickup that was left just a tangled mass of metal.

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