WASHINGTON — Amid growing evidence that Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are profiting from narcotics, the US military plans to more aggressively help track and target Afghanistan's vast drug business, focusing on high-level traffickers linked to terrorists as well as production labs uncovered during military operations.
The stepped-up military efforts come as US officials warn that Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Hizb-i Islami militants are financing terrorist attacks with profits reaped from Afghanistan's estimated $2 billion annual drug trade. As the world's biggest opium supplier, Afghanistan saw production spread rampantly across the country last year, doubling to 2,865 metric tons.
Tackling "narcoterrorism" in Afghanistan is urgent to prevent nascent links between drug-trafficking and terrorist groups from "tightening and hardening," as they have in countries such as Colombia, says Robert Charles, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.
In one operation Jan. 2, for example, an American A-10 jet destroyed an illegal drug lab with 1.5 tons of opium as well as chemicals and production equipment. The strike took place 90 kilometers north of Kunduz after British forces called for US close air support in a firefight.
"There are specific instructions for US central command and for the joint task force [in Afghanistan] ... to deal with labs and narcotics that are found on the battlefield or that are picked up incident to military operations," said Thomas O'Connell, assistant secretary of defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict. "The labs will not go unnoticed," he told a House committee last week.
Pentagon officials acknowledge that counternarcotics has not been a high enough priority for US forces in Afghanistan, but stress that now, "that's changing," as one senior official says. Still, they emphasize that US military efforts will be aimed at supporting Britain, the lead coalition nation in charge of counter-narcotics, and the Afghan government, which seeks to slash opium cultivation by 70 percent by 2008.
Coordination with Afghan officials is vital because of the difficulty of targeting the linkages between disparate illegal drug networks, fragmented extremist groups, and local leaders, Pentagon officials say.
"We know that some traffickers provide logistical assistance to extremists - especially to the remnants of the Taliban - and that some extremist groups are raising money by taxing poppy production and profiting from the processing and sale of narcotics," Mr. O'Connell said. But, he added, "when you talk about certain labs or certain narco-terrorist targets, it's not always easy to anticipate what the consequences will be of taking a certain action."
Meanwhile, targeting Afghanistan's drug labs is complicated because the labs are downsizing and production often jumps between facilities. Key facets of the US plan include:
• A "robust" program to gather intelligence on drug production in Afghanistan, as well as steps to integrate intelligence and law enforcement information from US, allied, and Afghan sources, and rapidly distribute that to Afghan and British governments.
• Bolstering Afghan border police by expanding secure communications between border posts and the rest of the country, providing surveillance and detection equipment to help police detect smugglers, and constructing additional border checkpoints.
• Helping to develop a public affairs campaign inside Afghanistan to discourage poppy growing.
US forces will not, however, target poppy crops, sanction farmers, or take part in a wholesale eradication campaign, which Pentagon officials called unfeasible, due in part to the rugged terrain.
On a recent mission in Afghanistan's Paktika Province, US soldiers searched a farmer's home for insurgents, but said nothing about the farmer's source of income: poppies. "I grow flowers, and make about 14,000 rupees [$700] a year," said the farmer, who returned to Afghanistan from Pakistan after the overthrow of the Taliban government in 2001.
US medics bandaged a sore on the farmer's finger, gave him some pain medication, and moved on.
Indeed, counternarcotics experts say Afghan poppy farmers today, as historically, earn only a tiny portion of the profits from the lucrative opium trade; far more goes to those who control the processing, smuggling, and sale of the drugs.
Afghanistan's former Taliban leader Mullah Omar allegedly banned poppy cultivation only after stockpiling tons of heroin to corner the market and increase his profits, according to US lawmakers.
Today, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, with less access to donations from Islamic extremists, are turning towards heroin profits to finance their operations, the lawmakers say.
"In my meetings with officials of the US, UK, Pakistani and Afghan governments, I learned that there are several heroin trafficking organizations operating in Afghanistan. At least three, the [Hizb-i Islami], the Taliban and Al Qaeda finance terror with profits from the sale of heroin," says Rep. Mark Kirk (R) of Illinois. One Afghan drug trafficker reportedly provides lieutenants of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan with 2,000 killograms of heroin valued at $28 million every eight weeks, he said.
US naval forces and marines in the Persian Gulf are also mounting operations to intercept drug shipments and in December seized $10 million worth of drugs, as well as agents believed to be linked to Al Qaeda.