WASHINGTON -- American authorities are planning a broad new campaign against terrorist financing networks in Afghanistan, sending in dozens of federal drug enforcement agents to help stem the country's massive opium trade, the Associated Press has learned.
The surge of narcotics agents, which would boost the number of anti-drug officials inside Afghanistan from a dozen to nearly 80, would bolster a strategy laid out last week by the Obama administration to use U.S. and NATO troops to target "higher level drug lords."
Detailed plans described to members of Congress behind closed doors earlier this month suggest the effort will be modeled after the federal Drug Enforcement Administration's campaign against drug cartels in South America.
Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who chairs the House Armed Services terrorism subcommittee, said the DEA's effort is aimed at crippling the Afghan narcotics networks by driving up the costs of the opium trade.
"Any financing effort is really going to focus on the drug trade and the DEA is going to have to play a key role," Smith said.
Unveiling his new strategy for Afghanistan last week, President Barack Obama said the country's economy "is undercut by a booming narcotics trade that encourages criminality and funds the insurgency."
As the U.S. beefs up its military and civilian presence there, Obama said officials will track the growth of the Afghan illicit narcotics production as one measure of the administration's progress.
The strategy review called the drug trade the major driver of corruption in Afghanistan, and said allied forces must support local counternarcotics efforts to destroy drug labs, equipment and caches. It also urges efforts to identify other agricultural programs for Afghan farmer to replace their dependency on the illegal drug trade.
The DEA aims to complete its expansion inside Afghanistan by later this fall, building a team of nearly 80 agents and some additional analysts, said Michael Braun, who was DEA's operations chief until late last year.
"We are undergoing a significant increase there as we speak," said Braun, now managing director of an international security consulting firm that works with U.S. authorities in south Asia.
Braun said proceeds from the drug trade in Afghanistan have allowed the Taliban to flourish.
There are also indications, he said, that al-Qaida is heavily involved in Afghan opium trafficking.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the main ingredient in heroin. The Afghan drug trade accounts for 90 percent of the worldwide production. The U.N. estimated last year that up to $500 million from the illegal drug trade flows to Taliban fighters and criminal groups.
The ramped-up drug effort in Afghanistan is similar in structure to a 2005 U.S. program in Iraq that targeted terror networks funding the insurgency in Iraq. The Baghdad-based effort, led by Pentagon and Treasury officials, collected and analyzed intelligence on terror financing and the flow of weapons and fighters into Iraq.
The multi-pronged approach used Treasury Department sanctions against organizations, assets freezes and orders banning financial transactions.
Matthew Levitt, a former Treasury and FBI official and now a terror financing expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told lawmakers that insurgencies can be disrupted when their financing networks are targeted. As core leaders of al-Qaida and other militant groups are less able to finance cells in other regions, those insurgent franchises may become more localized and easier to track and control.
The new Afghanistan anti-drug effort will also hone in on money flow, but it will concentrate on the money laundering operations used by drug dealers. The effort will trace both high-tech operations like offshore banking and cell phone transfers and more informal operations like the hard-to-penetrate hawala money-brokering system that flourishes in the Islamic world.
Defense officials declined to reveal details of the new Afghanistan program, and instead met with lawmakers in a closed session to provide additional information.
Smith said he told Defense Department officials in the closed session that he was skeptical that the DEA's successes against drug cartels in Colombia and other Latin American countries could be duplicated in Afghanistan, where the drug trade is a dominant part of the economy.
"I think it's going to take more than just imagining that they can eliminate the poppy crops in Afghanistan," said Smith. "It's going to take economic opportunity and a comprehensive development strategy to create alternatives."
The new Obama administration initiative follows previous efforts by the Bush administration and NATO to target Afghan drug lords and laboratories. The previous American push was met with resistance from U.S. allies, who were concerned about putting their troops at risk in encounters with Afghan drug rings.
A new report last month said that Afghanistan's production of opium poppies will likely decrease in 2009. But cultivation of the illegal crop remains entrenched in the southern provinces, the heart of the Taliban insurgency and the region where thousands of newly deployed U.S. troops will launch combat operations in the coming months.