Fine Print

Fine Print: Counternarcotics Intelligence in Afghanistan

U.S. Marines watch last month as poppy seeds are destroyed as part of the counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan.
U.S. Marines watch last month as poppy seeds are destroyed as part of the counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
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By Walter Pincus
Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Afghanistan Intelligence Fusion Center, begun in 2004 and run by an American contractor under U.S. Air Force direction, is based at the offices of the Afghan counternarcotics police in Kabul. It produces "time-sensitive, counter-narco terrorism intelligence" that is critical for "compilation of actionable target packages" for U.S. and coalition forces, according to a recent Air Force notice on expanding the operation.

The Aug. 6 announcement said that the Air Force's 350th Electronic Systems Group, based at Hanscom Air Force Base in Massachusetts, will award a six-month "bridge" contract to Virginia-based Cambridge Communications Systems this Friday to allow that company to continue operating and maintaining the fusion center through Feb. 22, 2010. Meanwhile, a broader new long-term contract will be opened for bidding.

As U.S., Afghan and coalition forces increase their focus on breaking up Afghan drug rings that help finance the insurgents, more support is being given to gathering and processing intelligence on drug operations. Years ago, the Air Force was designated as the lead service for drug detection and monitoring under the deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics. That's why an Air Force unit is in charge of the contract.

It was five years ago that the U.S. Central Command first decided to upgrade the intelligence gathering and sharing that supported this effort. The task was undertaken by the 350th Electronic Systems Group, which specializes in hiring contractors knowledgeable in electronic communications and computer systems that integrate, standardize and analyze information.

The 350th initially turned to Cambridge to design and install a computerized intelligence system that could take data from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration's Center for Drug Information and fuse it with information from Global Positioning System satellites, signals intelligence, human intelligence, imagery (including full motion video), and data from other technical and open sources, including coalition partners.

The system also included a Dari-language-based interface, which allowed it to accept locally generated Afghan intelligence and in return supply finished reports in that language to the Afghan counternarcotics police. It became "the only source of critical intelligence captured that is available from host nation sources," according to the Aug. 6 notice.

In a report released by the Air Force in 2007, data from the Kabul-based fusion center got credit for aiding in the seizure of more than 45 tons of drugs with an estimated street value of $1 billion and aid that helped the drug arrest rate by 75 percent. Its information also helped break up groups involved in narcotics and weapons smuggling that originated in Nigeria, Pakistan, Ivory Coast, Zambia, South Africa and Thailand. Its information aided in picking up 80 memory chips from cellphones, which when studied by the U.S. National Security Agency, has led to the identification of new smuggling rings outside Afghanistan.

The Afghan fusion center is linked in Kabul to the Interagency Operations and Coordination Center (IOCC), which is run jointly under U.S. and British leadership. The co-sponsors are the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Serious Organized Crimes Agency (SOCA), a British intelligence unit that has law enforcement powers. Leadership rotates between the two agencies.

DEA and SOCA personnel, along with Afghan units trained and mentored by those agencies, use the target packages to track down the country's major narcotics networks and interdict traffickers. Wing Commander Tom Wood of the British Royal Air Force, IOCC chief of staff, told a reporter for Stars and Stripes in May: "We look at the intel. We work out who the key players are."

Wood said with good information they get arrest warrants that the Afghan special narcotics police this year have used to take in 51 people through May 24. At that point, Wood said, there is a difficulty. "Even though we do arrest these people, they quite often get out," he said. "The judicial system is still being put into place. The problem is the system is so corrupt still."

Meanwhile, the report released last week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on U.S. counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan noted that a new task force targeting drug traffickers along with insurgents and corrupt officials is planned for the Kandahar air field in southern Afghanistan. This unit, designed to gather intelligence and build legal cases, will inevitably link to both the fusion center and the IOCC. Though the committee report said formal approval from Washington and London has yet to come, operations are already being coordinated.

A SOCA operative told committee investigators it is critical to unite military and law enforcement experts. "In the past, the military would have hit and the evidence would not have been collected," he said. "Now, with law enforcement present, we are seizing the ledgers and other information to develop an intelligence profile of the networks and the drug kingpins."

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