Thursday, December 22, 2005

Odd? Maybe. Predictable? Probably. Worrisome? Definitely. Word is trickling back from Iraq, through official and unofficial channels, that “opiates” (likely of Afghan origin) may be showing up in dead Iraqi insurgents.

Five questions flow from that trickle.

(1) Is it true? Is it possible that, consistent with anecdotal reports of heroin and methamphetamines discovered more often (especially in southern Iraqi cities of Basrah and Najaf), insurgents are getting a mind-numbing dose of heroin prior to suicide attacks? There are ways to find out. First, add that question to current and future interrogations. Second, do basic testing where possible on remains. Third, do a drug test shortly after apprehending someone, as we often do after arrests in this country. We might discover something worthwhile.

(2) If insurgents are getting “juiced” to commit horrific, suicidal acts — largely condemned by the Koran — what would adherents to so-called Radical Islam make of it? What would fence-sitters who count themselves Islamic fundamentalists say? Is that even vaguely Islamic? The word should spread, if these reports are true.

(3) What is the origin of the heroin, if it is heroin or a similar potent opiate? One guess. The obvious answer is the country now supplying 82 percent of the world’s heroin: Afghanistan. The drugs would have to move into Iraq via sea or across Iran. The latter is likelier, given porous borders on both sides of Iran, a history of smuggling drugs across both borders, and close ties between Shi’ites in southern Iraq and Iran.

Notably, earlier this year, the International Narcotics Control Board observed “high levels of insurgent violence and porous borders have drawn traffickers to Iraq,” and that “Jordan has seized large quantities of drugs on the Iraq border.”

(4) What is to be done? The answer is simple: Engage Iraqi Shi’ites in helping close down transshipments and in public discussion of the issue and a more aggressive effort to address the problem at its source, inside Afghanistan.

(5) Finally, what does the possible link mean operationally? Not much in terms of stopping a VBIED or mobile suicide attacker, since there is little difference between an insurgent exercising murderous irrationality and an insurgent exercising drugged-up murderous irrationality. But there could be real implications for intelligence-gathering, cross-fertilization of drug-related and insurgent-related information, increased counter-drug training for Iraqi police, greater reliance on Drug Enforcement Agency and other counternarcotics experts, and a potential to leverage this connection to find more bad guys.

Importantly, there is no official confirmation of the link yet, and anecdotal reports offer little comfort for those who must make the critical decisions. Multipoint verification, never mind proof beyond a reasonable doubt, is not in hand.

Still, the power of logic, scattered reports of an emerging link, a glance at the map, and the value of proving insurgents are drugged when they explode, raise poignant questions — for everyone. The questions are worth asking; answers are worth pursuing. If the link is real, it tells us a lot.

Robert B. Charles, president of the Charles Group in Washington, D.C., and Gaithersburg, Md., is former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement.

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