Poppy Fields Are Now a Front Line in Afghanistan War
By JAMES RISEN
May 16, 2007
In a walled compound outside Kabul, two members of Colombia's counternarcotics police force are trying to teach raw Afghan recruits how to wage close-quarters combat.
Using wooden mock AK-47 assault rifles, Lt. John Castañeda and Cpl. 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 American officials say lack even basic law enforcement skills -- watch wide-eyed.
''This is kindergarten,'' said Vincent Balbo, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration chief in Kabul, whose office is overseeing the training. ''It's Narcotics 101.'' Another D.E.A. 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 this country's virulent opium trade, which has helped revive the Taliban while corroding the credibility of the Afghan government, that American officials hope that Afghanistan's drug problem will someday be only as bad as that of Colombia.
While the Latin American nation remains the world's cocaine capital and is still plagued by drug-related violence, American officials argue that decades of American 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,'' Mr. 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 had 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 not likely 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 F. 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, American officials acknowledge, fighting drugs was considered a distraction from fighting terrorists.
The State Department and Pentagon repeatedly clashed over drug policy, according to current and former officials who were interviewed. 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.
Some of the officials declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and military leaders also played down or dismissed growing signs that drug money was being funneled to the Taliban, the officials say.
And the C.I.A. and military turned a blind eye to drug-related activities by prominent warlords or political figures they had installed in power, Afghan and American officials say.
Not so long ago, Afghanistan was trumpeted as a success, a country freed from tyranny and Al Qaeda. But as the Taliban's grip continues to tighten, threatening Afghanistan's future and the fight against terrorism, Americans and Afghans are increasingly asking what went wrong. To that, 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 D. Hollis, a 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 had believed they could eliminate the insurgency first, then tackle the drug trade. ''Now people recognize that it's all related, and it's one issue,'' said Thomas Schweich, the State Department's coordinator for counternarcotics in Afghanistan. ''It's no longer just a drug problem. It is an economic problem, a political problem and a security problem.''
More American Help
To step up efforts, last fall President Bush privately prodded President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan to curb opium production, then vowed publicly in February to provide more help.
While the D.E.A. has imported Colombian trainers in Kabul, United States Justice Department officials are helping build from scratch an Afghan judicial system to deal with drug cases. State Department officials, meanwhile, have helped found the Afghan Eradication Force to wipe out opium poppy crops. The American military is providing logistical support for D.E.A. raids and eradication.
The symbolic heart of the Bush administration's efforts is a construction site amid tin shanties and junkyards near the Kabul International Airport: a new $8 million Counternarcotics Justice Center. After its scheduled opening in July, the center will be a one-stop shop for drug cases, with two courts, offices for 70 prosecutors and investigators and jail cells for 56 suspects.
But while new Afghan drug prosecutors are charging hundreds of messengers and truck drivers with drug offenses, major dealers, often with ties both to government officials and the Taliban, operate virtually at will.
An American counternarcotics official in Washington said a classified list late last year developed by several United States agencies identified more than 30 important Afghan drug suspects, including at least five government officials. But they are unlikely to be actively sought anytime soon, several American officials caution.
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 Salt Lake City federal prosecutor assisting the Afghan drug task force.
Another American prosecutor said, ''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.''
The few times that influential drug figures have been investigated, the resistance has been intense. In January, for example, the D.E.A. and the Afghan national police arrested two drug suspects in remote Kunduz Province, only to find themselves hauled before the provincial governor as a crowd gathered outside. The drug team had to leave their suspects in custody in Kunduz.
''It's happened several times that there will be a raid, and a mayor is involved, and nothing happens,'' Mr. Lunnen complained. ''Every day we feel frustrated.'' He added that the Karzai government did not adequately support the Afghan drug task force because it was viewed ''as a creation of the West.''
Failing to charge major traffickers feeds Afghans' skepticism about American intentions, said counternarcotics officials, lawmakers and experts on Afghanistan.
''To Afghans, our counternarcotics policy looks like a policy of rewarding rich traffickers and punishing poor farmers,'' Barnett R. Rubin, a New York University professor and an expert on Afghanistan, told a Senate panel in March.
Many Afghans are hostile to opium eradication, saying it deprives farmers of their livelihoods. Mr. Rubin and others say that destroying crops drives villagers into the arms of the Taliban. But the United States has not embraced large-scale aid and employment programs that might deter farmers from planting poppies. Instead, the antidrug 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 American proposals for chemical spraying, permitting only manual eradication. That requires hundreds of men with sticks and tractors -- often surrounded by American contractors for protection -- to knock down poppy bulbs by hand. It is agonizingly slow and largely ineffective.
So far this year, about 20,000 acres have been destroyed, just a fraction of the record 407,000 acres planted with opium poppy, according to the United Nations. The crop is expected to yield more than 6,500 tons of opium, exceeding global demand. The export value -- about $3.1 billion -- is equivalent to about half of the legal Afghan economy.
Like the law enforcement efforts, the eradication program is rife with corruption. Farmers know they must offer bribes to avoid having their crops destroyed, American and Afghan drug officials said. It is often only those who lack money or political connections whose fields are singled out.
''I would go out to an eradication site, and we would be driven past miles and miles of poppy fields, and the Afghans would say, 'You can't do that field,' because it belongs to such and such a commander, 'You can't do that field, you can't do this field,' '' recalled one American counternarcotics official. ''Finally, we would arrive at one field where we could set up for eradication, and you had to wonder, why had they chosen this one?''
Gen. Sayed Kamal Sadat, chief of the Afghan national drug counterforce, acknowledges that many officials are for sale.
Opium Used as Currency
''We have security chiefs, police chiefs, who traffic in drugs,'' he added. ''Traffickers give money to governors to allow cultivation in their areas. So far, I haven't seen any governor or security commander willing to crack down.'' Drug production is now greatest where the Taliban is strongest. In Helmand Province, which the insurgents mostly control, opium is so abundant that blocks of it serve as local currency.
Farmers growing poppies in Taliban-controlled areas pay a tax to the insurgents, who then hire ''day fighters.'' For their part, drug traffickers pay the Taliban for security. Smugglers who take opium and heroin out of Afghanistan bring weapons and bombs back for the insurgents, officials say.
In Nimruz Province, in southwest Afghanistan, the Taliban demanded that traffickers provide $4,000 a month and a Toyota Land Cruiser to support 10-man fighting units, according to United Nations officials. An Afghan official said Taliban forces were given five Land Cruisers for attacking the Afghan border police so traffickers could move drugs more easily.
The Bush administration was reluctant to take on the drug issue even from the start of the war. Soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, military and intelligence analysts turned over to the Pentagon a list of targets linked to Al Qaeda -- and its Taliban hosts -- inside 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 government's principal source of revenue would help put the Taliban out of business, the analysts figured.
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 collapsed in late 2001, farmers began to plant opium across the countryside.
Some warlords and commanders that the C.I.A. and military helped put in power -- including tribal figures who had been in exile in Pakistan and others in the American-backed Northern Alliance -- quickly began to enrich themselves through drug trafficking, several American officials say.
''At the time of our intervention, there wasn't an active drug trade going on,'' said Mr. Dobbins, the former State Department official. ''But some of the people we supported became involved and active as the drug trade took hold.'' American officials say that the postwar chaos left them 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 United States Embassy in Kabul. ''D.E.A. wasn't here. There was no investigative arm to look into any of their activities of these people after whatever cooperation they gave the C.I.A.''
Some Afghans do not share that view. ''The C.I.A. should have moved swiftly against those people,'' said the Afghan attorney general, Abdul Jabbar Sabit, arguing that ignoring the drug dealing encouraged lawlessness.
Later, though, American officials in several agencies urged taking steps to curb opium cultivation and trafficking, and grew frustrated when nothing happened.
Mr. Rumsfeld opposed any military involvement in counternarcotics operations, several American officials say. Aside from concerns about stirring up resentment by peasants or alienating Afghan officials, the Pentagon viewed fighting drugs as a dangerous diversion from fighting terrorism.
And with a war in Iraq already quietly under discussion, Mr. Rumsfeld and his commanders did not want to commit more forces to Afghanistan.
The Pentagon also argued that countering drugs had always been a law enforcement mission, not a military one. But in war-ravaged Afghanistan, without the assistance of American troops, it was virtually impossible for other agencies to work effectively.
Seizing an Opportunity
The Pentagon's own counternarcotics office, though, was eager to take on the fight. Soon after the American-led invasion, Mr. Hollis, the former counternarcotics official, raised the matter with top military officials.
''The commanders said we don't do drugs, we're just killing terrorists,'' Mr. Hollis recalled. ''That showed a lack of understanding of the threat. I cared about going after the drug routes. If you could smuggle drugs, you could smuggle weapons and terrorists. It concerned me that if we didn't go after the drug trade then, we would lose a golden opportunity.''
Later, when Mr. Hollis asked the Defense Intelligence Agency to assess the link between drugs and the Taliban, the agency refused to do so, he said. It was not until the fall of 2004, when both the United Nations and the C.I.A. issued stunning estimates of Afghan opium cultivation, that the White House expressed alarm about the issue.
That November, President Bush met for the first time with his top advisers to discuss the drug strategy. Colin L. Powell, then secretary of state, pushed for aggressive measures that had been used in Colombia -- aerial spraying, promoting alternative crops, singling out drug labs and disrupting drug shipments.
Mr. Bush seemed willing to adopt the measures, 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 later backed off after lobbying by Mr. Rumsfeld and Zalmay Khalilzad, then the American ambassador in Kabul, according to Mr. Charles.
A spokesman for Mr. Khalilzad, now the American ambassador to the United Nations, said he did not want to discuss his recommendations to the president. A Pentagon spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Rumsfeld's decisions, as did a spokesman for Mr. Rumsfeld.
D.E.A. officials were also thwarted in their attempts to stem drug corruption. In 2005, D.E.A. agents and their Afghan counterparts found nine tons of opium in the office of Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, the governor of Helmand Province.
But the counternarcotics team was blocked from taking any action against the governor, who had close ties to American and British military, intelligence and diplomatic officials. Mr. Akhundzada, in a recent interview, said he was just storing opium that had been seized as contraband. Eventually, he was forced aside, though he now serves in the Afghan Senate.
The Taliban offensive in the spring of 2006 finally forced military officials and civilian Pentagon officials to drop their opposition to fighting drugs. The resignation of Mr. Rumsfeld, along with prodding by some House Republicans, also contributed to what Mr. Chretien, the counternarcotics official, described as a ''sea change'' in attitude among defense officials.
In Kabul, the D.E.A. 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 Mr. Balbo, the D.E.A. official. But even that appears daunting.
Recruits for the 125-member National Interdiction Unit lined up in sweatsuits one day in March. Supposedly a handpicked elite, they were a ragtag group as they stretched for their morning jog. Some were young, but many were older and out of shape. During the day, they had trouble keeping up with the Colombians.
''They aren't used to working long hours, '' said Lieutenant Castañeda, the Colombian counternarcotics officer. Trying to be diplomatic, he added: ''I understand that there are cultural challenges that we have to deal with. They have a lot to learn.''
Mr. 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. ''D.E.A. has been in Thailand for 40 years. Here, we're in year two.''
Copyright 2007 The New York Times Company