Taliban Include Heroin Kingpins in Leadership
Obama and Trump scuttled a DEA-DoJ prosecution plan to spur peace talks with Taliban. Will Biden resurrect it?
Nine years ago, a small team of Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Justice Department advisers formulated an ambitious strategy to use U.S. courts to prosecute 26 senior Taliban leaders and allied heroin traffickers under a criminal conspiracy. Multiple individuals identified as central to the conspiracy, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mullah Khairullah Khairkhwa, are now cabinet members in the hardline Taliban government.
The DEA plan, code-named Operation Reciprocity, sought to duplicate the legal strategy first utilized by the Justice Department to fracture the leadership of the FARC, the Colombian rebel group which trafficked cocaine to finance its guerilla war. In 2006 the Justice Department had indicted 50 FARC leaders for trafficking $25 billion worth of cocaine into the U.S., eventually landing dozens of them in American jails.
The agents in Kabul believed the same approach could diminish the growing reach of the Taliban.
Like the FARC, the Taliban largely funded their insurgency through their drug trafficking activities, kidnapping and extortion rackets, according to a June 2021 report to the UN Security Council by its monitoring team. Criminal profits enriched and empowered the insurgents, corrupted and destabilized the Afghan government, and bogged down the NATO alliance as the conflict dragged on.
Now, in the wake of the chaotic U.S. departure from Afghanistan, and the Taliban’s stunning return to power, it’s clear they perfected the model for violent anti-state movements to form partnerships with transnational criminal organizations to finance their operations.
It’s also clear that in the interests in spurring peace talks, multiple U.S. presidents chose to turn a blind eye—both to the Taliban’s criminality and high-level corruption among their own Afghan allies—decisions that undermined rule of law, and ultimately fueled our defeat.
Now, with scant military or diplomatic options to constrain the Taliban, it’s time to dust off the DEA plan, expose the extent that the Taliban’s senior leadership is involved in narcotics trafficking, and target the organization for what it is: a multinational narco-terrorist organization.
By 2011, newly-trained Afghan prosecutors were successfully bringing cases to convict low- and mid-level drug offenders. But it was clear that Afghanistan’s fledgling court system was not strong enough to take on drug kingpins, Taliban leaders or corrupt, high-ranking government officials. The DEA plan aimed to complement the work of Afghan prosecutors by indicting the top leadership of the Taliban and their drug trafficking allies in U.S. courts, using America’s extra-territorial narco-terrorism statutes.
For that, the agents in Kabul needed to determine that there was sufficient evidence to demonstrate that Taliban leaders and allied kingpins were running a “continuing criminal enterprise,” a legal term vital to proving a criminal conspiracy under U.S. federal law.
The team spent months combing through mountains of DEA and Afghan evidence, eventually producing a 203-page Prosecution Memo that, along with 24 individual target memos of more than 700 pages, formed the basis for Operation Reciprocity.
The evidence, as well as cooperating sources, revealed that the Taliban shura had formed an alliance with regional drug trafficking organizations in 1998, pledging to protect each other’s interests. This so-called ‘Sincere Agreement’ could be used as the basis for the conspiracy charge, equivalent to the notorious 1946 Havana Conference deal, in which Lucky Luciano and other American mobsters divided up their Cuban business interests. The Taliban shura later also formed alliances with corrupt officials in the former Afghan government.
Evidence gathered by the DEA established that Mullah Baradar had managed the Taliban’s relationships with key regional drug lords since the late 1990s. He appears to have also brokered profit-sharing deals with corrupt officials in the former Afghan regime, including Ahmed Wali Karzai, the late brother of former president Hamid Karzai.
These partnerships endured the test of time. It’s worth noting that, during the Doha peace process, Baradar successfully obtained the release of Haji Juma Khan, a man described by U.S. prosecutors as the biggest, most dangerous drug lord in Afghanistan, who provided financial support to the Taliban in exchange for protection of his organization’s drug trafficking operations. Court documents in his case are shrouded in secrecy.
In June 2020, Baradar pressed for the release from U.S. jail of Haji Bashar Noorzai, the Afghan heroin trafficker whose clan originally financed the Taliban. Releasing Noorzai was one of the few Taliban requests in Doha that the U.S. government did not approve.
The Prosecution Memo for Operation Reciprocity was based on a wide range of evidence, including tax receipts the Taliban handed out to poppy farmers, ledgers and other records of protection money paid to the Taliban shura by drug traffickers, as well as witnesses and confidential sources who could provide details about how senior Taliban commanders personally managed the heroin business, often from their rear base in Pakistan.
The Taliban and the Heroin Trade
It’s important to grasp the way in which the Taliban leaders involved themselves in the heroin trade. You would never have found Mullah Baradar driving a jingle truck packed with heroin down a Kandahar highway. Rather think of him as an Afghan Tony Soprano, sitting in the Quetta equivalent of the Bada Bing during the long war, collecting cash payoffs from regional drug trafficking networks, and his own lieutenants who also trafficked narcotics. Now he’s dealing from the Afghan equivalent of the White House.
This was a crucial aspect of the Taliban that closely paralleled the trajectory of the FARC in Colombia. The Prosecution Memo documented how the Taliban had developed over time into a multinational cartel that not only taxed drug production activity inside Afghanistan and provided protection to regional kingpins, but was itself operating labs that processed heroin and managing large-scale heroin and hashish exports.
Many Taliban commanders, in particular the late Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, had grown personally rich this way, splashing out on luxury cars and gaudy mansions in Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates. Behind the scenes, commanders like Mansour hardly behaved like the pious Muslims the Taliban publicly claimed to be.
“There was a huge bag of snakes involved in every aspect of the drug trade, from setting farm quotas to running labs and distribution networks,” said Michael Marsac, then the senior DEA official in Afghanistan.
Once the 900-page targeting plan was drafted, it was distributed to Justice Department officials in Kabul and Washington DC, as well as prosecutors at the Southern District of New York (SDNY), the federal court that had indicted the FARC.
The initial feedback was enthusiastic. SDNY prosecutors said the evidence the agents in Kabul had amassed against the Taliban was stronger than the original conspiracy case against the FARC.
“We were able to show a continuing pattern of criminal behavior,” said Marsac.
Despite the overwhelming body of evidence, however, Operation Reciprocity never got out of the gate. State Department officials appointed during President Barack Obama’s administration scuttled the case out of apparent concern it would undermine diplomatic efforts to make peace with the Taliban, and potentially harm Washington’s already fragile relationship with President Karzai, as well as neighboring Pakistan.
The Trump administration followed suit, also ignoring warnings by the intelligence community and the DEA that Afghanistan could devolve into a narco-terrorist state if the Taliban returned to power, and pursuing a peace deal with the Taliban that failed to address narcotic trafficking as a pre-condition in their negotiations.
We believe that Operation Reciprocity represents a critical missed opportunity by two U.S. administrations that could have significantly weakened the Taliban leadership and augmented other diplomatic and military efforts. Exposing the Taliban leadership’s close ties to narcotics traffickers would have also exposed the hypocrisy of their supposed devotion to Islamic principles, potentially weakening their already dwindling public support.
Moreover, the likelihood that some Taliban commanders would have chosen to cooperate with the feds to reduce their sentence could have fractured the Taliban leadership, as happened to the FARC, thus potentially aiding, not undermining, the peace process.
Dust Off Reciprocity
Now, almost a decade later, we believe the case files for Operation Reciprocity, as well as newer evidence of Taliban collusion in the drug trade, may represent one of the few good options the U.S. government has left for containing the Taliban leadership.
Mullah Baradar is hardly the only current Taliban leader who has been tied to narcotics. Ikramuddin Maftoon, who was pictured standing, Kalashnikov in hand, behind senior leadership during an Aug 16 Kabul press conference, was implicated in federal drug investigations and named in court records. Meanwhile, Mohammed Idris, the Taliban’s shadowy appointee as Central Bank governor, has reportedly been identified as the movement’s principal drug money launderer.
The evidence in the Reciprocity case files would undoubtedly have to be updated, and it will be challenging to verify aspects of that existing body of evidence now that the former Afghan government, which was itself highly corrupted by the drug trade, has collapsed.
But in other ways, a potential conspiracy case against the Taliban remains a viable option. Afghanistan still produces 90% of the world’s opiates, the vast majority of it in recent years coming from zones under Taliban control. The June 2021 UN report reported that drug production and trafficking “remains the Taliban’s largest single source of income.”
Taliban drug production is no longer limited to heroin and hashish. In recent years, Afghanistan has rapidly become a major global producer of methamphetamines, with the Taliban taxing labs and exports, according to a 2020 report that suggests meth could eventually become as big an export market for Afghanistan as heroin.
Targeting the Taliban as a drug cartel through federal courts could enhance other tools in the containment toolkit, such as economic sanctions programs, and would open up opportunities to seize Taliban drug profits, which multiple investigations suggest are stashed in banks outside Afghanistan and parked in real estate investments from Dubai to Capetown. Indictments would also hamper the ability of drug kingpins to travel outside the country.
Amid skyrocketing addiction rates and opioid-related deaths, not just in the U.S., but Europe, Russia and China as well, a campaign to target the Taliban as drug dealers could align interests and foster multinational cooperation. Perhaps most importantly, it would reflect a renewed U.S. commitment to the rule of law, something that was sorely lacking in the 20-year U.S. experiment in Afghanistan.
John Seaman is a retired DEA agent who worked on Operation Reciprocity and author of Ideology and Political Correctness Trump Reality. Gretchen Peters is Executive Director of the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime and author of Seeds of Terror, a book about the Taliban’s involvement in the heroin trade.