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U.S. Law Enforcement Approach to Afghan Drug Trade Spared Criticism

Afghan President Hamid Karzai criticized a U.S.-Russian effort to crack down on the Afghan drug trade, but the criticism only fell to Russian involvement. President Karzai considered Russian participation an invasion of sovereignty and international law, but spared the United States any such criticism. The question remains whether President Karzai can fully support United States law enforcement efforts against the $2.6 billion-a-year drug trade that accounts for over a third of the Afghan economy.

Recently the United States’ Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) teamed up with Russian and Afghan drug control agents to disrupt major heroin and opium supplies in Afghanistan. The raids confiscated over a ton of heroin and opium, with estimated street values between $55 million and $250 million. It is unclear why the Russians participated in the raid, other than earlier Russian criticism that coalition forces were not doing enough to tackle the enormous drug problem emanating from Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation. Russian military activity in Afghanistan remains a sensitive subject considering decade-long war between the two countries which ended in 1989. President Karzai criticized the operation for including Russian soldiers, in that he president’s office was not informed that Russian soldiers would participate.

Noticeably missing from President Karzai’s criticism was any mention of the DEA’s heavy involvement in Afghanistan. The DEA vocally considers fighting drugs intrinsically linked to military success in Afghanistan, and their involvement seems not to be questioned by NATO or Afghan officials. Acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart testified before Congress in March 2009 that the “DEA plays an integral role in the United States’ overall Afghanistan strategy. Drug trafficking fuels terrorism and destabilizes governments. DEA is working closely with the Afghan Government to create institutions capable of enforcing the rule of law.” Ms. Leonhart explained to Congress in 2008 that “[t]he nexus between drugs and terrorism, particularly terrorism financing, has been well documented . . . Because of this connection, DEA plays a central role in U.S. anti-terrorism efforts by striking at the infrastructure of foreign terrorist organizations.” This rationale has lead to the extradition, prosecution, and convictions of Afghan drug lords in U.S. federal courts (see, e.g., United States v. Noorzai, 545 F. Supp. 2d 346 (2008)).

But other U.S. officials worry that the law enforcement approach to Afghanistan’s drug trade has its drawbacks. In 2006, then-Director of the CIA Michael V. Hayden testified before Congress that the Afghan drug trade is “almost the devil’s own problem. Right now the issue is stability. . . . Going in there in itself and attacking the drug trade actually feeds the instability that you want to overcome.”


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