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US Wasted Millions on Gear to Curb Drug Trafficking in Afghanistan

An Afghan and coalition security force seized more than 40 pounds of opium during an operation to capture a Taliban commander in Panjwa'i district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan July 4, 2012. (Department of Defense photo/U.S. Army Spc. Pedro Amador)
An Afghan and coalition security force seized more than 40 pounds of opium during an operation to capture a Taliban commander in Panjwa'i district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan July 4, 2012. (Department of Defense photo/U.S. Army Spc. Pedro Amador)

Drive-through scanners and other gear provided by the U.S. to Afghanistan in an effort to curb drug and arms trafficking has never been used or fallen into disrepair, according to a government watchdog agency.

In a report last Friday, the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said the total cost to the U.S. since 2006 "to procure, operate, maintain, and train Afghan government officials in the use of the equipment" was between $59 million and almost $63 million.

The Non-Intrusive Inspection, or NII, equipment was installed at the Kabul airport and at least four other locations but inspections last spring found the program paid for by U.S. Central Command and managed by the Department of Homeland Security was mostly broken or never used.

"In March and April 2017, SIGAR found that only one location, the Kabul airport, had any functional Central Command-purchased NII equipment that was being used for its intended purpose. None of the equipment, valued at $9.48 million, at any of the other four locations was operational," the SIGAR report said.

"Our inspections showed that, outside of Kabul, the equipment became inoperable nearly as soon as [U.S] Border Management Task Force mentors left the border locations and the equipment was turned over to the Afghan government," the report said.

The drive-through scanners were intended "to assist in the interdiction of illicit narcotics, precursor chemicals, and other illicit goods at border locations throughout Afghanistan and at the Kabul airport," the report said.

"Without the use of the NII equipment, there is little to prevent the rampant commercial smuggling and cross-border narcotics trade that has continually plagued Afghan borders," the report said.

The program began in 2006 deteriorated in 2014, when the U.S. ended its combat mission and began withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the report said.

"While Afghan officials at most locations stated that they or their staff received training on the use of the equipment, at one location an official noted that they had not been trained to maintain or troubleshoot even minor problems," the report said.

"Unfortunately, at this point, it appears that the Afghan government has been unable or unwilling to sustain" the initial U.S. investment, the report said.

"Worse, without the use of the [inspection] equipment, there is little to prevent the rampant commercial smuggling and cross-border narcotics trade that has continually plagued Afghanistan," SIGAR said.

In its response to the SIGAR report, CentCom blamed the problems on the lack of oversight caused by the U.S. troop withdrawals, and also took a swipe at the Kabul government.

The program could have been successful and "would likely have continued to develop and professionalize the Afghan customs and border security institutions" if U.S. policy had not directed withdrawal in 2014, the command said in a statement.

The command also charged that the SIGAR report reflected "the lack of Afghan government will or capacity to sustain the program."

Commenting on the SIGAR report, Ahmad Reshad Popal, director of customs at the Afghan Finance Ministry, said, "A number of these scanners are damaged, and recently we have been trying to contract a company to repair the scanners and to re-use them," Afghanistan's Tolo News reported.

The Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries [ACCI] suggested the scanners were deactivated to stop corruption at the border crossings from being exposed.

"At a number of the custom posts, the equipment has been intentionally deactivated to prevent corruption from being revealed," Khan Jan Alokozay, deputy chief of ACCI, told Tolo News.

At the Torkham post in the Khyber Pass on the Pakistan border, "there was a scanner which was working properly and our problems were solved. But after a month it was deactivated and has still not been reactivated," Alokozay said.

The SIGAR report underlined the problems ahead for the on-again, off-again efforts of the U.S. and its coalition partners in the course of the 16-year-old war to curb Afghanistan's flourishing poppy trade that funds the Taliban and provides much of the world's heroin.

The U.S. has from time to time funded crop substitution programs for Afghan farmers, but the programs have struggled against the fact that there is more money to be made from growing poppies.

In a "profoundly alarming" report last month on Afghanistan's booming drug trade, the United Nations Office On Drug And Crime (UNODC) said a record poppy harvest this year had resulted in an 87 percent increase in the cultivation and production of opium compared to 2016.

"It is high time for the international community and Afghanistan to reprioritize drug control, and to acknowledge that every nation has a shared responsibility for this global problem," UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov said in releasing the report.

In a sign of the urgency of combating the drug trade, Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support mission, last month used a B-52 bomber and an F-22 Raptor advanced fighter normally assigned to the Iraq/Syria theaters to bomb suspected drug havens in Afghanistan.

The bombing of drug traffickers was an indication of the waning conventional strength of the Taliban, Nicholson said in a briefing from Kabul to the Pentagon last week.

Nicholson said the Taliban had given up on trying to seize provincial capitals and was now focused on guerilla warfare at the district level. He said that shift "represented a lowering of ambition by the enemy."

"Increasingly, they are principally interested in making money" from the drug trade, Nicholson. "They are fighting to protect their revenue stream" and have essentially transformed from a jihadi movement into a 'narco-terrorist' drug cartel," he said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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