The War On Drugs Helps Terrorists

James Joyner and Steven Taylor both write about a Time Magazine story of an Afghan warlord and ally of Taliban leader Mullah Omar who came to the United States in April 2005 prepared to aid the United States in the continued hunt for Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden, only to find that the War On (Some) Drugs took precedence over finding the men who conspired to murder 3,000 Americans:

For a week and a half in April 2005, one of the favorite warlords of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar was sitting in a room at the Embassy Suites Hotel in lower Manhattan, not far from where the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center once stood. But Haji Bashar Noorzai, the burly, bearded leader of one of Afghanistan’s largest and most troublesome tribes, was not on a mission to case New York City for a terrorist attack. On the contrary, Noorzai, a confidant of the fugitive Taliban overlord, who is a well-known ally of Osama bin Laden’s, says he had been invited to Manhattan to prove that he could be of value in America’s war on terrorism. “I did not want to be considered an enemy of the United States,” Noorzai told TIME. “I wanted to help the Americans and to help the new government in Afghanistan.”

For several days he hunkered down in that hotel room and was bombarded with questions by U.S. government agents. What was going on in the war in Afghanistan? Where was Mullah Omar? Where was bin Laden? What was the state of opium and heroin production in the tribal lands Noorzai commanded–the very region of Afghanistan where support for the Taliban remains strongest? Noorzai believed he had answered everything to the agents’ satisfaction, that he had convinced them that he could help counter the Taliban’s resurgent influence in his home province and that he could be an asset to the U.S.

He was wrong.

As he got up to leave, ready to be escorted to the airport to catch a flight back to Pakistan, one of the agents in the room told him he wasn’t going anywhere. That agent, who worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), told him that a grand jury had issued a sealed indictment against Noorzai 3 1/2 months earlier and that he was now under arrest for conspiring to smuggle narcotics into the U.S. from Afghanistan. An awkward silence ensued as the words were translated into his native Pashtu. “I did not believe it,” Noorzai later told TIME from his prison cell. “I thought they were joking.” The previous August, an American agent he had met with said the trip to the U.S. would be “like a vacation.”

The intelligence cost to the continuing war in Afghanistan cannot be understated:

Noorzai was also a powerful leader of a million-member tribe who had offered to help bring stability to a region that is spinning out of control. Because he is in a jail cell, he is not feeding the U.S. and the Afghan governments information; he is not cajoling his tribe to abandon the Taliban and pursue political reconciliation; he is not reaching out to his remaining contacts in the Taliban to push them to cease their struggle. And he is hardly in a position to help persuade his followers to abandon opium production, when the amount of land devoted to growing poppies has risen 60%.

As the article goes on to point out, opium cultivation in Afghanistan has increased dramatically since the fall of the Taliban, and much the money generated from the illegal cultivation and sale of the drug goes to finance the terrorists our soldiers continue to fight today in a war that has largely taken a back seat to the struggle in Iraq.

In the context of the Afghan opium trade, Noorzai was, as Taylor points out, a relatively small fish in a big pond. Sending him to prison will do nothing to stop opium trafficking, but it does remove from the playing field someone who had offerred to become a major intelligence asset in a war against enemies that have repeatedly vowed to destroy us.

Stupid. Just Stupid.