Targeting drug lords in Afghanistan

Player utilities

Listen to the Story.

Audio Transcript:

LISA MULLINS: There's been a major shift in US military policy in Afghanistan. US forces are now targeting 50 drug lords on a so-called kill or capture list. In the past the US military shied away from what it viewed as law enforcement but now it sees traffickers as fueling the Taliban insurgency. The World's Jeb Sharp reports.

JEB SHARP: According to a report in today's New York Times the US military now considers targeting these so-called drug lords as important as going after insurgent leaders. That's a dramatic shift in US policy according to Gretchen Peters, author of Seeds of Terror, a book about the opium trade in Afghanistan.

GRETCHEN PETERS: Under the Bush administration and certainly while Donald Rumsfled was the defense secretary there was tremendous hostility to going after the drugs trade and a fear that it would lead to further instability in Afghanistan. I have been, among others, arguing that there will be no stability in Afghanistan until they go after the drugs trade. And that ignoring it has led us to the situation that we find ourselves in today.

SHARP: A situation in which the Taliban control large portions of southern Afghanistan and corruption plagues the government. Peters says the United States is right to go after the business men at the heart of drug trade in the region but it's not clear that international law allows such targeting. European NATO allies have already raised questions about it. But US officials argue such killings are lawful given the nature of the conflict. Duke University law professor Scott Silliman explains.

SCOTT SILLIMAN: The United States is making the argument that the drug traffickers, because the money that they are supplying to the Taliban from the drug trafficking, is actually paying Taliban soldiers and perhaps buying weapons and sustaining them that that means that the drug traffickers are taking a direct part in hostilities.

SHARP: But Silliman acknowledges not everyone takes such an expansive view of what's permissible. Robert Goldman is an international law expert at American University. He says it's one thing to target a war lord who traffics drugs but targeting a drug trafficker who hasn't taken part in the fighting may be questionable. Goldman says the particulars of each case matter greatly but even so it's a murky area that conflates war, terrorism, and criminality.

ROBERT GOLDMAN: Even though the Obama administration you know is not using the terms war or terror anymore this really comes from the war paradigm, from a very discredited paradigm, that essentially equates terrorism with armed conflict. And that can get you in trouble. And this is why I think frankly people are going to have problems.

SHARP: And in fact the US military itself used to resist mixing law enforcement and counter insurgency but that's now changing. And Gretchen Peters thinks one reason the US military is now starting to target drug traffickers is frustration over the fact that there's no extradition treaty between the US and Afghanistan.

PETERS: That means that US law enforcements and American officials have to operate in extremely murky legal territory. A lot of the people who have been brought to the United States; there is about a dozen traffickers now who have been brought to the United States in basically what amounts to a fancy form of rendition. They essentially convinced them that they will be better off facing justice in the United States than facing justice in Afghanistan. It's very, very murky legal territory to say the least.
SHARP: Peters supports the policy but she acknowledges it could cause more violence in the short term and she says it raises some uncomfortable questions.

PETERS: Some of these traffickers aren't� They're not going to be found on the battlefield of Helmand or Kandahar holding an AK-47 in one hand and a bag of opium in the other. They're sitting in Dubai in a suit, in an office. Or they're in Karachi. They're not necessarily in Afghanistan and actively working on the battlefield so where do you draw the line? And who gets to live and go to court and who gets a predator missile fired into the roof of his house?

SHARP: Despite such dilemmas Peters is glad to see the United States finally trying to cut off the flow of drug money to the Taliban. For The World I'm Jeb Sharp.