Take the War to the Drug Lords

A skinny man opened the gate at the sprawling compound in Quetta, in western Pakistan. When I asked if the property belonged to Afghanistan’s most powerful drug smuggler, he smiled and nodded. “Haji Juma Khan has 200 houses,” he said. “And this is one of them.”

I had been trying to track down Mr. Khan for years when I found this residence on a dusty, garbage-strewn alley. It hardly seemed an auspicious address for a man who American officials say moved as much as $1 billion worth of opium every year, hiring the Taliban to protect his colossal narcotics shipments and paying corrupt officials in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to look the other way.

I said I was a journalist and wanted to interview the boss. “He is on the run and we have not seen him,” said another man, who introduced himself as Mr. Khan’s clerk. “But please come inside and have a cup of tea.”

Even with the top man on the run, Mr. Khan’s network ran a string of heroin labs in the mountainous area where the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran merge. He had built huge underground storage bunkers in remote deserts for his product. He came to the attention of Western law enforcement officials for sending drug convoys made up of dozens of S.U.V.’s packed with narcotics, which were then unloaded onto ships along Pakistan’s southern coast.

Last October, about three months after I drank tea with his colleagues in Quetta, Mr. Khan was arrested and extradited to the United States. He is now jailed at New York City’s Metropolitan Correctional Center, awaiting trial on charges of conspiracy to distribute narcotics with intent to support a terrorist organization. His capture was a major, if little noticed, victory in the war on drugs in Afghanistan, although my contacts in Quetta tell me his relatives are keeping the network going strong.

Studying Mr. Khan’s operations allowed me to understand the challenges of fighting Afghanistan’s opium trade, which at once benefits the Taliban, Al Qaeda and corrupt officials in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. It also provided some insight on how to reshape our counternarcotics strategy.

So far, Western-led efforts to fight the opium trade in Afghanistan have focused mainly on eradicating poppy crops, a policy that has done little to hamper the drug lords and simply victimized poppy farmers and poor sharecroppers who work the land. As the Obama administration overhauls strategy in Afghanistan, installing Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal as the top commander, the focus of antidrug efforts should be on the smugglers and drug processors.

First, there must be stepped-up efforts to take down powerful traffickers like Mr. Khan and to cut off the Taliban’s opium profits, which the United Nations calculates to be worth $400 million a year. Their greatest earnings don’t come at the farming level, but from protecting shipments leaving farm areas and taxing drug refineries.

A good start would be using air attacks to destroy drug convoys carrying opium on smuggling trails toward the Pakistani border, using the same infrared technology employed along the Mexican border to avoid hitting civilian vehicles. Working with local law enforcement, NATO forces must also establish checkpoints along major arteries and border crossings and search all vehicles for drugs — even those belonging to senior Afghan government officials and their relatives. Taliban warriors may be able to slip over the mountainous borders in secret, but large drug shipments often go by road.

In October, NATO gave its commanders a mandate to destroy drug refineries, but many have been reluctant to do so. Not only should they take the offensive, but they should put an emphasis on arresting the chemists and other specialists operating the labs, who are difficult to replace. Some NATO nations in the Afghan coalition have placed restrictions on their troops that prevent them from participating in American-led counternarcotics operations. That’s short-sighted, given that Afghan heroin tends to end up on European streets. Until such restrictions are dropped, troops from those nations should be deployed to provide security, freeing up American and Afghan soldiers for combat linked to the opium trade.

In addition, until Afghanistan’s notoriously weak judiciary and police can be reformed, we should bring any major smugglers to the United States for trial, as was done with Mr. Khan.

Afghanistan’s drug problem extends beyond its borders. While Pakistan seems finally to be taking the fight to the Taliban elements in its northwestern frontier areas, it must simultaneously round up leaders of powerful cartels that operate from Baluchistan province in the southwest. These men supply insurgents with money, vehicles, communications equipment and weapons. Some even run guesthouses and hospitals that treat wounded Taliban soldiers. One alleged kingpin, Sakhi Dost Muhammad Notezai, has been wanted by American authorities since the late 1980s. Yet, despite evidence that his clan is still tied to smuggling opium, his son is the transportation minister for Baluchistan.

Stopping the drug flow is only half the battle: the money flows along separate routes from the opium, and disrupting financial flows may be tougher. To that end, Washington should subsidize efforts to regulate both Afghanistan’s bank transfers and the informal hawala network, the subcontinent’s unregulated version of the Western Union. Most hawala transfers are legitimate — Western aid groups in Afghanistan, for example, use it to send funds to rural field offices. But the system also moves drug money. The Treasury Department has put together a sound proposal that would not add costs for those using the hawala system but would allow the authorities to track who sent how much money, and to whom.

In the end, no counternarcotics program will make a difference in the war if Afghanistan and Pakistan fail to improve their governance. The Taliban are gaining ground not because they are well liked (they aren’t, in either place) but because the governments in both countries are seen as incompetent and corrupt. Many experts believe that corrupt officials on both sides of the border earn even more off the drug trade than the Taliban do.

As the Taliban and Al Qaeda become intertwined with smugglers like Haji Juma Khan, they swell in economic and military might. And then a drug problem that began as a regional headache becomes a global security nightmare: a two-headed monster of criminal smugglers and rich terrorist groups with deadly global ambitions.

Gretchen Peters, the author of Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda.