Karzai's Drug Pardons: Yesterday's News and a Bigger Issue

The latest Wikileaks document release has a state department cable from August, 2009 on Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai's pardoning of convicted drug traffickers (many of whom were cops.)

This was reported in depth at the time, and I don't see that the cable adds much. But perhaps it will put the spotlight on a bigger issue.

While searching around trying to determine if Ismal Safed ever got his pardon (and why it was considered a big deal since it involved only one sale of three kilos to an undercover agent), I came across this March, 2010 GAO report on the DEA's performance in Afghanistan. It says the DEA seized 4,083 metric tons of heroin in Afghanistan in 2008. (One metric ton equals 1,000 kilograms.) Three kilos out of 4,083,000 kilograms (and considering the opiate/heroin trade in Afghanistan amounts to $3 billion a year)is like a grain of sand. It also notes the pervasive problem of corruption, and interestingly, the high number of Afghan police who use heroin. [More...]

According to State officials, 12 to 41 percent of Afghan police recruits at Regional Training Centers test positive for drugs, depending on the province. A State official noted that this percentage likely understates the number of opium users because opiates leave the system quickly; many recruits who tested negative for drugs have shown opium withdrawal symptoms later in their training. A State official also reported that the drug demand reduction program is considering the establishment of dedicated rehabilitation clinics at the regional police training centers; however, because the police recruits leave once they finish their training, these clinics will not be able to provide the same long-term inpatient services that exist at the 26 clinics.

While State recognizes that police addiction problems are an issue, a State official said that due to limited State financial resources, its U.S. drug demand reduction programs do not specifically target police forces. Although no U.S. drug demand reduction programs specifically for Afghan police existed at the time of our field work, after sending a draft of our report to the agencies for comment in February 2010, State and Defense informed us of recent efforts by the Afghan Ministries of Interior and Public Health to establish a drug rehabilitation center in Kabul for priority use by Afghan National Police.

The report says that since 2005, the Task Force and the Tribunal have tried and convicted approximately 1,550 drug traffickers. How many more were never charged or convicted?

State has reported that narcotics-related corruption is particularly pervasive at the provincial and district levels of government, where officials have been known to facilitate drug activities and benefit from revenue streams produced by the drug trade. For example, an Afghan Ministry of Justice official noted that police and prosecutors are easy targets for bribery because they are reportedly not paid sufficiently.

A recent Defense-led interagency evaluation also found that CNPA personnel are more susceptible to corruption than regular Afghan National Police officers due to the lucrative nature of the narcotics trade. For example, Department of Justice and Afghan officials noted that, in about one-third of cases from provinces, provincial CNPA personnel have submitted drugs as evidence to the Justice Center but did not arrest the criminal suspect or suspects.

The report also notes the military joined the DEA in its Afghan efforts in 2008.

In late 2008, Defense and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization changed their policies to allow the U.S. military and ISAF forces to participate in interdiction operations in Afghanistan. DEA and Defense officials stated that these changes have enabled higher levels of interdiction operations in areas previously inaccessible due to security problems. DEA conducted 82 interdiction operations in Afghanistan during fiscal year 2009 (compared with 42 in fiscal year 2008), often with support from U.S. military and other coalition forces. These operations include, among other things, raiding drug laboratories; destroying storage sites; arresting drug traffickers; conducting roadblock operations; seizing chemicals and drugs; and conducting undercover drug purchases. The U.S. military and ISAF are also targeting narcotics trafficking and processing as part of regular counterinsurgency operations.

For 2010, Defense has established a Combined Joint Interagency Task Force-Nexus in Kandahar intended to provide coordination support, intelligence, and target packages for DEA interdiction missions as well as ISAF counterinsurgency operations that target insurgents linked to the drug trade.

During fiscal year 2009, the DEA presence in Afghanistan expanded from 13 to 81 permanently assigned agents. As of December, 2009, only 65 positions were filled. They have worked to train (with our funding) specialized units in the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan.

These specialized and vetted units include the National Interdiction Unit, a tactical unit intended to conduct raids and seizures; the Sensitive Investigative Unit, intended to gather evidence and develop cases for narcotics investigations; the Technical Investigation Unit, a subunit of the Sensitive Investigative Unit intended to collect evidence through wiretaps; and the Air Interdiction Unit, a force of eight MI-17 helicopters used to transport DEA and National Interdiction Unit personnel on air assault operations.

180 wiretaps were executed by the Technical Investigation Unit between October 2008 and June 2009. And remember the 4 million kilos of heroin the DEA seized in 2008? In 2009, the amount dropped to 593 kg.

One other note: The report says the number of Afghans using drugs has increased from 1 million to 2 million between 2005 and 2010. The Afghan Government says its largely due to a dearth of treatment programs, professional medical staff and vocational programs for addicts. From 2005 to 2009, the U.S. spent $2.5 billion fighting the drug war in Afghanistan. Here's where the money went: $992 million on poppy eradication efforts, $996 million on interdiction (drug busts), $383 million on justice programs (e.g. training prosecutors, police investigators and judges and building a detention facility), $35 million on anti-drug messages to the public, and only $18 million on drug demand reduction (treatment) programs.

Given the amount of money we're spending on DEA efforts in Afghanistan, it sure doesn't seem like we're getting much bang for the buck. A few pardons by Karzai seem like a petty diversion from the real issue: the massive cost and failure of the war on drugs.

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