(ArmyTimes.com) - Moments after 25th Infantry Division soldiers raided a Kandahar province, Afghanistan, compound in December, discovered large piles of marijuana and arrested a suspected drug trafficker, the Taliban unleashed a complex ambush.
The patrol, made up of American and Afghan soldiers, immediately returned fire and called for help. An A-10 Warthog plane and an Apache helicopter swooped in, and enemy fighters retreated. The drugs were confiscated.
The raid stands as an example of a growing counterinsurgency tactic: Seize and destroy drugs that are sold to fund the Taliban.
The drug industry has funded decades of war, including civil conflicts, in Afghanistan and created a "narcotics economy," said Brig. Gen. H.R. McMaster, commander of Task Force Shafafiyat, which battles corruption in Afghanistan.
The drug trade is intertwined with organized crime, weapons trafficking and corruption, he added.
"If the U.S. ignores the drug problem, we will fail in Afghanistan," the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control told Congress in a July 2010 report.
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world's supply of opium, the plant used to make heroin and morphine. And Afghanistan grows more cannabis than any other nation, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
The U.S. has appropriated about $5.3 billion for counternarcotics efforts during the Afghanistan War, as of Sept. 30, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
But there is no clear-cut, simple solution to the problem because drugs bankroll many insurgent operations.
"You can't find a drug trafficking organization that is not connected to the insurgency," McMaster said.
Army operations in particular overlap counterinsurgency and counternarcotics initiatives in Afghanistan. Senior International Security Assistance Force military leaders have approved Army units to assist the Drug Enforcement Agency, which spearheads search-and-seizures, and Afghan law enforcement units.
Battalions from the 10th Mountain Division, 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division have helped the DEA run counterdrug missions in eastern and southern Afghanistan, said Rich Dobrich, who oversees DEA's Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Teams.
The war and the drug trade collided Jan. 20, when coalition forces arrested a Taliban leader suspected of distributing weapons, planting roadside bombs and leading ambushes against Afghan forces. During the mission, coalition forces seized 150 pounds of hashish, according to an ISAF release.
More recently, a coalition force found and destroyed 60,000 pounds of marijuana Jan. 31 in Kandahar province, according to ISAF.
In the past few weeks in separate missions in Kandahar province, ISAF forces destroyed 7,420 pounds of marijuana, along with 2,420 pounds of hashish and about 880 pounds of marijuana seeds.
"We don't run stovepipe, offline narcotics operations. Right in these fusion cells, we are nominating [counternarcotics] targets, getting buy-in from the battlespace owner, finding the appropriate military partner unit, so that while they execute their military objectives and line of operations, we in turn are prosecuting narcotics targets and getting as many violators off the battlefield," Dobrich said.
In May and June 2011, a new precedent was set in Afghanistan for incorporating soldiers in counternarcotics operations, said Jay Fitzpatrick, who has overseen DEA's FAST ops in Afghanistan.
The seminal operation was called "Kahfa Kardan," a 30-day "surge" that zeroed in on networks in regional commands South and Southwest, in Kandahar and Helmand provinces, respectively, according to Justice Department documents.
The Army dispatched soldiers who set cordons for objectives, helicopters for air cover, and explosive ordnance disposal and sensitive-site exploitation personnel, Dobrich said.
Thousands of pounds of drugs were seized during the mission, and DEA interdiction units arrested 18 suspects.
"This operation at this point has been used as the enduring framework to support future [counternarcotics] operations," Fitzpatrick said Jan. 12.
"The results were so well-received the whole counternarcotics effort within [then-] Gen. [David] Petraeus' list of priorities was elevated to the top tier," Dobrich added. "It brought it from the basement to the top."
Dobrich elaborated on the benefits of having one's mission on a priority list.
"When you are up on the commander's priority list, you get assets," he said. "When you get assets, you conduct operations and you can make things happen and show metrics and show results."
In 2011, ISAF reported seizing and destroying 772,000 pounds of drugs in daily counterinsurgency operations:
• Hashish, 328,000 pounds
• Opium, 216,000 pounds
• Marijuana, 134,000 pounds
• Morphine, 75,000 pounds
• Heroin (processed opium), 19,000 pounds
During one U.S. operation in Afghanistan, DEA officials discovered about 530,000 pounds of hashish, a stash so large, Dobrich said, "we had to call in air to drop ... 2,000-pound bombs on it to destroy it."
By comparison, the DEA seized about 1,500 pounds of heroin in the U.S. in 2010, according to its website.
From intelligence gleaned during Kahfa Kardan, Afghan and ISAF units planned missions to break up cells and disrupt financiers, the DoJ report said.
Penalties for breaking narcotics laws in Afghanistan are harsher than terror charges. A relatively small amount of narcotics found on someone can remove him or her from the battlefield for 15 years, Dobrich said.
The counternarcotics judicial center in Afghanistan convicted about 660 people in the past year, McMaster said.
Imprisoned drug traffickers and lost drug revenue can hamper insurgent operations, Dobrich said.
"It takes money to pay for a Taliban fighter," Dobrich said. "There is a dollar amount that's hung over the price that these Taliban commanders have to pay to keep these fighters loyal, fed and armed, so our narcotics seizures remove that revenue.
"No one is donating explosive materials to the insurgency," he added. "That's a for-sale commodity."
Other projects in the works to deflate the drug industry include crop substitutions and incentive-structured programs, McMaster said.
Together, soldiers, DEA agents and the anti-corruption task force are working toward a common goal before the U.S. withdraws forces from Afghanistan: a sovereign country that can run itself.
"The key is to pull it all together to have the maximum effect on these networks and to insulate Afghan critical institutions from the corrosive effects of the narcotics trade," McMaster said.