Monday, May 9, 2005

The U.S. military’s commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan mean it can no longer provide enough support to drug interdiction efforts in the Caribbean and Latin America, lawmakers say.

Pentagon forces’ “support to law enforcement agencies has diminished due to their wartime commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan,” according to a briefing paper sent yesterday to members of the House Government Reform subcommittee on criminal justice, drug policy and human resources.

Rep. Mark Souder, Indiana Republican and subcommittee chairman, holds a hearing today that will examine whether the Defense Department still can fulfill its decade-and-a-half-old mandate to be the lead agency for detecting and monitoring airborne and seaborne efforts to bring illegal drugs into the United States.

The Department of Defense “has been unable or unwilling to fulfill this responsibility,” states the briefing paper, citing as an example a decline of more than 70 percent in the hours flown by naval air patrols in the two years to 2004.

The paper says the “drastic” drop is because of the Navy’s reduction of authorized flight hours for the P-3 spy plane.

For the first time in its history, the paper states, the Joint Interagency Task Force South, the military command that runs its support to drug interdiction operations in the Caribbean and Latin America does not have the assets to follow up intelligence about drug shipments.

Figures supplied by the task force show shortfalls in air assets that mean the military is only able to fly one in four of the missions it should.

“Actionable intelligence on smuggling ventures now outweigh the operational capability of U.S. counter drug assets [to act on it],” according to the paper.

No one at the Defense Department, or at Southern Command which runs the task force, responded to requests for comment yesterday, but a congressional staff member said the slack has largely been taken up by the Department of Homeland Security through the Coast Guard and the department’s Office of Air and Marine Operations.

“The DHS actually provided the majority of the assets … They are carrying the weight,” the staffer said.

Mr. Souder’s subcommittee has jurisdiction over the spending of the $12.5 billion requested by the administration for federal counternarcotics operations in 2006, nearly a billion dollars of which is currently slated to go to the military.

The Pentagon also is expected to receive $315 million for counterdrug work in the supplemental appropriation bill before the Senate and expected to be signed this week.

Congressional staff said that even though the effect of operations in Iraq on the military’s counterdrug efforts in the Western Hemisphere was less than it had been over the past two years, it was unlikely that the latter operation would return to its prewar level.

Staff said the hearing would also examine the military’s counterdrug efforts in Afghanistan, where the briefing paper quotes U.N. statistics to support its statement that the military’s efforts “were not sufficient to prevent the explosion in heroin production and trafficking.”

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