Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan are increasingly turning to drug money to buy weapons, prompting the Pentagon to beef up counternarcotics operations.
Military intelligence sources say convoys regularly move into southern Afghanistan from Pakistan, dropping off guns for the Taliban in exchange for opium from the world’s largest poppy harvest.
The drug money is financing a 4-month-old Taliban offensive, one of the largest since the allies ousted the Taliban from power 22 months ago. Some U.S. analysts said in interviews they believe the new drive is directed by the reclusive Mullah Mohammed Omar, the ousted Taliban leader who has evaded an intensive U.S. manhunt, as has his comrade in arms, Osama bin Laden.
Local Afghans are telling special operations forces that Mullah Omar hides in the mountains north and northeast of Kandahar, his onetime home base. Mullah Omar has made trips inside Pakistan to help direct the recruitment and staging of fresh Taliban troops for re-entry into Afghanistan in and around the border down of Chaman.
“We don’t have a lot of pictures of him,” said an intelligence officer. “He could walk right past me in a village and I wouldn’t know it.”
The operation works this way: The Jihadi Madrassa in Quetta, near the Afghanistan border, recruits young Muslims who want to join the jihad, or holy war, against the allies. They attend the school, get military and religious training, and then form units to go into Afghanistan.
The United States suspects agents of the ISI, Pakistan’s intelligence service, are aiding the insurgency.
In the most recent offensive, an estimated 1,000 Taliban entered Afghanistan and were met by a U.S. counterattack dubbed “Mountain Viper.” Elements of the 10th Mountain Division, backed by Green Berets on the ground and C-130 gunships from above, intercepted some of the invaders.
Commanders said they believe 175 Taliban fighters were killed, while scores of others were turned back across the border. Some insurgents, however, got to their targets, which include schools, police stations and Afghans who cooperate in President Hamid Karzai’s emerging democratic government.
Fighting along the border continued last week. In one exchange, a U.S. soldier was killed and two wounded in a fierce gunbattle near an allied base in Shkin, near Pakistan.
The Associated Press quoted Khan Mohammed, an Afghan government commander in Khandahar, as saying, “There is no doubt that the situation is getting worse. The Taliban have regrouped and my troops are battling them all the time. These raids will continue.”
The Bush administration has talked publicly of ridding Afghanistan of its lucrative poppy crop that provides 70 percent of the world’s heroin. But the objective has not been a top priority, according to soldiers who recently served there.
“It wasn’t high on the list,” said a Green Beret. “We pressured the warlords not to engage in the activity, but with all the opium in their caches, we knew … that they were not going to let it rot.”
Now, as this year’s bumper crop increasingly is funding Taliban rearmament, the administration is backing a more aggressive operation.