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.