By Craig Whitlock
Saturday, October 24, 2009
KABUL -- A U.S. military hit list of about 50 suspected drug kingpins is drawing fierce opposition from Afghan officials, who say it could undermine their fragile justice system and trigger a backlash against foreign troops.
The U.S. military and NATO officials have authorized their forces to kill or capture individuals on the list, which was drafted within the past year as part of NATO's new strategy to combat drug operations that finance the Taliban. The list is thought to include people with close ties to the Afghan government and others who have served as intelligence assets for the CIA and the U.S. military, according to current and former U.S. and Afghan officials.
Afghan counternarcotics officials expressed frustration that U.S. and NATO military leaders have refused to divulge the names on the list, a decision that they said could undercut joint operations to hunt down opium traffickers.
Gen. Mohammad Daud Daud, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister for counternarcotics efforts, praised U.S. and British special forces for their help recently in destroying drug labs and stashes of opium. But he said he worried that foreign troops would now act on their own to kill suspected drug lords, based on secret evidence, instead of handing them over for trial.
"They should respect our law, our constitution and our legal codes," Daud said. "We have a commitment to arrest these people on our own."
For years, the NATO-led military coalition in Afghanistan ignored the opium trade, saying their mission was to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda, not drug dealers. Afghanistan's poppy fields supply about 90 percent of the world's opium.
At a meeting in Budapest last October, however, NATO defense ministers reversed their strategy and authorized their forces to confiscate narcotics and target drug labs as well as kingpins who provide monetary or other support to the Taliban.
Target list of 50
Since then, the U.S. military has developed a target list of about 50 drug kingpins thought to support the insurgency and has ruled that they can be killed or captured "on the battlefield," according to a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report released in August.
Two unnamed U.S. generals in Afghanistan told the committee's staff members that the list complies with international law and the U.S. military's rules of engagement because it contains only drug lords with "proven links" to the insurgency. To add someone to the list, the Pentagon requires "two verifiable human sources and substantial additional evidence," according to the Senate report.
U.S. Army Col. Wayne M. Shanks, chief of public affairs for coalition forces in Afghanistan, declined to answer questions about the list or to say whether anyone on it has been killed or captured.
The military "is concerned when we see a nexus between insurgent activity or financing and drug trafficking in Afghanistan," he said in an e-mail. "We regularly conduct operations to limit the insurgents' ability to intimidate, or otherwise threaten the Afghan people."
Ali Ahmad Jalali, a former Afghan interior minister, said that he had long urged the Pentagon and its NATO allies to crack down on drug smugglers and suppliers, and that he was glad that the military alliance had finally agreed to provide operational support for Afghan counternarcotics agents. But he said foreign troops needed to avoid the temptation to hunt down and kill traffickers on their own.
"There is a constitutional problem here. A person is innocent unless proven guilty," he said. "If you go off to kill or capture them, how do you prove that they are really guilty in terms of legal process?"Need for secrecy
At the same time, Jalali said he could understand why U.S. and NATO officials would want to keep their target list a secret from their Afghan counterparts. Corruption in the Afghan government is widespread, and some high-ranking officials are suspected to be involved in the drug trade.
Jalali said the Afghan government once kept its own secret list of drug traffickers. The list was considered highly sensitive, he said, because many of the suspects had ties to influential Afghan leaders, while others had served as intelligence assets for the CIA or the U.S. Defense Department.
"Many of these people were empowered by the international community when they were fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda after 9/11," said Jalali, now a professor at the National Defense University in Washington. "There was no political will to go after them."
In general, NATO forces have taken a more aggressive approach against Afghan drug operations in recent months, particularly in southern poppy-growing provinces.
In Kandahar, U.S. and British troops are joining a new task force consisting of Afghan police officers, U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents and officers from Britain's Serious Organized Crime Agency. The task force's mission is to seize heroin stockpiles, blow up drug labs and investigate corrupt Afghan officials.New approach praised
U.N. officials, who closely monitor the drug trade in Afghanistan, praised the new cooperative approach. They said the joint police-military operations were especially timely because opium production has dropped by more than one-third since 2007 because of a supply glut on the global market.
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Afghanistan director for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said the decline represented a one-time opportunity to make a permanent dent in production levels. He said NATO's help in going after drug labs and stockpiles had proven effective, but he cautioned the military against taking the fight a step too far.
"Extrajudicial killing is not something you want to see," Lemahieu said. "Let's be very, very clear. Don't expect the military to do the job of a police officer. It won't work."
Afghanistan's nascent judicial system, however, has struggled to enforce the law against traffickers. And when it does win convictions, cases can still fall apart.
In April, five traffickers who had been sentenced to long prison terms received pardons from President Hamid Karzai, who said he intervened "out of respect" for their family members. One defendant was the nephew of Karzai's campaign manager.
"We have some people, powerful people, inside and outside government, who can freely smuggle drugs," said Nur al-Haq Ulumi, a member of the Afghan parliament from Kandahar. "If we had an honest government, the government could track down and arrest these people -- everybody knows this."
But Ulumi said it would make things worse if coalition troops began to kill drug dealers. "Already, people feel that foreigners didn't really come here to reconstruct our country," he said. "They think the foreigners just came here to kill us."
Ahmad Big Qaderi, director general of prosecutions for the Criminal Justice Task Force, which oversees narcotics cases and is financed largely by the U.S. government, said NATO forces needed to trust his agency to prosecute drug dealers.
"We should go through the Afghan legal channels to convict criminals," he said. "We have professional staff here and all the mechanisms to prosecute the big fishes."