U.S.-Afghan operations have led to the arrests of seven of Afghanistan’s most wanted drug lords and revealed the growing involvement of the Taliban in turning opium into heroin and morphine, Pentagon and Drug Enforcement Administration officials said.
U.S. and Afghan counternarcotics teams last month demolished a poppy bazaar in the southern Helmand province — an open market where traffickers sold seeds to grow top-quality opium and chemicals to turn raw opium into heroin.
The raid killed more than 40 Taliban militants in an eight-hour firefight, in which authorities recovered hundreds of suicide vests, rocket-propelled grenades and automatic weapons — including Russian-made PKM anti-aircraft weapons, said a senior U.S. official with knowledge of the operation. He asked not to be identified because of the nature of his work.
The successful raid, which has not previously been disclosed, and the arrests provide a bit of good news in a complicated struggle against drug trafficking — the key source of funding for the Taliban as it gears up to fight a surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Moreover, the Helmand battle demonstrated the importance of Afghan military and civilian police teams working with U.S. Special Forces and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to combat narcoterrorism, the U.S. official said.
Michael Braun, who was the DEA operations chief until late last year, said he could not comment specifically on last month’s operation in Helmand, which is considered the opium capital of Afghanistan.
But Mr. Braun said experiences in Afghanistan and Colombia “clearly point to the effectiveness of teaming the DEA and host-nation law enforcement with our military.”
“This is how you fight 21st-century warfare in places like Afghanistan and win,” he said.
The raid involved Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan, DEA’s foreign-deployed advisory and support teams and their trainer, the U.S. Army Special Forces.
The list, provided by U.S. officials, of Afghan drug kingpins arrested since 2005 includes Bashir Noorzai, described by the State Department as one of five founders of the Taliban governing council, or shura, in Afghanistan.
Noorzai, who is scheduled for sentencing on drug charges on April 30, was arrested in 2005 in New York. He was lured there in hopes of a deal and is thought to have offered information to U.S. prosecutors about Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader who has been in hiding since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Other traffickers arrested include Baz Mohammed, another founder of the Taliban shura, who was extradited by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. He was convicted in 2006 of drug conspiracy charges in the Southern District of New York and sentenced to 15 years in 2007.
While Afghanistan remains the world’s largest source of opium and heroin, the arrests have provided crucial information about the operations of complex South Asian drug syndicates and the links they have with extremists.
Narcotics profits have built a foundation for the Taliban to expand operations into extortion, kidnapping, natural resource smuggling and misappropriation of aid in Afghanistan, U.S. officials say.
“In Afghanistan, you can’t separate drugs from terrorism,” Mr. Braun said. “The drug traffickers are trying to destabilize the government, and it’s the same for the terrorists. They all thrive in the same ungoverned space.”
Mr. Braun, now a managing director of an international security consulting firm that works with U.S. authorities in Afghanistan, said no other illicit activity in Afghanistan “generates the kind of money that drugs produce.”
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the Taliban earns $50 million to $70 million a year from taxing Afghan opium farmers and another $200 million to $400 million from processing and selling opiates.
The Taliban and al Qaeda use drug profits to purchase weapons and hire recruits, while using trafficking routes to move contraband and militants.
U.S. intelligence and DEA officials say the extremists also raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually through kidnapping, extortion and internal corruption — all of which puts money intended for rebuilding and humanitarian relief into militant hands.
DEA spokesman Rusty Payne said U.S. authorities “partner with the government of Afghanistan to go after these groups, who are directly or indirectly responsible for aiding the Taliban extremists and other terrorist organizations.”
Mr. Payne said the DEA is planning on bolstering the number of agents in the region this year as part of the Obama administration’s new strategy to defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
About $20 million for the expansion of DEA operations was part of last year’s second “war time supplemental” budget enhancement ordered by the Bush administration.
The DEA estimates that 5 percent of Afghan heroin is sold in the United States. Most goes to Europe and Russia or is consumed in South Asia.
In an interview in Kabul in December, Army Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, operations chief for international forces in Afghanistan, said the Afghan Interior Ministry has the main responsibility for reducing opium cultivation.
“Our soldiers do not and will not physically eradicate the poppy,” he said. “We will not be out there with a sickle cutting down poppy plants.”
NATO, however, can support the Afghan effort with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities, he said.
“If this drug lab produces narcotics that benefit the insurgency, and I can prove it through intelligence, then it is a military target by definition, and I can blow it to smithereens,” Gen. Tucker said. “If this person is linked to the nexus, then I can put that person on the ‘kill or capture’ list.”
The raid in late March in southern Afghanistan is a case in point, revealing the extent of Taliban involvement in heroin production and its access to sophisticated weaponry. The PKM machine gun, for example, can be used as a light anti-aircraft weapon when it is put on an anti-aircraft mount — an ominous capability reminiscent of the Stingers that brought down Soviet helicopters in the 1980s and ultimately turned the tide in that war.
Afghan, U.S. and allied security forces “as they are hitting these [heroin] labs are finding more and more direct involvement of the Taliban with &… the refining of opium to heroin, heroin to morphine,” said the U.S. official with knowledge of last month’s operation.
FBI spokesman Richard Kolko said his agency works closely with sister agencies in the region and international partners “as a pre-emptive measure, the best way to combat international criminals and terrorists.”