Friday, March 9, 2012

Afghan Air Force: Flying Drug Mules That Fuel Civil War


Afghan police unload cargo from a transport helicopter in Kunar Province. Photo: ISAF
They’re not just illiterates who occasionally kill their American mentors. Afghanistan’s military also ferries drugs across the country in its U.S.-purchased aircraft.

At a cost of nearly $2 billion for two years’ worth of building the Afghan Air Force, the U.S. inadvertently purchased a more convenient mechanism for trafficking opium and weapons than Afghanistan’s drug lords were previously using. But it actually gets worse than that. The aerial trade in guns and drugs through the Afghan Air Force appears to be financing the rearmament of private militias hedging against the country’s implosion after the U.S. leaves.
The Wall Street Journal reveals that the U.S. military and the Drug Enforcement Agency have investigations open into the Afghan Air Force, prompted by insider tips about the illegal cargo hauls. Some U.S. military advisers had independently picked up the scent after noticing helos disappearing without recording their flight plans. Kabul International Airport featured heavily in the drug-running scheme. At its Cargo Ramp No. 5, “unscheduled aircraft were landing late at night and cargo was being unloaded in a hurry,” the Journal reports.
The airport has a tragic significance for the U.S. military. In April 2011, a colonel in the Afghan Air Forceshot and killed eight troops and a contractor from the U.S.-led coalition there. Among the troops killed was Air Force Lt. Col. Frank Bryant, who was conducting an own investigation into the drug-running charges against the Afghan Air Force.
It would be bad enough if the Afghan Air Force was involved in narcotics and small-arms trafficking out of pure greed. But its illicit activities have a potential strategic impact. They may be tied to Afghanistan’s unraveling.
The Defense and Interior Ministries are heavily salted with veterans of the Northern Alliance, the mostly non-Pashtun military coalition that battled the Taliban before 9/11 and worked with the U.S. to oust the Taliban during the war’s early days. Several of them were and are drug lords. And they’re deeply distrustful of peace talks with the Taliban.
So they’ve come up with a hedge. “American investigators say they believe some of these former commanders are now selling drugs again to buy weapons,” the Journal explains. “Their aim: to rearm loyal militias in northern Afghanistan in case civil war erupts after most foreign forces withdraw from the country in 2014.”
In other words, the drug running displays a miniaturized version of the wicked problem that Afghanistan presents. The major U.S. efforts at ending the decade-long war are to train Afghans capable of securing the country and to diplomatically persuade the Taliban to stop fighting. Both of those efforts might be inadvertently accelerating the unraveling of Afghanistan in a post-American era.
While the investigation unfolds, there appears to be little appetite within the NATO command to adjust its strategy. Even though the new U.S. defense budget slashes funding for the Afghan military, the Journalnotes that the U.S. is increasing its aircraft purchases for the Afghans in a big way: by 2016, the Afghan Air Force will possess 145 cargo planes, transport helos and helicopter gunships, up from 86 now. Maybe the Pentagon can defray the costs by getting a percentage of the drug money.