The Wall Street Journal, March 7, 2012

Afghan Air Force Probed in Drug Running

By Maria Abi-Habib

The U.S. is investigating allegations that some officials in the Afghan Air Force, which was established largely with American funds, have been using aircraft to ferry narcotics and illegal weapons around the country, American officials told The Wall Street Journal.

Two probes of the Afghan Air Force, or AAF, are under way—one led by the U.S. military coalition and another by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, officials said.

"The nature of the allegations is fairly dramatic and indicated that [AAF officials] were transporting drugs on aircraft and transported weapons not owned by the government of Afghanistan for the use of private groups," said U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Training Mission-Afghanistan, the command that is establishing and financing Afghan security forces, including the AAF.

Gen. Bolger cautioned that the investigation was still preliminary and the allegations couldn't be proved at this stage.

As part of the inquiry, the military also is looking into whether the alleged transporting of illegal drugs and weapons was linked to an April incident in which an AAF colonel gunned down eight U.S. Air Force officers at Kabul Airport. In a 436-page report released by the U.S. Air Force in January about the killings, several American officials are quoted as mentioning that the shooter, Col. Ahmed Gul, was likely involved in the transportation of illicit cargo and wanted to shut down a probe into it.

The April shooting, for which the Taliban claimed responsibility, was the deadliest attack by Afghan troops on coalition personnel in the 10 years of war. The majority of the victims were involved in an early inquiry into the misuse of AAF aircraft. Col. Gul, the Afghan officer who killed them, coordinated AAF's cargo movement.

Lt. Col. John Dorrian, an Air Force spokesman said: "There are a number of factors that were turned up as a part of the investigation. To call any of them a definitive motive would be speculation at best."

An AAF spokesman, Lt. Col. Mohammed Bahadur, denied the allegations and said he was unaware of any investigations into the air force. Afghanistan's Minister of Defense, Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak, also said he hadn't been informed of any inquiry.

Western officials say preliminary findings of the investigation suggest certain senior officials in the AAF and other parts of the Afghan government may have been involved in the alleged drugs and weapons transporting, or have turned a blind eye to the activity.

The probe of alleged drugs and weapons transport is still in its early stages, and Afghan investigators aren't involved in it. The allegations have come from "credible" Afghan officers inside and outside the AAF, the investigators say, and from coalition personnel working with the AAF.

The NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan has provided roughly $20 billion, almost all of it from the U.S., this year and last to build up Afghan forces, with $1.9 billion going to the AAF. Future funding for the Afghan security forces is slated to be discussed at a NATO summit in Chicago in May.

The U.S. had hoped to reach by then a deal on long-term American military presence in Afghanistan. But the talks have stalled because of President Hamid Karzai's insistence that the coalition end night raids and transfer all its detainees to Afghan custody, U.S. and Afghan sources say.

Afghanistan accounts for some 90% of the world's illicit opium production, according to the United Nations. Before the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, opium revenue enabled commanders of the Northern Alliance—the anti-Taliban fighters who would later aid the U.S. in toppling the regime—to finance their war effort.

Graph of increased harvest of drugs in Afghanistan in 2011
Photo: WSJ

Many of these commanders now occupy senior positions in the Afghan security forces or government. American investigators say they believe some of these former commanders are now selling drugs again to buy weapons. Their aim: to rearm loyal militias in northern Afghanistan in case civil war erupts after most foreign forces withdraw from the country in 2014.

The U.S.-led coalition is looking at specific senior Afghan officials in its current investigation into the misuse of the air force.

The investigating officials say they haven't yet found any proof that Afghan officials met with international drug networks or any other hard proof of likely criminal activity.

"We found some circumstantial evidence and a few guys willing to give us statements," Gen. Bolger said.

The DEA said it couldn't confirm or deny its role in the investigation, and declined to comment further.

U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Frank Bryant, a coalition adviser at AAF, spearheaded an initial, informal, investigation after months of watching Afghan "helicopters just disappearing without flight plans," said an American military officer who worked closely with him.

Early last year, Col. Bryant decided to impose U.S. control over the scheduling of Afghan military flights and suggested cutting off fuel to the AAF until it improved transparency about flight destinations and cargo, according to interviews with officials and the U.S. Air Force report on the shooting in April at Kabul International Airport.

Of particular concern was cargo ramp No. 5 at the airport, where unscheduled aircraft were landing late at night and cargo was being unloaded in a hurry, several Western officials with knowledge of Col. Bryant's probe said.

The airport is a joint civilian-military facility. Unlike in most of the airport, the U.S.-led coalition has no oversight role at ramp No. 5. A Western official called that cargo-loading area the "Grand Central station of illicit activities" in Afghanistan.

That initial probe was cut short on April 27, when Col. Gul burst into a meeting room at the military side of Kabul airport and shot Col. Bryant, seven other U.S. service members and a U.S. contractor. Col. Gul killed himself later that day.

A U.S. Air Force investigation into the shooting, released in January, didn't establish a conclusive motive for the attack, but said Col. Gul, had "self-radicalized," possibly during a stay in Pakistan.

Now, senior American military officers in Kabul are pushing for that probe into the April killings to be reopened, saying Col. Gul may have been trying to derail the inquiry into a high-powered network of organized crime.

"These guys didn't die because of some nut job that radicalized overnight. They died because they took a stand to not let a criminality expand," one of the officials said. "It's not just Afghans profiting from Afghans but includes international mafias. In a landlocked country, moving goods by air is everything."

The U.S. Air Force investigation report quotes Col. Gul's friends and family as denying he had become religious, and as saying he had financial problems and a dispute with the U.S. mentors.

A U.S. sergeant major quoted in the report wrote that imposing U.S. control over scheduling flights, something Col. Bryant wanted, "could impact [Col. Gul's] income if he took payments for arranging flight and cargo movements."

Col. Gul likely paid for his colonel's position, and needed the illicit traffic to pay off his superiors, two Western officials told the Journal.

Family members had a different take on Col. Gul's actions. "He wasn't a radical or a terrorist," a family member of Col. Gul said. "He was stressed from financial problems," he said. The family member denied that Col. Gul was involved in any corrupt activity.

Another witness, a U.S. lieutenant colonel, was cited in the report as saying some senior Afghan officials see the AAF aircraft as a source of income.

They "want to continue these nefarious and profitable activities with the billions of dollars worth of aircraft we're buying them and the hundreds of millions we spend every year on maintenance and fuel," he told investigators.

In April, a coalition spokesman couldn't give a conclusive answer about why Col. Gul opened fire, but suggested it was because of a disagreement with coalition forces.

About half of all incidents where Afghan servicemen turn on their coalition counterparts are the result of personal disputes, NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan said shortly after the April shooting, challenging the Taliban claim of having planted Col. Gul.

The current probe into alleged drugs and weapons transport continues to look into ramp No. 5. Investigators are also looking into movements at other military airfields used by the AAF, especially those close to northern border areas.

Northern Afghanistan is a major route for the transport of opium and heroin to consumers in Russia and Western Europe. Opium is mostly grown in southern Afghanistan, and is smuggled to the north to be moved on to the rest of the world, Western officials say.

The AAF has 86 aircraft, including 16 C-27 cargo planes, 41 Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters and 11 Russian-made Mi-35 helicopter gunships.

Suspicions that some of these aircraft have been used to ferry money, weapons and drugs throughout the country first surfaced in late 2010, Western officials say. Deliveries by the U.S. and others are expected to bring the fleet to 145 aircraft by 2016.

Yaroslav Trofimov, Habib Khan Totakhil, Ziaulhaq Sultani and Julian E. Barnes contributed to this article.

Characters Count: 10811

URL for news «Afghan Air Force Probed in Drug Running»