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Riding camera with the raiders
FORWARD OPERATING BASE SHINDAND, Afghanistan
According to colleagues back home, our Fox News team here in Afghanistan has missed all the excitement.
They note that since we left the United States last month, Washington was the scene of the largest peaceful protest in history against a sitting government. We didn't get to see a bold congressman rise during a televised joint session of Congress to accuse the president of the United States of prevaricating. We were unable to witness the "outing" of White House "green jobs czar" Van Jones, or the sudden disgrace of a corrupt, scandal-ridden "anti-poverty" organization called ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now). And because we don't have television or radio or newspapers out here, we also missed Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s blitz on Baghdad. All pretty exciting stuff. But I wouldn't trade all of that for a single day with the "raiders" with whom we have been keeping company.
The raiders are an extraordinary cross-section of talent, tenacity, experience and courage. In their ranks are U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agents, intelligence specialists, linguists, U.S. and coalition special operators, pilots and air-crewmen from the Department of Defense and State Department's International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Bureau, contract weapons and tactics experts and some very dedicated, brave and resourceful Afghan police officers. In the last few months, these raiders have become the nemesis of the Taliban, and they have done it all "beneath the radar" of the mainstream media.
Our Fox News team has now spent nearly a month embedded with them on operations that span the length and breadth of this harsh land. By agreement, we do not photograph or videotape most of their faces nor identify them by anything but their first names. In our broadcasts, we are not allowed to specify who is, or who is not, part of a particular military unit. On many of their operations, they use non-U.S. aircraft and rarely employ American military vehicles. Yet, thanks to the DEA's unique ability to collect accurate, "full spectrum intelligence" validated by human sources and exploit that information with rapid, direct action, the raiders' effectiveness in taking on the Taliban is unparalleled. One of the missions we accompanied this week provides a dramatic example.
We launched well before dawn on three Russian Mi-17 helicopters, a surreal experience for me. I had trained for years in the Marines on how to shoot these aircraft down. Now, I was riding in one, armed with a camera and covering other young men fighting a different enemy.
The birds headed southeast from Jalalabad, escorted by Vietnam-era UH1 "Huey" gunships to the raid objectives, less than 10 kilometers from the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in mountainous Nangarhar Province. At first light, we touched down -- a force of 43 DEA agents, NATO special operators, police officers from Afghanistan's Narcotics Interdiction Unit (NIU) and Special Investigations Unit (SIU) -- and two confidential informants, their heads covered with balaclavas to prevent identification.
The informants led the raid force directly to the first target -- a waystation on an opium ratline into Taliban-controlled territory in Pakistan. Walid, a senior SIU investigator, immediately found exactly what he was looking for -- precursor chemicals, opium, morphine base and pure heroin. At the site he told me, "Money from these drugs will never get to the Taliban." He was right -- the drugs and chemicals were destroyed with an explosive charge.
Then it was back to the landing zone for a quick flight to the second objective -- a drug-processing lab. The raiders, led by one of the informants, set up a cordon and moved rapidly into the buildings, finding the occupants had fled -- leaving their children behind.
DEA Special Agent Keith Weis, the raid leader, and one of the few we are allowed to identify, said that intelligence indicated that the site was part of "a significant organization with ties to the Taliban," an allegation substantiated by documents and records seized from the building. The operator of the lab, identified by an informant, was taken into custody, and the drugs and chemicals were wired with explosives by the NATO Special Operations Team.
It was an extraordinary haul. According to Mohammad Dawod, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister, the six-hour raid destroyed about 2,200 pounds of opium, about 660 pounds of morphine, about 66 pounds of pure heroin, more than 440 pounds of precursor chemicals and yielded weapons and reams of documents. Estimated "street value" of the drugs and chemicals in Western Europe or the United States: well over $3 million.
After footage of the raid aired on Fox News, the single greatest inquiry we received wasn't about the drugs, the Taliban or the raiders. It was, "What happened to the little babies who were abandoned at the lab?"
Here's the answer: The DEA informants pointed out the two mothers in the crowd that gathered nearby -- and the NIU officers handed the children to them. Both girls, barely in their teens, are the wives of the lab operator, a 58-year-old man. If he's convicted, it's unlikely the children will ever get to know their father.
Oliver North is the host of "War Stories" on the Fox News Channel, the author of "American Heroes" and the founder and honorary chairman of Freedom Alliance.
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