Afghan Drug Lords Escaped Justice—But Did It Matter?

U.S. Marines discuss their route through a poppy field Helmand province's Green Zone
U.S. Marines discuss their route through a poppy field during a security patrol from their patrol base in Helmand province's Green Zone, west of the Nahr-e Saraj canal in 2011. (Bryce Piper/U.S. Marine Corps)

As Republicans in Congress prepare to hold hearings Wednesday on the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, former senior Drug Enforcement Administration officials say the Obama administration’s 2013 refusal to indict and prosecute the Taliban’s senior leaders on narco-terrorism charges kept the insurgency alive and set the stage for the collapse of Afghan government forces and the Taliban’s return to power.

And at least one of these former officials wants the Biden administration to correct the official record—”so that the Congress and country gets the full picture on how this debacle could have been prevented,” as John Seaman, a former DEA supervisory special agent who helped draft the plan to bring Taliban’s leadership to justice, puts it.

Seaman and Mike Marsac, the former DEA regional director for South West Asia at the time and the principal architect of the plan, contend the proposed indictments and prosecutions of more than two dozen senior Taliban leaders, along with the heads of Afghanistan’s major drug trafficking clans and associated money launderers, would have placed a chokehold on as much as $350 million a year in illicit drug money, the Taliban’s main source of funding, starving its insurgency against the U.S. and NATO-backed government in Kabul.

“By indicting them as a criminal group would have allowed us to leverage all the international police forces in the world to limit the movement of Taliban leaders, their ability to raise funds, and to hide funds in other countries,” Seaman told SpyTalk.

Moreover, he added: “we had active cooperating witnesses involved, which would have allowed us to continue investigating the Taliban and those involved after the indictments.”

The proposed indictments of Taliban leaders on drug trafficking charges were just one part of a top secret plan codenamed Operation Reciprocity, Seaman said. The plan also envisioned arresting them and hauling them before a court in New York City, where a mountain of DEA evidence would result in their convictions and imprisonment.

“Operation Reciprocity served as a key component of DEA’s initiatives and programs to break the nexus between drug trafficking, terrorism and corruption. . . to establish justice and the rule of law in the country, ” Marsac told SpyTalk.

Seaman noted the DEA and Justice Department had successfully used a similar strategy in the 1990s against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia–People's Army, or FARC, which produced and sold cocaine to fund their insurgency against the Colombian government. He said the indictment and conviction of dozens of FARC leaders on drug trafficking charges “exposed their criminality to the world,” weakening FARC’s hand as it negotiated peace with Colombian officials.

Marsac said that before the Obama administration shut down Operation Reciprocity, the DEA and the Justice Department had successfully gone on the offensive against the Taliban’s drug networks, first training a cadre of Afghan counternarcotics agents and prosecutors. Then, teaming up with U.S. and coalition forces, DEA agents and their Afghan allies had raided fortified drug compounds, seizing tons of opium and heroin, as well as Taliban weapons caches.

Between 2005 and 2012, the DEA also captured or lured two Afghan drug kingpins with close ties to the Taliban to the United States, where they were tried, convicted and imprisoned. The agency also took casualties in its offensive against Taliban’s narco partners. In 2009, three DEA agents died when their helicopter crashed after a major drug raid.

Seaman maintains that on top of taking top Taliban leaders off the battlefield, Operation Reciprocity also would have denied the Taliban the money they used to corrupt senior Afghan officials and given the Kabul government additional leverage in any negotiations with the insurgents.

Missing in Action

But last week, when the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published its latest report, titled “Why the Afghan Security Forces Collapsed,” Seaman and other former DEA and Justice Department officials were dismayed to find no mention of the Obama administration’s termination of Operation Reciprocity as one of the causes.

Seaman is now calling on SIGAR, established by Congress in 2008 to oversee the billions of dollars it appropriated for the war and its progress, to produce an addendum to its report, linking the collapse of Afghan forces and the Taliban’s return to power to the decision not to implement Operation Reciprocity.

Philip J. LaVelle, SIGAR’s executive director of public affairs, declined to say if the watchdog organization would produce such an addendum, but it appears doubtful.

In an email, LaVelle told SpyTalk that the report was written in response to specific requests from Congress. He said lawmakers had asked SIGAR to “determine the factors that contributed to the Afghan forces’ collapse,” including any underlying conditions that explained the Afghan military’s lack of readiness after 20 years of U.S. capacity-building.

Speaking anonymously to address a sensitive topic, a SIGAR official noted the report did, in fact, cite the corrupting influence of drug money within the Afghan security forces as one of several underlying reasons for their rapid disintegration in August 2021.

Within the Afghan National Defense and Security forces, “reports of corruption varied from widespread nepotism, extortion, participation in the drug trade, to the theft of U.S. and NATO-supplied equipment—some of which was sold to insurgents,” the report said. Such corruption “was rampant throughout the Afghan government. Security sector corruption had particularly dire consequences on the overall security mission. Corruption with Afghan security ministries and the ANDSF undermined combat readiness and effectiveness, as well as cohesion of the army and police.”

Drug Program Failure

While this latest SIGAR report says no more about drug money as a contributing factor to the collapse of the Afghan security forces, a 2018 SIGAR report that focused solely on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan said U.S. and coalition efforts to fight drug trafficking all ended in failure.

That report said anti-narcotics efforts initially focused on eradicating fields of poppies, from which opium and heroin are produced. Afghan farmers whose poppy crops were destroyed were paid compensation and provided with seeds for alternative crops. But the report said that approach turned Afghan farmers against the Kabul government, which demanded the program be abandoned. Later, the report said corruption within the judicial system and the lack of Afghan government support also undermined the DEA and Justice Department training programs. And when the drawdown of U.S. forces began in 2014, the U.S. agencies that focused on counternarcotics began to disengage, SIGAR said.

“By 2015, with staff in Kabul but none in the provinces, DEA found it increasingly difficult to mount interdiction operations and mentor Afghan partner units,” the report said. “USAID shifted away from alternative development programs and paid little attention to drug-related impacts.”

Over the past eight years, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has grown to the point where the country now accounts for more than 95 percent of global opium cultivation, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The U.N. agency clocked Afghanistan’s income from its illicit opiate economy at between $1.8 billion and $2.7 billion in 2021, equivalent to as much as 12 percent of the country’s GDP.

Not a Chance

Not everyone involved in the drafting of Operation Reciprocity regards the plan as a silver bullet that would have saved Afghanistan from falling back under Taliban control. Asked if the DEA felt that the shelving of Operation Reciprocity contributed to the collapse of the Afghan security forces, DEA spokeswoman Katherine Pfaff responded in an email: “We appreciate the opportunity, but will respectfully decline to participate. Thanks.”

David Schwendiman, a former senior Justice official who served as the department’s attache at the U.S. embassy in Kabul from 2011 to 2013 and then as the director of SIGAR’s forward operations in Afghanistan from 2014 to 2015, agreed that the Obama administration's decision to pull the plug on Operation Reciprocity prevented Seaman and other DEA agents from doing as much as they might have.

“BUT, and this is a big BUT, I don’t agree that Operation Reciprocity had a realistic chance of achieving what John [Seaman] argues it could have,” Schwendiman said in an email.

He noted that even if the DEA managed to arrest Taliban leaders and indict them on drug-trafficking charges, Afghanistan’s constitution, which forbids the extradition of its citizens, would not allow the agency to transfer them to the United States for criminal prosecution. The same laws, Schwendiman adds, would prevent Afghan informants and witnesses from appearing in a U.S. court.

Moreover, he points out, at the time, then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai had grown hostile to much of what the U.S. mission in Afghanistan wanted, and he “wasn’t likely to be willing to look the other way while we took an Afghan Taliban into custody and secreted him out of the country to the U.S. for trial.”

“There just wasn’t a realistic prospect for actually trying a case, even if there was evidence to convict,” Schwendiman said.

But even if Operation Reciprocity somehow managed to win the convictions of top Taliban leaders, Schwendiman doesn’t believe it would have changed the outcome of the war.

“It goes too far to say that if Operation Reciprocity would have been given a chance, it would have prevented the collapse of the Afghan government and the Afghan security forces or avoided a Taliban takeover,” he said. “What was going on in Afghanistan was much more than the opium trade.”

Even Marsac, Operation Reciprocity’s chief architect, accepts that point.

“The bigger issue is the complete and unconditional withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan before the country was ready, effectively throwing away 20 years of sacrifice, lives lost, effort expended and resources consumed,” he said. “It was that decision that directly led to the fall of the Kabul government.”

Meanwhile, Seaman says he would be willing to testify before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which begins its hearings on the Afghanistan withdrawal tomorrow.

A committee spokesperson did not respond to emails and phone calls asking if Seaman had been invited to testify.

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