Chasing the Dragon: Afghanistan’s National Interdiction Unit

This post is an extended version of  Security Scholar Synopsis #001 “CNP-A’s National Interdiction Unit (NIU)” available here.

ISAF officials, particularly American officials, have often referred to narcotics as the driving force behind the corruption endemic to many of Afghanistan’s government and security systems. As one US counter-narcotics official put it: “The big problem in this country is criminality and corruption. It’s huge. It’s just rampant. It’s rife. It’s beyond anything we’ve seen in Colombia or Mexico or any place else. And drugs are the principal fuel for that”. In response, a number of counter-narcotics (CN) units have been established within the Afghan military and police forces, with wide-ranging mandates and capabilities. One unit, in particular, has garnered high praise from US and other coalition forces.

The National Interdiction Unit (NIU) is a specialised counter-narcotics law enforcement unit, that acts as the premier narcotics interdiction force for the Counter Narcotics Police – Afghanistan (CNP-A). The CNP-A is established as an independent body, but falls within the organisational structure of the Afghan National Police (ANP) of the Ministry of the Interior. The establishment of the NIU, funded by the US under UNODC (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime) Project TD/AFG/H10, created a unit intended to be capable of CN interdiction missions with national enforcement impact, including raiding, arresting and conducting seizures of High-Value Targets (HVTs). Interdiction missions target traffickers, processing labs, narcotics caches, and stockpiles of precursor chemicals. The NIU is supported by the CNP-A’s Technical Investigative Unit (TIU) and Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU).

The Technical Investigative Unit is a specially-vetted and trained group of investigators who focus on gathering evidence against HVTs through wiretaps and other SIGINT methods. The unit is sponsored jointly by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Department of State Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL). As of July 2010, the unit consisted of 11 Afghan officers, trained at the DEA Training Academy (located on Marine Corps Base Quantico, in Virginia) and 100 translators.

The Sensitive Investigative Unit consists of 45 Afghan investigators, also co-sponsored by the DEA and INL, tasked with gathering evidence, handling confidential informants and working undercover. The SIU also builds cases against HVTs, and develops intelligence product for NIU interdiction missions. SIU officers were also trained at Quantico.

As of mid-2007, the number of active NIU personnel stood at approximately 100. A 2009 US Department of State (DoS) report indicated that the NIU operated five 25-man teams, with “every unit currently functional”. By 2010, however, current numbers were reported as 246, with a goal of 569 set for late last year. In order to accommodate this aim, a DEA/INL team in Afghanistan developed a plan to transition as many as 250 officers from the sizeable, State Department-sponsored Central Poppy Eradication Force (CPEF) to the NIU. Four basic classes were scheduled as part of this transition process. The most recent graduates of the NIU’s Kabul-based training facility, Basic Class 21, graduated on the 7th of July 2011.

As of June 2009, the CNP-A’s specialised units as a whole have received a CM3 or ‘partially capable’ rating from the US Department of Defense (DoD)’s Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (CSTC-A), however the NIU was singled out by the DoS in its January 2009 report as being “capable of conducting its own operations, including requesting and executing search and arrest warrants”. DEA reports indicate similar findings, and Keith Weiss, Assistant Regional Director of the DEA’s Kabul office, referred to the NIU in 2010 as being in “very high demand by Coalition Forces because of their skill level”.

The United States, the United Kingdom and other countries have taken a leading role in supporting counter-narcotics operations within Afghanistan. This assistance has come in the form of funding, training, construction, materiel, and intelligence support. It has been provided by a broad range of government agencies and departments, including both civilian and military components, as well as private security contractors.

US DoD funding of the unit totalled approximately $175 million USD in 2007. The NIU operates from bases in Kabul, Kandahar, Konduz, Herat and Jalalabad. In 2009, the specialised units of the CNP-A seized 25,000 kg of opium, 53,133 kg of hashish and 593 kg of heroin, as well as destroying 25 drug labs. These units also seized 180,955 kg of solid precursor chemicals and 30,765 litres of liquid precursors, and reported 54 narcotics trafficking-related arrests. The NIU have received little publicity, but have conducted a number of successful raids, including cross-border raids into Pakistan, resulting in very large hauls.

DEA Special Agent Selby Smith (Director of the Interagency Operations Coordination Center, Kabul 2007 – 2009), in an interview with LCDR Jonathan Biel, USN, identified several key support roles the military should perform in support of CN operations by the NIU and similar units. These were: day and night helicopter lift, close air support (CAS), medical evacuation (MEDEVAC), cordon security and intelligence support.

Joint US DoD and DEA programs resulted in the construction of the NIU’s training compound in Kabul, as well as NIU sustainment training, installation of equipment for the SIU and TIU, and a DEA mentoring and training program. The US DoD and State’s INL provided joint funding for the Afghan Joint Aviation Facility, providing an organic lift capability for the NIU and other counter-narcotics forces. Equipment donations have also been made by France and Germany. The NIU is often supported by foreign military or law enforcement agents, primarily DEA Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Teams (FASTs). These teams of DEA Special Agents and Intelligence Research Specialists are mandated to “provide guidance to their Afghan counterparts, while conducting bilateral investigations aimed at the region’s trafficking organizations”. There is some video available of FASTs in action.

The Interagency Operations Coordination Center (IOCC), a joint US-UK run intelligence processing facility located in the ISAF headquarters in Kabul, provides “law enforcement targeting support and operational coordination for US, UK, GIRoA and other CN law enforcement operations”. Staff are drawn from a range of US and UK agencies, including the National Security Agency (NSA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). Analysts at the IOCC work up intelligence on HVTs, narcotics networks and the locations of caches, precursor chemicals and processing labs. This information is used to create target packs to be provided to the NIU and other units. 

The DoD has also developed an Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) program to support the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) and force protection needs of combined FAST-NIU operations. Further, DoD had refurbished three Mil Mi-17 helicopters, and planned to provide eight more, by the end of 2009. Air assets from the Department of State have also provided, and continue to provide, transport and logistical support to both DEA FAST and NIU teams.

In addition to US military and DEA personnel, the NIU has worked alongside Australian, and occasionally British troops (although UK troops have typically been working with a similar unit under the Ministry of the Interior, the Afghan Special Narcotics Force). A report compiled by members of the Colombian National Police (Policía Nacional de Colombia; PNC) in 2006 recommends sending instructors from the Colombian Jungla Commandos – a unit with a similar CN interdiction mission – to assist at the NIU training centre, as well as sending five NIU members to attend the Jungla Commando Course in Espinal, Colombia. Some information and photos indicate that this took place in early 2007. The same PNC report indicates that Blackwater personal trained with the NIU, stating “The delegation provided the Colombia overview brief to the DEA FAST members and the Blackwater Trainers assigned to the National Interdiction Unit”.  Sources Security Scholar has spoken with indicate that the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have engaged with the NIU as well.

Afghan heroin is trafficked to almost every region of the world, and although poppy cultivation has declined in recent years, it remains high – as much as 74% of global potential opium production in 2010 was attributed to Afghan production. If Coalition governments continue to emphasise reducing the flow of opiates into their home countries, units such as the NIU will continue to be a very important interdiction tool. For Afghanistan, maintaining such a unit allows the government to demonstrate its willingness to support Coalition CN policy, and to target what has often been seen as a key wellspring of corruption in the nation. Foreign support has proved essential to the formation and ongoing training of such units, however, and it remains to be seen how these programs will continue to be nurtured through the upcoming transition period.

 

Read More

1.      Security Scholar Synopsis #001 “CNP-A’s National Interdiction Unit”

2.      UNODC Afghanistan - Counter Narcotics Law Enforcement Update #5

3.      UNODC Afghanistan - Counter Narcotics Law Enforcement Update #6

4.      US DoD - United States Plan for Sustaining the Afghanistan National Security Forces

5.      DEA Statement - “U.S. Counternarcotics Policy in Afghanistan: Time for Leadership”

6.      US GAO Report - AFGHANISTAN DRUG CONTROL (March 2010)

7.      US DoS - Counternarcotics and Law Enforcement Country Program: Afghanistan

8.      DoD Comptroller Report - DRUG INTERDICTION AND COUNTER DRUG ACTIVITIES

9.      Counter-Narcotics Operations in Afghanistan:  a way to success or a meaningless cause?

10.  Caucus on International Narcotics Control – “US Counternarcotics Strategy in Afghanistan”

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Comments

I am sure this problem will not go away on its own, nor will it go away with the help of outside countries. The people are going to have to take a stand and fix their country themselves because they are the ones who have the most at stake.

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Brandon_RG:

Just a few thoughts.

1. Have we defined the problem? This sounds like a silly question, but what is wrong with drugs in Afghanistan? Is it the opium market? While illegal, it generates a significant economic stimulation as largely an export product. In a war-torn 3rd world nation with non-existant infrastructure, massive illiteracy and innumeracy, and the conditions set for a civil war in the near future, opium farming is one of the very best returns on small investment for poor farming families. Is drug use the problem? It has existed in every human civilization since recorded history, and illicit commodities have generated self-organizing criminal groups for just as long. One cannot "win" any war on drugs- and one cannot likely "solve a problem" in regards to a widely used illicit commodity; at least not without addressing deep cultural values across the entire spectrum from source to transit to arrival nations.

2. "It will not go away with the help of outside countries- the people are going to have to take a stand and fix their country..." Might I suggest the notion that many Afghans do not consider Afghanistan a country- in the modern nation-state sense. Families- absolutely; tribes- vital. Villages- certainly. Regions or provinces- perhaps. That depends on the tribal arrangements, ethnic and cultural networks, and traditions. Outside of a province (with the exception of Kabul, MES, and a few other large urban population centers) that is where things break down.

Now, those that stand to profit the most from forming and maintaining a "nation state" are of course the ones driving that train right now. Every elected official (in my opinon) and those with power (in government, the ANSF, and the more slippery Ideological and local power structures) all have a financial and power-centric motive to associate with a central government and national concept. Those that gain nothing from this arrangement do not. The 'haves' are a minority, while the 'have nots' are massive in size. Throw in ethnic tensions, ideological differences, traditional quarrels, and the intellectual wet blanket of mass illiteracy and innumeracy, and you have the conditions for a fractured society for some period to come. Certainly longer than we have the patience to remain there spraying money everywhere and hoping something sticks.

The concept of 'country' was imposed on Afghanistan, as was the concept that they need a central government, national defense force, national elected government, and consitution. With its mountainous and highly divisive terrain, Afghanistan is quite similar in my opinion to ancient Greek city-states; it took a great deal of time, effort, and blood to unite Greece into what one might recognize as a "nation." We are trying to do this in a decade or two- while literally doing it on the cheap. Granted, $11B USD is a big chunk of cash, but that is a small amount when one considers the scope of what our foriegn policy now desires- the transformation of a society from a disjointed (some might say 'failed state') and chaotic mess into a stable, literate, functional nation with western-modeled diplomacy, central government, security forces, economic interactions, and ideologically compatible behaviors. Without outside countries, could Afghan ethnic tribes really change anything- and would they even want to? Remember, opium grows fast, readily, and is highly profitable. If your backyard could grow money trees- but some people two blocks away did not want you to grow your money trees because it was negatively impacting their household, and they wanted you to grow something far less profitable- would you?

3. "They are the ones who have the most at stake." The Afghans? Consider the following- they do use opium and it impacts their society; but considering how poor their "country" is, it is hardly the most pressing issue for them. Opium generates revenue for poor farmers, graft and corruption for elected officials, tribal leaders, security forces, and of course- the criminal enterprises that traffic it, refine it, market it, and continue the cycle. Opium employs many Afghans- from growing it to guarding facilities, smuggling it, greasing the system to move it through the path of least resistance, and pushing the cycle across the region and the world (with more money used to move a profitable product that happens to be illegal yet valued). Who has most at stake- the Afghans, or perhaps other nations more affected by heroin? Pakistan, Iran, the 'Stans', India, China, and Russia all have large and costly heroin problems in their nations. While the US and Europe do have a demand for it, it is not the same scale or scope as these regional user nations where opium products are culturally, historically, and ethnically more accepted. Remember, the sport of Dodgeball was invented in a Chinese opium den, as ADAA spokesman Patches O'Hoolihan once explained in some sports film I recall.

My prediction: Afghanistan will be exporting opium 50 years from now- likely at similar levels in relation to world demand. Whether Afghanistan functions as a nation-state, a failed state, or some hybrid (Kabul functions while the rest of the country is a no-man's land for central government; each province operates akin to how the Bayshaw had loyalty from other subordinate kingdoms in the Barbury region)- criminal organizations will "pay to play" to move drugs- and the rest of the world will blindly toss money and resources at part of the problem while never really addressing the "source" issues- the demand for drugs outside of Afghanistan.

Just food for thought-

Hubba Bubba

Just a few thoughts on this and the whole Counter Narcotics quest for continued funding (and relevance) in the pending draw-down of Coalition and International aid and interest:

1. It reinforces the narrative that the NIU (specially trained and funded) are a cut above all other ANP. This may be true in some cases, but that narrative is actually quite damaging within the Ministry of Interior holistically. There is a risk of mis-use by the ANP of this unique asset, and you do not want an extremely specialty trained asset working as a beat cop in Kabul...but can the Afghan government really continue to afford these specialty assets? Since they cannot- is the international community and the US going to fund, enable, and assist it into the future? If so, for how long? Heroin, while a regional problem, is not necessarily as direct a problem in western (especially US) markets and arrival zones. Pulp Fiction aside, cocaine, meth, new designer drugs, and Mary Jane are all significantly more damaging in quantity/criminal corruption/violence through closer transit zones.
2. This article outlines the budget, source of donation and training, and describes some raids that highlight the logic of continuing the program (look at all the success...). This is description- is there any explanation? Why are drug cycles persistant? If opium is something that will continue to adapt, self-organize, and evolve into more effective criminal enterprises that spawn perpetually, are we really addressing the right problems? Would greater foriegn policy and aid to regional neighbors with high heroin/opium abuse stats help reduce the demand in the arrival zones, thus lower the profitability for Afghan farmers in the source zone to grow it in the first place? Right now, there is not enough incentive to grow legit crops as is...
3. Although heroin is primarily used not by Coalition nations, but regional nations around Afghanistan, the concluding paragraph might mislead readers a bit by substituting Columbian foreign policy logic over the cocaine cycle (source, transit, and arrival zones) versus a significantly different heroin cycle as it exists today with Southwest Asia.

Food for thought-
Hubba Bubba

Hubba Bubba - First, thanks for the comment. To address your, points:

1. & 3. - Heroin has been targeted by Western countries as a particular 'problem drug', regardless of the fact that most consumption is in China, India, Iran, Pakistan etc. However, the primary reason that units such as the NIU receive such a proportionately high level of support from agencies such as the DEA and INL, from what I have read, is primarily driven by US DoD and military opinion regarding the serious impact AFG's opium trade has on national stability. There has also been increasing USGOV support for interagency/whole of government solutions to problems that are not traditionally military in nature, but have taken on a military aspect in such places as AFG.

2. - This is a very important point. Whilst this line of questioning is a little outside of the 'briefing' style piece I was writing, I think it is spot on in terms of recognising how vital it is to take a multi-faceted approach to CN - anywhere on the globe.