Partnership against heroin: Contractors help US combat narcotraffickers in Afghanistan

by J Michael Waller / Serviam / March 1, 2008.

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Kabul, Afghanistan—“I used to wear a burqa. I will never wear one again. Except to fight drug traffickers.” That’s what a female police officer of Afghanistan’s Narcotics Interdiction Unit (NIU) says with a shy smile. The bad guys can’t recognize a heavily armed cop under the face-to-foot covering that all women were forced to wear during Taliban rule.

The officer is one of several dozen at the NIU’s training camp outside the Afghan capital. The young woman is at the front lines of an uphill war against opium and heroin production. The processing and smuggling of illegal drugs has been a massive cash-earner for the Taliban, with money and the specter of death causing many officials to close their eyes.

The United States has spent billions of dollars over the past six years fighting illegal drug production in Afghanistan, but the effort is seemingly going nowhere or worse: Heroin production was up for the second year in a row in 2007, according to the State Department. Afghanistan produces 93 percent of all opium poppy in the world, and provides much of the morphine and most of the heroin on the planet.

That alarming trend has caused Afghanistan, the United States, and Coalition allies to rethink their counternarcotics strategy for the country. The landlocked, impoverished nation is now caught in a deadly bind: Its tiny, struggling economy now depends on drug trafficking, yet drugs threaten to consume the country, prompting President Hamid Karzai to lament, “If we do not destroy poppy, poppy will destroy Afghanistan.”

With a weak central government and strong local control in the hands of regional governors, tribes, and warlords—and about 10 percent of the country still under Taliban control—Afghanistan presents the most daunting of challenges to ensure that the country avoids return to a terrorist state. The Taliban and al Qaeda depend on revenues from poppy harvests and narcotics trafficking. Fighting illegal drug production is seen as crucial to destroying both extremist forces.

And the U.S. government doesn’t have enough trained and experienced personnel to do the job. That’s where private contractors come in. To support the efforts of the State Department, Department of Defense (DoD), and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), private contractors are playing an increasingly important role.

The role of private contractors in fighting illegal drugs is as controversial as the drug war itself, but there is surprisingly broad consensus that, with adjustments, the existing public-private partnership is vital. “The size, complexity, and need for expertise and continuity are primary factors that cause heavy reliance on contractors to carry out many U.S. Government-funded CN [counternarcotics] programs,” according to the Interagency Assessment of the Counternarcotics Program in Afghanistan, a 2007 report of the inspectors general of State and DoD.

Another factor is that labor unions forbid the detailing of certain government employees to other departments. The State and DoD inspectors general found, “Department of State officials stated that existing collective bargaining agreements with the American Foreign Service Association inhibit recruitment from across the government.”

One of the best-known contractors in the antidrug fight, Texas-based DynCorp International, administers the State Department’s opium poppy eradication program in Afghanistan, roughly modeled on the company’s coca and poppy efforts in Colombia. The DEA and DoD counternarcotics program is supported by Blackwater Worldwide. Other major contractors in the fight include Lockheed Martin, Hill & Knowlton, and SAIC.

Five-pillar counternarcotics strategy

The United States has a bipartisan counternarcotics strategy that rests on five pillars: (1) eradication of the plants used to make illegal drugs, such as opium poppy; (2) alternative livelihoods for the poor farmers who raise such crops to make a living; (3) interdiction of drugs once they are processed and produced, and general law enforcement; (4) reform of Afghanistan’s justice system; and (5) public information programs to enable Afghan officials to communicate effectively with the population.

In their 2007 joint report, the inspectors general of State and Defense found that the five-pillar strategy “is reasonable and comprehensive. However, it is unclear how this strategy fits in with broader U.S. Government objectives such as security, good governance, and economic development in Afghanistan. U.S. Government departments and agencies do not share a common operational approach to CN [counternarcotics] issues. The U.S. Government has not used either incentives or disincentives in the most effective manner.”

That lack of clarity has presented challenges for all involved, especially when policies might run at cross-purposes. The contractors retained to carry out those policies are caught in the middle. Yet at the same time, their experience as “boots on the ground” is helping policymakers to arrive at solutions.

Eradication vs. interdiction

The antidrug fight in Afghanistan is split by a philosophical divide. The State Department favors crop eradication: destroying the raw materials for narcotics as they are grown on farms. The DEA and DoD prefer interdiction of illegal drugs after they have been produced and going after the traffickers, not the farmers.

There is a practical reason for the different approaches. The first seeks to wipe out entire crops of drug plants, especially in areas where the locals are hostile. “Eradication—going in and burning fields, cutting down the opium poppy crop—sounds like a good idea but it wreaks havoc on local communities, takes away the livelihood of the farmers, and [angers] the locals,” a contractor in Afghanistan tells Serviam. “In these cases, U.S. soldiers are perceived as enemies and the Taliban wins people’s loyalties.”

That doesn’t play well with the U.S. military, whose new counterinsurgency doctrine stresses winning over the local population. Destroying the livelihoods of poor farmers needlessly creates enemies, who turn to the drug traffickers and their terrorist allies for protection. Crop substitution doesn’t work in a country with almost no transportation infrastructure, food processing facilities, or cold storage. As a result, the U.S. Central Command is taking a different approach to fighting drug production in Afghanistan: allowing the poor farmers to grow poppies and get paid by the traffickers, then interdicting the drugs once they are processed and ready for smuggling abroad.

Last year, State Department and DoD inspectors general noted the pickle that Afghanistan—and U.S. policymakers—are in “vigorous pursuit of a CN agenda risks social and political upheaval, further threatening the tenuous ‘reach’ of the central government. Moreover, Afghan officials pointed to the jobs and income benefits that accrue from the narcotics trade, equivalent to approximately one-third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.”

In 2006, Afghan poppy farmers took in about $755 million in sales to opium and heroin producers, with Afghan traffickers making an estimated $2.5 billion, according to the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). That total rose to $4 billion in 2007. The entire 2006 crop, if processed into heroin, would have a street value of $38 billion.

Western counternarcotics spending in Afghanistan is paltry in comparative dollar terms. The United States provided more than $420 million in FY 2006 for Afghan counternarcotics programs through State, DoD, the Justice Department (mainly DEA), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The United States and NATO cannot compete dollar for dollar. Concludes the State and DoD inspectors general report, “There is no realistic possibility of outspending economic incentives in the narcotics industry.”

Fighting traffickers and the Taliban at once

Battling illegal drug production in Afghanistan is part of an overall strategy to destroy the Taliban and al-Qaeda in the country. “Since drugs are funding the insurgency, NATO has a self-interest in supporting Afghan forces in destroying drug labs, markets and convoys. Destroy the drug trade and you cut off the Taliban’s main funding source,” said UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa on releasing Afghan opium figures for 2007.

“Time is not on our side. Either we sow the seeds of security and development now, or the Taliban will reap its deadly harvest in the future,” Costa said.

By setting up Kabul’s new NIU, the Pentagon and DEA are supporting the counterinsurgency effort in a creative way. The drug traffickers lose twice: They pay the farmers for the poppy crops, lessening the Coalition’s need to pay farmers not to grow the plants, while the traffickers—and the terrorists—are deprived of the value-added products to be smuggled abroad.

The NIU was founded in 2004 as an Afghan counterpart to the DEA. Germany and France in particular originally divided responsibilities between themselves and other NATO members. Most of the European aid came in the form of equipment such as vehicles and uniforms, and construction of buildings. DEA took responsibility of training NIU personnel, with funding support from the U.S. military.

The State Department runs most of the counter­narcotics effort through its International Narcotics Law Enforcement (INL) program. INL runs high-profile counterdrug operations elsewhere, as in the eradication effort in Colombia. DoD and DEA have a much smaller portion.

“We’re involved on DoD side,” says Jeff Gibson, vice president for international training at Blackwater. “We interdict. The NIU surgically goes after shipments going to Iran or Pakistan. We provide training to set up roadblocks, identify where drug lords are, and act so as not to impact the community.”

Stretching $20 million

The clean terra cotta siding and white trim of new training buildings, spiffed up with basic landscaping for a professional, morale-boosting look, stand sharply in contrast to the bulldozed earth, heavily marked minefields from previous wars, and the bleak, jagged hills surrounding the school. About 15 NIU trainees, each with a bright blue training version of the Russian Kalashnikov assault rifle, form a line against one of the school buildings as English-speaking Blackwater instructors demonstrate raiding tactics. Afghan interpreters simultaneously translate the directions as an instructor calls each trainee by name, helps him or her get into a proper crouch with a touch on the back and shoulder, and gives a reassuring pat of approval.

The way the Afghans hold their weapons—with index finger extended safely on the receiver, above but not on the trigger—shows how the training has been drilled into them. Instinct generally motivates people to keep the finger on the trigger, even when at rest, a source of many accidental shootings.

Staccato volleys of automatic weapons fire echo from a shooting range in the barren, rocky hills. Here, NIU trainees at a more advanced level are practicing weapons tactics, each with their own Kalashnikov and 9 mm Glock pistol. On either side of the range sits a twin-cab police pickup bearing a swivel-mounted machine gun. This is where the new antidrug police become proficient with the tactical weapons they will use against the narcotraffickers.

Since August 2004, NIU has graduated about 11 classes of trainees, for a total of about 270 paramilitary counter-narcotics officers. Basic training lasts six weeks. The first four weeks cover basic military and law enforcement training, and the last two are specialized in counternarcotics. “After they’re trained, our guys are still there and provide them with additional training for perishable skills like marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat. We get to incorporate new, advanced tactics in the training,” Gibson says.

The budget for that sector of the program is about $18 million to $20 million a year. The funds cover construction of classrooms and training facilities, vehicles, weapons, uniforms, and other consumables. About 16 Blackwater personnel are in Afghanistan at any given time to support DoD and DEA efforts at training facilities around the country.

To date, DEA-trained NIU officers have confiscated more than 400 tons of opium and hashish, with an estimated street value of $3.5 billion.

Social mobility and force cohesion

NIU police cover a cross-section of Afghan society. Their faces reflect the diverse racial and cultural makeup of the country. About 10 to 15 percent of NIU personnel are women: a cultural step forward in local terms, as the women work side-by-side with the men. While the women wear traditional scarves to cover their heads, they do not cover their faces unless wearing black balaclava masks to shield their identities while on an operation, or voluntarily wearing burqas to go undercover.

Once out in the field, the NIU graduates show the same determination they displayed in their training. “About a year and a half ago they lost two officers in an ambush,” Gibson says. “They got intelligence on a drug lab outside of Kabul. Two officers went out to verify the source, but it was a setup and they were ambushed and killed.

“We believed that this unit was becoming more effective and that the ambush was a backlash. We were concerned that the Afghans would say, ‘Screw this, we’re not going to do it any more.’ But they got energized and they became stronger, and much more proud of what they were doing. It steeled their determination,” the Blackwater international training chief says. “I thought guys would quit or not show up, but instead they put more purpose behind it.”

Policy integration

The United States is improving its ability to fight illegal narcotics. In an effort to think and act strategically, using a broad array of instruments of national power, the U.S. government has an Inter-Agency Counternarcotics Strategy Group.The coordinator of the strategy group is the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) at the Department of State. INL is the government nerve center for the drug war. It advises the president, the secretary of state, other offices of the State Department, and other government departments and agencies on the policy and program development to fight global drug trafficking and organized crime.“INL programs support two of the Department’s strategic goals: (1) to reduce the entry of illegal drugs into the United States; and (2) to minimize the impact of international crime on the United States and its citizens,” according to the State Department.

“Counternarcotics and anticrime programs also complement the war on terrorism, both directly and indirectly, by promoting modernization of and supporting operations by foreign criminal justice systems and law enforcement agencies charged with the counterterrorism mission.”

Under INL, the Inter-Agency Counternarcotics Strategy Group includes members from the Counter-Narcotics Center, the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Central Command, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Department of Justice Criminal Division, the National Security Agency, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the State Department’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, the Department of the Treasury, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). At higher levels, the National Security Council (NSC) at the White House chairs the Deputies’ Committee in which relevant government departments are represented at the deputy secretary, or Number Two level. The NSC also chairs the Principals’ Committee of agency chiefs and cabinet secretaries.

Source: U.S. Department of State

Working with the locals

The NIU is a paramilitary police force, but the stress is on enforcing the law. Most DoD and DEA-sponsored trainers have law enforcement backgrounds, mainly as former state and local counternarcotics police or FBI special agents, along with a few DEA veterans. Some of the trainers have military special forces backgrounds, but DoD and DEA found that a military-centric approach does not do well with what the NIU is seeking to accomplish. “It’s a real hearts and minds approach, emphasizing law enforcement, local customs and rules, and the law. These people know how to work with the communities,” says Gibson.

The Afghans have taught their American and European supporters a thing or two about effective counternarcotics work. A big challenge is transportation: how to move police and equipment from point to point and to combat the criminals more effectively. The Western approach is to send out helicopters to a forward operating base in a remote area, in noisy, high-visibility operations that often leave the locals out of the picture. While that approach is valid in certain instances, the NIU prefers relying on local tribal relationships, moving in and out of areas in normal vehicles, staying in the villages and completely blending in. “It seems kind of cumbersome to do it that way, but the countrymen move the police along,” says one trainer.

In many areas and situations, the locals are satisfied with drug production and all the money it brings in, and the police are unwelcome. About 12 to 13 percent of the Afghan population is involved in illegal drug production, mostly opium poppy farming. Under such circumstances, the State Department reasons that eradication by air is the only viable option.

But in other parts of the country, where the locals don’t want the drug production or trafficking, the situation calls for the NIU approach. The State Department program eradicates the plants. NATO and Afghan forces fight the Taliban in the counterinsurgency. The NIU and other interdiction forces are more surgical, looking for pushers and traffickers.

New security needs

When the security situation deteriorates, program funds need to be diverted to provide for the safety of the counternarcotics and USAID personnel. The report of the inspectors general looked at USAID workers and contractors on the alternative livelihood programs (ALPs) to help make it profitable for farmers not to farm poppies. “The prospect of violence made delivery of ALP more expensive, as U.S. Government contractors and direct-hire employees required additional protection. In May 2005, attacks on ALP teams in Helmand resulted in 11 deaths and a five-month suspension of work by USAID contractor, Chemonics. Another consequence of deteriorating security is a significant restriction of where ALP teams can operate. For example, in Helmand, the largest poppy-producing province in the country, the very active Taliban presence severely constrains ALP activity.”

Contractors also need to be assured that they can be evacuated in the event of crisis. “The threat of violence and the uncertain availability of inextremis support hindered interdiction efforts by the Afghan Narcotics Interdiction Unit (NIU) operating with and mentored by the DEA,” according to the State/DoD inspector general’s report. “As with eradication, interdiction efforts—e.g., arrest of suspects, destruction of laboratories, etc.—often depend on force protection provided by coalition military units. Without assurance of in extremis support, CN missions were canceled, and NIU attempts to schedule interdiction raids were halted for several months.”

How mentoring works

The Department of Defense (DoD) mentoring approach shows promise for the long-term battle against illegal drug production in Afghanistan. In interviews, Afghan police officials from the Narcotics Interdiction Unit (NIU) and contractors who worked on the program say that mentoring under a public-private partnership can provide long-term support for Afghan forces with greater continuity and at lower cost than if done by uniformed or civilian U.S. government personnel. Serviam interviewed Jeff Gibson, vice president for international training at Blackwater Worldwide, for company insights into how the DoD and DEA mentor Afghan trainees.

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In extremis refers to individuals under attack who require rescue by “military assets.” Military assets include not only the armed forces of the U.S. and other governments, but also the private contractors serving in a security or logistical capacity. Serviam has received several reports of Blackwater pilots, on contract to ferry personnel, mail, and supplies to U.S. military forward operating bases in Afghanistan, volunteering to medevac wounded troops from combat areas to safety in Kabul or Bagram.

Huge challenges

The challenges ahead are so broad and deep that it’s tempting for people to throw up their hands. “Development of an Afghan capacity—human and physical—is a prerequisite for an effective and sustainable counternarcotics program,” according to the State Department and DoD inspectors general. “Decades of fighting ruined almost all Afghan institutions and prevented development of human capital sorely needed to rebuild those institutions.

“Efforts to establish, train and equip an effective counternarcotics police for Afghanistan (CNP-A) are underresourced and incomplete. The judicial system is generally ineffective, beset by corrupt judges, ill-trained prosecutors, and illiterate police. Afghan police, prosecutors, and judges continue to debate division of authorities within the system. Although key Afghan officials wish to see prosecution of significant cases in country and oppose extradition, the judicial system does not appear strong enough to survive a major scandal or robust physical attack.” And that’s just the beginning (see sidebar).

Cooperation among contractors: Solving contractor issues is mainly one of government management

Government investigations have found several problems with contracting in the Afghan counternarcotics program, but most concern how the government writes and administers the contracts, and not the contractors themselves.Increased public awareness and congressional oversight are helping to make changes. So are the contractors, who believe it in their best interests as both businesses and as Americans to have clear rules of the road and lines of accountability.

On the ground, the private contractors supporting State, Defense, and DEA counternarcotics work remarkably well together. “It’s awesome,” says Gibson. “They’ve got the same mentality, the same work ethic, they just want to get it done. The big problem is when it gets back to the corporate level. There’s substantial competition there.”

But on the ground, the teamwork is obvious. DynCorp runs the large camp at Gardez, capital of Paktia province in southeastern Afghanistan. Near Tora Bora, the mountainous hideout of Osama bin Laden, Gardez is a mini-boom town of road and building construction for a long-term drug war. Along the local airstrip are the hulks of scores—perhaps hundreds—of rusting Soviet tanks and armored vehicles. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the Communists virtually depopulated the region.

Blackwater and other contractors work out of the large Quonset hut that DynCorp runs for the U.S. government. While corporate accountants and officers haggle over billing issues, it’s clear from visiting Gardez that the contractors, regardless of their company, are on the same team. “To me it’s a bunch of Americans helping the Afghanis,” a firearms trainer says. “When you take things up the corporate food chain, the mood changes. But here, in-country, the folks rise above that.”

Individuals with special expertise commonly go from contract to contract, working for different companies each time. “One day you’ll be working for DynCorp and another day you’ll be working for Blackwater,” says Gibson. “All the time, though, we’re working for the United States. This is great—you get to use all these guys with all their skills and experience and put them where they’re needed.”

Lockheed Martin provides support for mentoring, positioning experts with local Afghan counternarcotics officials. A unit of SAIC mentors Afghanistan’s Ministry of the Interior, which runs the national police.

In their 2007 report, the inspectors general of State and Defense found similar cooperation among allied governments in Afghanistan. “Despite some policy differences, cooperation on CN issues between the U.S. Government and coalition governments is close and generally productive.”