Commandos Crack Down On Afghan Drug Trade

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An illegal crop of poppies stands out from a newly harvested crop of wheat in Badakhshan province. i

An illegal crop of poppies stands out from a newly harvested crop of wheat in Afghanistan. The opium trade is a key source of income for the Taliban. Julie Jacobson/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Julie Jacobson/AP
An illegal crop of poppies stands out from a newly harvested crop of wheat in Badakhshan province.

An illegal crop of poppies stands out from a newly harvested crop of wheat in Afghanistan. The opium trade is a key source of income for the Taliban.

Julie Jacobson/AP

The opium trade in Afghanistan is a key source of income for the Taliban. Drug dealers, seeking to keep U.S., NATO and Afghan forces off their trail, pour hundreds of millions of dollars into the militant group's coffers each year.

The money is used to carry out suicide bombings and other attacks in the heart of major Afghan cities, including the capital, Kabul. But about an hour's drive south of Kabul, a group of Afghan police commandos is working around the clock to cut off this dangerous funding source.

'Maturity, Intelligence, Focus'

The members of Commando Force 333 clearly impressed U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of international forces in Afghanistan, during a recent training exercise in Logar province.

The highly trained officers, dressed in British military khakis, swarmed around several mud-walled compounds, throwing smoke bombs and firing guns. A dozen of them rushed inside, shouting for the residents to surrender.

Within minutes, they secured the compounds. The policemen then conducted a thorough search of the buildings, wearing white gloves to avoid contaminating any evidence found inside.

"They're very good," McChrystal said, adding that such units are key to turning Afghans against insurgents.

"While you can use normal units to go out and secure areas and secure people, there's a certain percentage of any insurgency or narcotics elements that have to be targeted for arrest or even for killing if they don't want to be arrested," he said. "So the key is how precise can you be so that you don't harm other people, and that's where it takes units like this with extraordinary ... maturity, intelligence, focus."

An Afghan Solution

Members of Commando Force 333 say they have worked hard to develop that reputation with the help of their trainers from British special operations forces.

In the seven years since the Afghan unit was formed, they have destroyed more than 500 illegal drug labs across Afghanistan, as well as 800 tons of hashish and some 66 tons of heroin. Using leads they collect on their own or from other Afghan security agencies and the Western military, they have arrested and killed scores of drug dealers with Taliban ties.

The unit provides an Afghan solution to Afghan problems, says Maj. Kash Sadat, who is in the 333 and serves as an aide to McChrystal.

"It does make a difference to have an Afghan soldier going into a house in so many ways — how to speak to people, what to do, what is suspicious in a compound — because he is from that society and he understands everything that goes on in a house," he says. "What is sensible, what should be done and what shouldn't be done."

'Not The Whole Game'

Still, the NATO-led coalition says it will be years before it is clear how much of a dent Commando Force 333 and similar units are putting in the Taliban's resources. That's because the militants and drug lords have stockpiles of drugs from the many years when Afghanistan's opium supply outstripped world demand.

Nor can the 333's success be replicated in any large way across Afghanistan, says Candace Rondeaux, senior Afghanistan analyst for the International Crisis Group. Most Afghan police officers, unlike the commandos, are illiterate and lack adequate resources.

"So, yes, creating commando force like this, I think, is certainly a positive step. Will it be enough? And will it be sort of the leader and the future of the Afghan National Police?" she says. "I highly doubt it for a lot of reasons."

For example, she says, there are too few trainers and continued problems in getting decent equipment distributed among police officers.

"Local commanders, police chiefs, have much more incentive to steal from their own, you know, police forces than they do to actually do the right thing because their pay is so low," Rondeaux says. "I think these elite forces ... can be extremely positive, but they are not the whole game."

Brig. Gen. Saeed Mohammad, who heads the 333, acknowledges such hurdles. He told McChrystal during his visit to Logar province that terrorism, drugs and corruption are the three things holding his country back.

But he says he and his men won't give up. He says they must continue to try and create an Afghanistan that is fit for the next generation to live in.

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