Kandahar, Afghanistan – This is the fourth in a series of reports from Afghanistan.
Much has been said and written this week about recent inflammatory comments made by President Hamid Karzai, head of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan — an entity widely abbreviated out here as GIRoA. He has publicly railed against "interference" by the West, demanded that the U.N. cease complaining about corruption, even defiantly threatened to abandon GIRoA and join the Taliban. The fact is, GIRoA hardly exists outside of Kabul and where it is extant it is often corrupt.
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Money from opium and hashish fuel the Taliban, pay for improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that kill and maim Americans and Afghans alike and wreak havoc on GIRoA credibility. Our allies, all 43 of them in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) coalition, know this to be so. The Taliban know it is true. Whether he acknowledges it or not, Hamid Karzai knows it. So do the people of Afghanistan. And therein is the biggest challenge for successfully concluding this conflict.
Over the past month, our Fox News team has accompanied combined U.S. and Afghan units in four of Afghanistan's 34 provinces. We have heard scores of Afghan men at shuras (loose translation: meetings) with coalition forces — women do not attend — blatantly condemn government corruption. "We trust you (Americans), but we don't trust them (GIRoA)," is a common refrain. If that sentiment isn't repaired, Afghanistan could descend into anarchy, like that which led to the Taliban first seizing power in 1996 after a bloody civil war that destroyed the civil institutions and infrastructure of this country.
Now, after nearly nine years of war, Afghanistan desperately needs rule of law. U.S. and allied military power alone cannot create a system of justice that holds criminals in this country accountable. Yet, despite Mr. Karzai's apparent opposition and considerable political and bureaucratic inertia, rule of law may be coming anyway.
Notably, in this male-dominated, largely tribal and xenophobic society, two American women are a prominent part of the effort to build Afghan faith in legitimate governance. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Administrator Michele Leonhart, here on an inspection visit last week, has committed nearly a hundred of her special agents and other specialists to shutting down the narco-networks that fund the Taliban and government corruption. Julie Shemitz, an experienced federal prosecutor, is on her second year as a U.S. Department of Justice senior legal adviser to the most effective law enforcement entity in Afghanistan, the counter-narcotics Criminal Justice Task Force. The efforts of these women and their colleagues may well be the key to a positive outcome in Afghanistan. Here's how it works:
DEA intelligence resources identify "nexus targets": individuals involved in the narcotics trade who are also connected to the Taliban, engaged in government corruption or both. Working with Afghanistan's Narcotics Interdiction Unit and Special Investigations Unit, the suspect is apprehended and evidence is collected, usually with the help of U.S. and Afghan Special Operations units, often in very dangerous circumstances.
Detained suspects are delivered to a dedicated Central Narcotics Tribunal (CNT) in Kabul where 35 counter-narcotics police investigators, 28 prosecutors and 14 special judges adjudicate each case. Over the course of the past six months, more than 260 narco-traffickers have been convicted by the CNT, a success rate of better than 95 percent. The average sentence handed down is 16 years. Hundreds of tons of opium, heroin, morphine, hashish and precursor chemicals have been destroyed before the Taliban could benefit.
None of this has been easy. International donor support for purchasing forensic equipment and training investigators, prosecutors and judges was initially slow in coming. Afghan CNT prosecutors continue to be woefully underpaid. Some ISAF military commands still do not comprehend how taking down nexus targets improves security and popular support.
Nor is it without risk. Last October, three DEA agents were killed in action and last month another was wounded during an operation in Marjah. Judges and prosecutors regularly receive threatening phone calls and attempts at intimidation. In September 2008, assassins murdered Alim Hanif, the chief judge of the CNT. Yet armored vehicles for transporting key CNT personnel have not yet been delivered.
Despite the dangers and the difficulties in pulling all this together, those involved on the ground maintain taking nexus targets off the battlefield is worth the cost. Colonel Mike Killion, G-3 for the Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand Province says, "Every time they lock up a narco-trafficker means somebody we don't even know won't plant IEDs. They are saving the lives of our Marines."
High praise from a crusty warrior and a kudos for the work being done by two American women and their colleagues to bring rule of law to Afghanistan. Pay attention, Mr. Karzai.
— Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of "War Stories" on Fox News Channel and the author of "American Heroes."