(This story is a continuation of a series about overseas civilian policing assignments).
I was surprised when I was tasked with an assignment as advisor to General Mohammed Daoud Daoud, who was in charge of Counter-Narcotics for the Afghan National Police.
My experience in narcotics during my police career was limited to a period of 15 months, and that had been more than twenty years prior. I had done undercover work, and attended basic and advanced training at DEA schools, in addition to seminars, but it seemed a bit over the top to task me with the position of advising a general in charge of counter-narcotics.
I knew DEA and FBI had agents in the American embassy, and they had interaction with General Daoud regarding the problem of opium being grown by Afghanistan farmers, which was subsequently sold and moved throughout Europe and the USA to support the Taliban. What advice could a retired deputy chief from the Las Cruces Police Department give to a general in Afghanistan regarding the international heroin trade?
Short answer: handle the assignment.
It was not an impossible task, but it was certainly a duplication of effort since the feds were heavily involved. My assignment was, basically, window dressing, but looked good on paper for the company. In no way, shape, or form was I going to be allowed to run with the general and venture into the hinterland where the poppies were grown. That was something the feds, with assistance from the military, would handle.
There was another ingredient in the mix: the Germans had a strong police presence in Afghanistan. The Bundespolizei, Germany's national police force, are a superb group of men and women and I had worked with many of them in Kosovo. You can read more about their accomplishments here: https://www.bmi.bund.de/EN/topics/security/international-cooperation/afghanistan/afghanistan.html
I mention the BPOL because I was partnered with one of their career narcotics agents. I won't identify him because he may still be working, but he was nothing short of professional. Our contingent commander (CC), an idiot on his best day, had cautioned me to be careful with the Germans because he didn't trust them. When I asked him why they could not be trusted, he could not provide a specific reason. Keep in mind that the American CC had never worked overseas before, and was judged by his subordinates to be completely unqualified for the position he held. We suspected he was there because he knew someone in the company heirarchy.
Why do I say that the CC was unqualified? He was a retired captain from an 80 officer police department. After that, he had been a police chief in a department that had about 25 cops. Remember, our task was to build up the Afghan National Police from 15,000 officers to 35,000. What could an executive possibly have seen in the contingent commander's background to convince himself that he was the man for the job?
Our CC couldn't find his own rear end with a search warrant, much less handle this task. On top of that, he had a problem with the truth, as in being incapable of speaking it. If you think I'm being harsh, here's a "for instance:" he bragged to anyone willing to listen that he had been chief-of-police of the San Antonio, Texas, police department. Apparently, he had never heard of the internet or Google, but besides that one of the officers in the contingent was a former SAPD officer. He called him out in front of others by saying, "Gee, I was a cop in San Antonio and I don't remember you being the chief." Red-faced, our CC responded, "Well, I meant I was chief of (and he named a small town just outside of San Antonio)."
He had numerous complaints regarding his conduct, not the least of which was ordering subordinates to perform an action that he would later deny he had ordered. I could list other examples of his unethical behavior, but the aforementioned illustrates his character, or lack thereof. Enough said.
My German counterpart, R, picked me up for work on a cold, cloudy Kabul morning in his armored Mercedes-Benz jeep. I'd never been in an armored vehicle before. As we left the compound and started the twenty minute drive to counter-narcotics, I looked for the button to roll down the window. I was dressed warmly and wanted to crack the window a bit to get some fresh air. I couldn't see a button, and asked R how to roll down the window. He gave me a look of amusement. "It's an armored vehicle," he explained. "The windows don't roll down." Duh. Where you from, hillbilly? New Mexico? A little different from riding a burro to work, ain't it, junior?
At any rate, the drive was interesting. We passed through a couple of major roundabouts with throngs (thousands) of men milling about and talking as traffic passed. That is what massive unemployment looks like, and it didn't take a genius to see the potential for trouble with that many men having nothing to do all day. We arrived at counter-narcotics shortly after and were escorted to General Daoud's office.
If you Google the general's name, you will commonly see it spelled as Daud. However, I spell it Daoud because that's the way he had it printed on the business card he handed to me.
He was slightly taller than me, and like many Afghan men he was thin but wiry. You don't see many fat people in that country. They tend to be lean for a variety of reasons, some of which I suspect are genetic, but also because of the hard labor and diet. He wore a beard, but it was obvious that he kept it trimmed as it wasn't long and thick like many Afghan men wore them.
Daoud was a gregarious, charismatic man. He warmly welcomed us, offered tea (as is the custom), and promised his cooperation. He gave us a general briefing on the activities of his unit, its goals, and then gave us a wish list of supplies and equipment he needed to accomplish the mission, i.e., he wanted money.
This was a typical scenario played out in the countries where I would serve. Uncle Sam had the deep pockets, and every police commander I served with thought we were there to write checks. I don't fault them a bit. At that time, October 2004, it was becoming apparent to the Afghans that most of the USA's money was going towards the war in Iraq. We were asking citizens of a war-torn, third-world country that we had invaded to conform to the standards of a first-world country, and not just politically but ideologically.
The monthly pay for an Afghan police officer when I arrived was $15. You read that correctly: fifteen USA dollars per month. Put me on that kind of salary and I could show you a thing or two about corruption. How else could a man provide for his family? I don't know what Daoud's official salary was as head of counter-narcotics, a Deputy Minister position, but I would guess about five hundred USD.
I had heard he was corrupt, at least by Western standards, but really what more could be expected? Politically, the country was unstable, the economy was nonexistent, the entire government was propped up by outside donations, the future was uncertain, and assassination was a daily concern for those in positions of command and power (in fact, Daoud would be murdered by the Taliban some years later).
Some of those in key government slots were on the payroll of the CIA as informers, small potatoes with respect to what they could steal, but my point is that they had to realize that time was not on their side. I would see it in other countries later, where the mentality seemed to be "grab as much as you can while you can, because you never know when a new regime will be in power and you'll be out."
Here are some facts: Afghanistan produced over ninety percent of the world's opium poppy; the Taliban "taxed" the farmers in order to support their cause, to the tune of an estimated $100 million annually; three-fourths of the poppy fields were out of government control (in other words, the insurgency controlled that territory); credible evidence linked Afghan government officials with narco-trafficking and corruption; and there was a general fear that drug lords would not only corrupt government officials, they would also run for office and occupy seats in parliament.
The idea was to eradicate poppy fields while developing alternative, sustainable crops for the farmers to grow. Thanks to the Soviets, who had just years before completely destroyed irrigation systems that fed water to crops, that was going to be a challenge. Poppies can flourish with very little water, which was ideal in that arid land.
And, of course, there was the intelligence versus diplomatic side of the coin. Did the CIA give a hoot one way or the other if Daoud was corrupt, or misled the DEA with respect to his activities? Of course not. They had bigger fish to fry, namely terrorists in the Taliban and al-Qaeda networks. If a Deputy Minister in charge of counter-narcotics wanted to profit from his position, and played both sides of the fence in the process, that was not the concern of an intelligence officer. Imagine the arguments over the table in Washington, D.C., between the State Department and CIA over political priorities.
I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer but those considerations were present in my mind on a daily basis in Afghanistan. We all knew it, and we would discuss it over beers in the evening, and then we would go to work the next day and pretend that we could make a difference.
More in the next post.