PATROL BASE SHARK, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Image: US Marines/ISAF/Wikimedia

The DEA's Opium War with the Taliban

The War on Drugs didn't work any better in Afghanistan than it did in America.

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Jun 12 2017, 10:00am

PATROL BASE SHARK, Helmand province, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Image: US Marines/ISAF/Wikimedia

The Taliban earns up to four hundred million dollars a year from growing opium—funds often directed toward attacking US soldiers. In fact, Afghanistan has come to produce 90 percent of the world's opium to date.

Back in the 1970s, an American law enforcement agency found itself waging a controversial counternarcotics campaign, not only the US, but also the Greater Middle East. To this day, the Drug Enforcement Administration participates in an $8.5 billion crusade against the Golden Crescent's largest drug cartel. But between ongoing violence, corruption, and CIA activities, these efforts have been rocky, to say the least.

The War on Drugs Goes to Afghanistan

Back in 1973, President Daud Khan sought to modernize the Republic of Afghanistan by cooperating with the Soviet Union and the US. This cooperation included counternarcotics programs spearheaded by the United Nations. When the UN established several Afghan-staffed anti-smuggling offices, Daud's government requested the addition of a DEA liaison, Special Agent Micheal Hurley, to help contain drug trafficking.

"During the early 1970s, concern for Afghanistan's emerging opium production, which was finding its way through Iran and into Eastern Turkey, was on the agenda of the drug suppression communities in the Western world," Hurley told me. "With the drying up of morphine base supplies to the French Connection, intelligence indicated that heroin labs were being established in Eastern Turkey. The source of the raw opium for those labs was reported to be Iran and Afghanistan.

Opium-growing Afghan provinces such as Helmand cover much of the Taliban's military expenses. Image: Micheal T. Hurley

Back then, Hurley's work seemed routine: stopping American aid from benefitting the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan and training local law enforcement agencies to counter it. The DEA's mission in the country ended, however, when the local communist party overthrew Daud before expelling the DEA from the country. A year later, the Soviets sent thousands of soldiers to maintain their struggling puppet state.

The DEA refocused its resources on the Western Hemisphere, where drugs were flowing through Mexico into the US. Meanwhile, the Central Intelligence Agency became synonymous with the US's 1980s Afghan policy, micromanaging American support to anticommunist rebels, the Mujahideen.

But the CIA's intervention in the Soviet–Afghan War undermined what the DEA had worked so hard to accomplish a few years prior. The Mujahideen ordered civilians in their territory to grow opium to fund the war effort, starting a practice that the Taliban would continue when it defeated the Mujahideen in 1996. By 1999, Afghanistan exported 4.6 thousand tonnes of opium that travelled as far as Europe and Russia.

The DEA Returns

After the US invaded Afghanistan in response to the September 11 attacks, DEA special agents returned with a mission that should have been the same as their 1970s counterparts'. But it would prove much harder than before: they had to retrain Afghans to fight the War on Drugs in a country that produced 185 tonnes of opium even in 2001. The DEA had to undo what the CIA's disregard and the Mujahideen's greed had allowed to become a problem in the first place.

Then Chief of International Operations Mike Vigil masterminded Operation Containment, meant to prevent the opium produced in Afghanistan from leaving the country. The DEA attaché at the American embassy in Kabul coordinated with other DEA offices in Asia and Europe while working with twenty-five surrounding countries, from China to Russia.

A spokesman for the embassy in Kabul referred messages to DEA headquarters in Washington, which ignored my requests for comment. The embassy in Islamabad also failed to respond to an emailed list of questions. Vigil, though, characterized Containment as "highly successful."

Opium has become a livelihood for many farmers in the Afghan countryside. Image: Micheal T. Hurley

"Prior to Containment the seizure of drugs was rather minuscule, and shorty after the implementation of Containment the seizures went through the roof," he told me.

To circumvent corruption in Afghanistan, where officials often dabble in the illegal drug trade, special agents sometimes hid or obscured their missions from their local counterparts. According to Jeffrey Higgins, who worked with the DEA in Afghanistan throughout the 2000s, the DEA vetted all Afghans who partook in its operations to stem leaks about police raids to the potential targets.

While the Defense Department seemed reluctant to help the DEA with containment, which encouraged American government agencies to engage in intelligence sharing, pressure from Congress forced the Pentagon to assist the law-enforcement agency in 2004. The DEA's staff in Afghanistan ballooned from two in 2001 to forty in 2004 with a windfall of funding. That number later surpassed one hundred.

The FAST and the Furious

With more manpower, the DEA introduced Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Teams (FAST), military advisors who accompanied Afghan commandos on police raids.

Higgins, an assistant DEA attaché in 2005, emphasized the law enforcement agency's successes, such as his own role in arresting Taliban drug lords Khan Mohammad, convicted in 2008, and Haji Bagcho, convicted in 2012. The DEA trained the Afghan Counternarcotics Police. I contacted the Counternarcotics, Defense, and Interior Ministries and the National Security Council, but they ignored repeated requests for comment in Dari and Pashto, sent by email and over Facebook and Viber.

Afghan policemen review an opium seizure. Image: Micheal T. Hurley

At first glance, the DEA and FAST's initiative to build an Afghan counterpart would appear to have succeeded. Last February, Afghan special forces captured a prominent Taliban drug lord while, last December, Afghan police officers alongside DEA special agents and American special forces seized twenty tons of opium, the largest such seizure in modern history. But outside circumstances have hindered the DEA's mission.

Problems in Paradise

A former senior DEA official told me that Afghan participants in the illegal drug trade sometimes doubled as CIA informants. The government agencies had to communicate so that the DEA never arrested a CIA asset or paid an asset for intelligence that the CIA already had.

Former special agents interviewed for this article neglected to mention some of the more embarrassing, and fatal, difficulties that the DEA faced. In 2008, a Pakistani–American DEA informant supported a terrorist attack in Mumbai that killed 166, including six Americans.

In 2009, three special agents died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. In 2015, gunmen assassinated a Pakistani employee of the DEA at the American embassy in Islamabad, a critical piece of Containment. This year, the American embassy in Kabul sacked six employees for possessing drugs.

Even the Aviation Division, on which the DEA depended to surveil Taliban traffickers, had issues. DEA pilots alleged that their superiors coerced them into deploying to Afghanistan, and the Justice Department's inspector general investigated the Aviation Division for misusing funds after a whistleblower tip-off that the DEA and the Defense Department had wasted $86 million on a useless aircraft.

Opium produces a bright red flower. Image: Micheal T. Hurley

Meanwhile, the DEA has its hands tied to an extent. The agency has found on a wider level that, while its seizures may be increasing, so is the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan. It falls to not the DEA but the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), a subagency of the State Department, to stop the growth of opium in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the INL's failure to slow production has undermined the DEA's mission.

The Taliban's Strange Success

The Taliban denies a role in the illegal drug trade. "The issue of opium cultivation is a huge problem," Zabihullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, told me. "Opium cultivation was completely banned during our regime. Its cultivation is negotiable in sharia, but the Islamic Emirate banned it. When the US invaded Afghanistan, they encouraged people to grow it."

Though the Taliban now controls the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan, its short-lived government once succeeded in halting the production of opium there. In 2000, the insurgents banned the growth of the crop, and, in May 2001, a DEA special agent who visited Afghanistan confirmed that the Taliban had enacted one of the most effective counternarcotics programs in modern history, far outstripping the INL. When the American invasion swept the Taliban from power several months later, the insurgents resorted to opium like the Mujahideen before them.

Experts debate whether the Taliban prohibited growing opium because it conflicted with sharia or to inflate the price of opium already on the market, but, confronted with the might of a superpower's military, the illegal drug trade became one of the more lucrative methods of sustaining the insurgency.

The Taliban had enacted one of the most effective counternarcotics programs in modern history

However dubious the results of the US's own counternarcotics program, the special agents who worked in Afghanistan seem sure of the DEA's individual success. "I think the DEA mission has been pretty well accomplished, keeping in mind its primary mission was to establish a drug law enforcement agency in Afghanistan that was functional and honest," observed Fred Ball, a former special agent who, as an employee of the private military company Blackwater, trained members of the Afghan Counternarcotics Police.

At the height of the war, over one hundred DEA employees worked in the country. In 2011, former special agent Gary J. Hale expressed skepticism that the law enforcement agency could continue its mission with then only 75 employees spread between the embassy and forward operating bases. Now that the US has withdrawn most of its soldiers from Afghanistan, the DEA's operational presence has shrunk even more.

Higgins, the former assistant attaché, sounded optimistic about the law enforcement agency's future in a country where opium production continues to rise. "The Kabul Country Office can revert back to the way the DEA did business before the increase in manpower," he reflected in an email, noting that intelligence officers and special agents in Kabul could still work through the Afghan Counternarcotics Police and the Afghan Special Narcotics Force, which can access provinces outside the DEA's reach.

The DEA better hope that its foreign counterpart can finish the mission that the DEA started and the INL failed. Otherwise, the Taliban will have won the War on Drugs in Afghanistan.