Co-author: Patrick Scott McGlynn
As the war in Afghanistan continues into its 18th year, many advocate, as a component of an overall strategy to bring it to an end, accelerated efforts to deny the Taliban and ISIS access to revenue from the heroin trade. Afghanistan has long been a major supplier of the world’s heroin due to the perfect climate for poppy cultivation and myriad covert operations to produce the morphine base and ultimate heroin.
The country is a perfect environment for taking the raw poppy sap all the way from the field to the easily transported raw heroin product so prized by the global drug underworld. At each stage in the process, segments of terror organizations – the Taliban, ISIS and some still operational al-Qaeda units – are enriched.
The process for these transfers of revenue is no more involved than holding out a hand in a demand for taxes. The relationships between farmer, transporter, lab worker and chemists, and tax collector/terrorist has existed for generations, with fathers replaced by sons. The process has often involved Mafia-style entrapment of rural farmers and their families by terrorist groups, assuring their compliance for generations to come.
The historic process was honed to perfection during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, when mujahedeen used the profits to battle the country’s occupiers. Specific mujahedeen commanders supervised the transport from fields to labs, ensuring that profits were distributed to those engaged in fighting against the Russians.
Many believe that neighboring Pakistan – as well as America and its allies, all cheering the efforts of the freedom fighters – winked in acquiescence, knowing that even though the ultimate product was reaching the street somewhere, forces battling their common enemy, Russia, were being supplied and financed to various degrees by the opium revenue.
It should come as no surprise that most governments, including the United States, have a tendency to overlook certain nefarious activities in many contested areas of operation, as long as a higher, more noble objective is being met. Though there are many baseless accusations that America overtly assisted in the opium production and transportation process in Afghanistan in the late ’80s, it’s safe to say that we never pushed neighboring Pakistan to intervene as the product was being openly moved across the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The passage of time and our morphing national interest in that country, coupled with the fact that today, many estimate, Afghanistan supplies up to 90 percent of the world’s heroin with most of the profits going to supply our enemies, have resulted in a different strategic objective, vis-à-vis the opium trade. A major facet of our strategic objectives in Afghanistan has for some time now been the elimination of heroin production and smuggling. The question is how to accomplish this objective.
The short, easy answer is to eradicate the poppy fields, ostensibly creating an environment in which the local poppy farmer, the recipient of the smallest profit in the growth/production/smuggling cycle, can replace the comparatively meager earnings, substituting poppy cultivation for something less destructive such as corn or cotton. This effort usually involves aerial herbicide dusting as well as more drastic measures such as confiscation of land used for poppy production.
The problem for the local farmer is twofold: the Taliban will likely kill them and their families if they don’t grow the poppy, and if that doesn’t happen the best they can hope for with corn or cotton or any substitute product is 25 percent of the revenue they can make from the poppy, a vitally important fact for a family that subsists on a few thousand dollars a year.
Eradicating the poppy in the fields has been ineffective (Afghanistan still produces 80-90 percent of the world’s heroin and this reflects a steady increase of over 40 percent in the past 10 years) and has generated a great deal of ill will at a time when America needs support from all Afghans.
There is a realistic, viable alternative, however, and to date, though there have been attempts to embrace this tactic, the methods used have been less than successful. America must redouble its efforts to locate and destroy the clandestine labs, most of which are located in the provinces of northern Afghanistan, closer to the northern smuggling routes.
The emphasis on lab targeting rather than poppy growing has several benefits. If the labs rather than poppy farmers are targeted, the economic effect will reach the farmers more slowly (product will still, for a time, be purchased from the farmer as lab facilitators take steps to adjust to interdiction efforts), allowing the farmer opportunity to naturally adjust. Wiping out a crop immediately destroys a full year’s income. Targeting the labs means the crop purchaser will continue to purchase the raw product in hopes they will be able to process before their lab is detected.
Locating and targeting these labs, most of which are small, crude and from the air look like any other innocuous structure, has been accomplished thus far by using tried and true intelligence gathering and analysis, often supported by satellite imagery data. The operating labs must be established close to a source of water, which makes it somewhat easier to locate them; however, dismantling and relocating one of these labs is simple and fast.
Gathering and verifying intelligence in this area is also somewhat time-consuming. Since America has been in Afghanistan and has relied on local intelligence (HUMINT), we have consistently battled the issue of false intelligence often coming from sources with ulterior motives such as personal grudges or the intent to settle old tribal grievances.
When the supporting intelligence and location of labs is finally verified, most often the local Afghan security forces are given the task of destroying them. Numerous reports routinely surface, indicating these security forces simply seize the product and either convert it to their own personal use or resell it.
Ongoing lab eradication efforts have yet to yield maximum results. There is a way, however, to improve on this process, and the materials and necessary operations to achieve such are already in country and have been in use for some years now.
Raw opium that has been collected from poppy pods and sold to producers is mixed with a calcium solution and hot water in large barrels. It is stirred vigorously and allowed to settle for many hours. Other mixing and drying procedures are conducted until a final heroin powder is ready to smuggle out of the country.
A vital step in the lab process is the addition of AA. The acetic anhydride is used as an acetylation ingredient, necessary to process the morphine base into heroin; it must be introduced during the lab processing. Because of this, AA is subject to international control. Afghan chemists employed in clandestine labs in the northern part of the country acquire AA from Pakistan as it is fairly easily smuggled across the border into Afghanistan.
AA does have minimal, licit uses such as production of some medicines and use in paints and plastics, but the purchase and transport of AA for these licit purposes is well documented. Much of the legitimately purchased AA in Afghanistan, however, is illegally diverted to the clandestine labs.
This, coupled with the product that is simply smuggled across the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan, assures that the labs have ample AA to continue operations. The legitimate facilities for use of AA in Afghanistan are extremely few and well-known to authorities. In short, AA that is discovered in Afghanistan is with almost 100 percent assurance intended for the production of heroin.
Of importance to lab eradication efforts, however, is the fact that acetic anhydride is a chemical that has a very identifiable chemically emitted signature. Through the use of hyperspectral imaging, which collects and processes such emissions from across the electromagnetic spectrum, even small quantities of AA can be identified from a great distance.
Hyperspectral imaging obtains the spectrum for emitted pixels for the purpose of identifying and locating specific objects and specific materials, and this can be done from the surface of the earth to an aircraft passing overhead.
In Afghanistan, America has utilized a hyperspectral aerial reconnaissance platform for several years. This platform has been used to identify and locate, through the hyperspectral imaging process, the specific chemical signatures given off by the very ingredients used to construct improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
This IED neutralizing program has been relied upon by American and allied forces to detect and give early warning of potential IEDS for years. It detects the signals emitted by the chemicals in IEDs, and thus the IED locations, by flying over suspected locations and detecting the emissions. The hyperspectral imaging program has, of course, been pre-programed to detect this specific emission.
This same process can be pre-programed to detect the chemical signal emitted by AA (as well as other chemical ingredients used in clandestine labs to process heroin). The same hyperspectral imaging platforms, or similarly equipped platforms, can fly routes known for lab locations or simply overfly locations indicated in intelligence reporting to verify the presence of acetic anhydride.
If such operations are utilized, several things can be known for certain: the presence of acetic anhydride, especially in remote areas, will provide virtually foolproof evidence that a clandestine heroin drug lab is in operation in that area; licit operations using AA as well as associated heroin production chemicals can be verified by a simple visual of the area that will confirm a formally constructed, legitimate business location rather than a hastily prepared lab; and lab-operation intelligence obtained from a heretofore unverified source can be substantiated or, to a certain degree, refuted using this method.
All this can be done simply by establishing an aerial platform calibrated to identify and verify the specific hyperspectral emission from acetic anhydride. Identifying and destroying a few labs using this method, which will be difficult if not impossible to counter from the ground, will result in the word spreading quickly that America has the capability to identify and destroy these clandestine labs.
If we are serious about pursuing this narcotic interdiction effort as a strategy in Operation Enduring Freedom, we must be willing to change tactics. Eradicating poppy fields is ineffective and hurts the wrong people. Hit-or-miss operations designed to attack drug bazaars or labs, based solely on HUMINT, are exactly that: hit or miss. Our enemies have shown they are capable of adapting to such tactics. It is high time to step up our game.