Tuesday, April 14, 2009

U.S. Launches New Covert Afghan Unit Against Narcotics - Middle East Times

The U.S. Barack Obama administration has launched a new covert unit designed to weaken and disrupt financing for the Taliban and associated terrorists in Afghanistan, U.S. administration officials said.

Run jointly by the U.S. Special Operations Command (SCOM) and the Treasury Department and called the Afghan Threat Finance Unit, it will primarily target opium dealers and criminals who are funneling monies to the Taliban, especially in the province of Helmand west of Kandahar where the Taliban have concentrated over 80 percent of their heroin production, these sources said.

Other targets will include corrupt senior officials of the Karzai government in Kabul, they said.

The program is part of the secretive economic counter-measures programs run out of Key West, Florida by SCOM as part of the war on terror. A similar unit, the Iraq Threat Finance Unit, was set up in 2005 to choke off funds going to Iraqi accomplices of al-Qaida and also targeted the Mahdi army headed by Moqtada al-Sadr, the virulently anti-American insurgent.

The Treasury Department's Office of Terrorism and Financial Intelligence is run by Stuart Levey, Treasury undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, who was confirmed in his post last week, will co-head the new operation, according to department officials.

In recent testimony before the House of Representatives subcommittee, Lt. Gen. David Fridovich said the mission of the new unit was "to detect, identify and disrupt" financial networks supporting insurgents and terrorists.

The military's interest in such activity is relatively innovative and still being formulated, U.S. officials said. But several sources who spoke to the Middle East Times said the unit was an absolute necessity.

According to U.S. officials, Afghanistan one of the poorest countries in the world, with huge levels of illiteracy, unemployment, skyrocketing food prices, and terrorism that have so reduced the standard of living that most Afghanis spend about 80 percent of their income on scrabbling for adequate good. According to U.S. officials a total of 5 million Afghans are either receiving or are scheduled to get emergency food aid this year.

The country's extreme impoverishment makes it susceptible to corruption at all levels, U.S. officials said.

"When you have people struggling to survive, you can buy them for nothing," said a State Dept. Official.

Another U.S. official said: "Criminality has battened itself on the whole government system there. You can buy anything as long as you are ostensibly loyal to the government."

Said another U.S. source: "All key sectors of the economy are corrupt."

The major source of wealth in Afghanistan come from illegal drug trafficking, U.S. officials said. Vince Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism said that opium has been a way for the Taliban to finance the operation of the Taliban since the 1980s, and that the Taliban have provided security for drug shipments and has collected a tax from the sales."

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, 19 of 43 designated terrorist groups are linked definitively to the global drug trade, and Cannistraro said, "Drugs are going to remain a major preoccupation in Afghanistan."

From Afghanistan, the thick gum sap from poppy bulbs is converted into heroin and smuggled through Iran and Turkey and into the Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia and other countries, eventually ending up in Western Europe.

One congressional source said that that Taliban promoted poppy cultivation to finance weapons purchases as well as boosting the group's ability to mount military operations against Western targets.

But perhaps a greater worry is the pervasive corruption of the central government itself.

"Graft all over the Middle East keeps the wheels of commerce turning," said a former CIA official, but in Afghanistan its scale is staggering. Afghan police at checkpoints shake down truck drivers, often stealing whole cargoes of gasoline to resell. Illegal fortunes are made from smuggling hashish and chromite. Security forces sent to guard roads end up extorting fees from smugglers using the major highways or "taxing" trucks or farmers that use them.

Other illegal fortunes are made from paying ransoms for kidnappings, or falsifying invoices for arms purchases and selling the surpluses at a profit, officials said. Some municipal officials accept bribes for selling land for luxury housing, sources said.

A flood of larceny pervades even government offices and functions. Kabul's tiny government elite are busy siphoning off international or humanitarian aid monies or smuggling cargo, high-tech communications, luxury imports or construction goods, U.S. officials said. Construction is another target since contractors line their pockets, pay off thugs, and allow their subcontractors drain off additional funds for their own use.

In addition, the court system is dysfunctional, the chain of command riddled with judges and prosecutors who decide cases on the bases of bribes paid, plus there are officials who buy jobs for $50,000 and who recoup the cost through extortion or illegal transactions. Everything is for sale, including positions, promotions, assignments, U.S. officials said.

U.S. officials said that there is solid evidence that major officials including the chief of police in Kabul and key Ministry of Interior officials are deeply involved in aiding the drug trafficking in return for huge fees.

"Such blatant corruption is a recruiting poster for the insurgents," said a former CIA official."

For a government engaged in fighting an insurgency, corruption estranges the population, leaving it at the mercy of Taliban terror.

"If you want to wean a people from the clutches of an insurgency, the legal government must have some moral authority and credibility. The people must view government as being a source of benefits, not additional hazards or inconveniences," said one former CIA official.

One sinister factor that adds to the Taliban's power is that they do not hesitate to use terror to further their ends. According to French counterinsurgent expert, Roger Trinquier, since the goal of insurgency is control of the population, "terrorism is a particularly appropriate weapon, since it aims directly at the inhabitant. In the street, at work, at home, the citizen lives continually under the threat of violent death."

One of the stated goals of Obama's counterinsurgency campaign is to be able to circulate enough police or security forces in small villages to protect the people from such vicious predation, yet U.S. officials point out that the Afghan police and security forces are inadequate to the task. Although many Afghani villagers and tribes had no liking for the Taliban, U.S. officials recount that Taliban commanders resort to attacks agonist villages they feel aren't supportive, killing some and terrorizing others, often plundering their homes.

"If you are seen as disloyal by the Taliban, they will come after you," said one U.S. official.

Disloyalty can consist of being too friendly with foreign or Afghan troops, not providing sufficient food, information, or on-demand financing, U.S. officials said.

Lessening corruption and fielding efficient security forces in and around small villages would do much to stimulate the average population to believe "that his government can make him safe and give him aid," one U.S. official said.

The new financial threat cell is designed to do this, but it won't be easy. There is an enormous amount of money in motion all the time, according to Matthew Levitt, who is director of the Washington Institute's for Near East policy on terrorist financing. In recent testimony before the House, he noted that in 2006 foreign workers sent back to their home countries $255 billion up from $113 billion in 2000.

Levitt added that new technologies such as the cell phone or the Internet act to complicate tracking illicit transactions. Payments which use cell phones to move funds are growing with accelerating rapidity along with the use of such devices as U or e-gold.

Thanks to the Internet, the terrorists can communicate through chat rooms or message boards. Terrorists also use petty crime such as welfare fraud or "credit card bust-out" schemes to raise money, Levitt said.

There is also widespread bulk cash smuggling, the growing use of cash couriers. Or terrorists move cash from the accounts of family members or sometimes through charities or international aid groups. Much money is moved by hiding it in the transactions of legitimate business, he said.

But he added that the growing intensity of such efforts as the threat cell combined with more cooperation from the finance ministries of allied countries will eventually have an effect in making it harder for terrorists to recruit, to travel, to pay for operations

Minor government clerks charge bribes for normal civic transactions, the use of roads is "taxed." officials buy jobs for $50,000 and recoup the cost through bribes, police pilfer trucks of gasoline to sell,

Luxury housing meant to curtail drug shipments, take money and allow them to go through. A former World Bank official, Ashraf Ghani, recently told the Washington Post: "The whole country is criminalized."

But the Taliban's use of intimidation on the general populace is sinister. It victimizes anyone it regards as disloyal, or who is seen as too friendly to outsiders or anyone of a number of rationales. If a village does not show its dislike of the government or indifference to it, it can be made to suffer horribly.

Profits from drug money are a major target. "Opium laws have been a way for the Taliban to finance the operation of the Taliban since the 1980s, said Vince Cannistraro, former CIA chief of counterterrorism. It appears that Bin Laden and the Taliban have provided security for drug shipments and have collected a tax from the sales."

With the ineffectiveness of local police and security forces, the spread of Taliban power in the country has been inevitable: the Taliban now control 72 percent of the country

From Afghanistan, the thick gum sap from poppy bulbs is converted into heroin and smuggled through Iran and Turkey and into the Balkan countries of Albania, Bosnia and other countries, eventually ending up in Western Europe.

One congressional source said that the Taliban promote poppy cultivation to finance weapons purchase as well as boosting its ability to mount military operations. You cannot do anything through honest business or fair work; they don't exist when extreme impoverishment does.

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