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As the first soft light of dawn sneaks over the horizon, John Kruthaupt grabs his M-4 assault rifle and Kevlar vest and climbs aboard a Blackhawk helicopter idling at the Kabul International Airport. He straps himself in while the whirring blades kick whirlwinds of dust through the open doors. The helicopter lifts effortlessly into the sky like a dragonfly on a summer day, followed by another Blackhawk, two Soviet Mi8s and a handful of Apache attack helicopters. With military precision, the flock buzzes low over the rugged mountains in eastern Afghanistan by the Pakistani border, searching for its target.
While the war against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden takes place throughout the country below, this mission is different. This isn’t about that war.
Kruthaupt, a 1989 cum laude graduate with an ROTC commission, is an agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration that is fighting an invisible war in Afghanistan-the drug war.
In 2005, the DEA, already part of a 19-nation anti-drug coalition known as Operation Containment, announced it would send in teams of special agents-including Kruthaupt-to train Afghan counter-narcotics officers in the complexities of information-gathering and drug interdiction. Not only is Afghanistan one of the world’s largest producers of illicit drugs-in 2004 it produced 87 percent of the world’s opium supply and 92 percent of the world’s heroin-but the money it generates helps fund some of the world’s most notorious terrorists.
The work is perilous and painstaking-conducting raids, destroying storage labs and processing sites, arresting the traffickers who finance the trade-all in an effort to stop the flow of drugs and chemicals into and out of the country. It’s risky and often frustrating. But for guys like Kruthaupt, the work is rewarding.
After 45 minutes in the air, Kruthaupt gazes out the open door of the sleek, purring Blackhawk. What he sees sets his adrenaline flowing. Dozens of men, their long shirts flapping around them, scatter like ants across the dry, rocky landscape and vanish into the steep-sided hills, leaving behind the stone huts and sooty metal vats, still boiling, that make up their drug production laboratory. He smiles. It’s just as the informants said.
In a roaring cloud, the helicopters drop down onto a small, flat surface carved between the vertical mountain cliffs. The army of 10 DEA agents and 30 Afghan trainees leaps out and rushes toward the buildings, looking first for stragglers.
The pungent odor of acetic anhydride and soda ash-chemicals used in the conversion of poppy seed gum to heroin-assaults their eyes and sinuses as they scurry across the hardscrabble ground. Kruthaupt bursts into one of the huts. All he sees are some plastic containers for chemicals, bags of sticky black opium and a small amount of brown, low quality heroin powder left behind by the lab workers. There isn’t a soul in sight.
Kruthaupt relaxes and, with his team members, begins looking for items to confiscate-ledgers, cell phones, pictures, weapons, anything written that might lead to someone’s identity. Finding nothing worth keeping, they photograph everything, then set about destroying it all. They knock down the huts of stone, straw and mud, chop up a large wooden heroin press on the grounds outside and pour the chemicals into a nearby stream. They shoot holes in the metal bathtub-sized vats set above wood fires dug into the ground. The steaming opium stew spills out onto the dirt. Then they make a pillar of everything-drugs, wood, buckets, bags-and set fire to the whole thing. About 300 kilos of heroin and 1,000 kilos of opium go up in smoke.
As it burns, Kruthaupt and his team stay alert to any signs of activity. But the only excitement is a train of donkeys clopping up the road, each loaded with bundles of firewood and shepherded by Afghan farmers who, when questioned, deny any knowledge of the drug lab. They say the wood they’re carrying is for sale to villagers. The agents know better, but it’s the big fish they’re after
here. The poor farmers are just trying to scratch out a living, even if it means selling firewood to those who make opium and heroin.
Wiping the sweat from his face, Kruthaupt steps back and watches the fire. A longtime resident of Las Vegas, the 90-degree heat and dusty, dry conditions of the mountain climate don’t faze him at all. In fact, he thrives on it, and today he’s feeling pretty good: There’s one more heroin operation out of business-at least for now.
But the day has just begun. The 40-man army fans out among the hills and plays out the same scene at 20 more sites. By the end of the day, they’ve walked seven or eight miles, much of it up and down some of the most difficult, steep terrain on the planet. As the helicopters return and carry them back to Kabul and the safety of the U.S. Embassy, only then does Kruthaupt feel he can safely set down his weapon.
Kruthaupt wouldn’t be in Afghanistan if not for Sept. 11. A former Army lieutenant with a degree in international affairs, he joined the DEA in 1995 to fight the drug trade in the U.S., mostly in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas. But after America was attacked, he wanted to do his part to fight back. A National Guard assignment to guard the Defense Language Institute in southern California was useful, but that was not the kind of participation he was seeking. So when the DEA sought volunteers for a special drug interdiction task force in Afghanistan, Kruthaupt’s hand was among the first to shoot up.
“When 9/11 happened, it had a profound effect on me and the way I felt about our country,” he says. “We didn’t deserve what went on that day. It made me extremely angry, and I wanted to participate in some way.”
That way revealed itself in March 2005 when the DEA announced its plan to create special teams of anti-drug agents to tackle the country’s drug trade that had increased dramatically on the heels of a resurgence of Taliban activity. The Taliban’s hard-line Islamic fundamentalist government, believed to be harboring Osama Bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorists, was overthrown by the U.S. in 2002 in the aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11.
Though opium production had nearly vanished in the year prior to the Taliban’s ouster, both Taliban insurgency and opium cultivation revived in its aftermath. One reason for the spike, says Xavier political science professor Tim White, who teaches international affairs, is that the geography, climate and culture restrict the kinds of agricultural products that can be grown. Another is the U.S. left without finishing the job, essentially without helping President Hamid Karzai’s new government build a new economy.
“Their inability to get their economy booming has resulted in people resorting to the traditional poppy crop,” White says. “The anti-drug efforts of the DEA in Afghanistan are tied to our first occupation in 2002, because if the initial occupation had gone well, we wouldn’t five years later still be trying to get rid of the drug lords.”
So even though there is a democratically elected government in place, schools have reopened and judges are sending suspected traffickers to jail, drug trafficking is booming as more farmers grow poppy and government officials are compromised by their ties with the drug lords and former Taliban members. One Afghan official says in a recently published report that the only support they have in their efforts to stop the drug trade is from the international community.
Kruthaupt knows this all too well. A week after the raids, the labs are up and running again, churning out kilos of heroin that eventually will find their way into Western Europe and even the U.S. while fattening the pockets of Afghan drug lords. It’s frustrating.
“It’s not comfortable over there,” he says, “but I believe in the mission or I wouldn’t have volunteered. It’s important that even though you fight an uphill battle that you fight against something you believe is not right for society.”
Late one night in May, the phone rings in Kruthaupt’s room at the air base in Jalalabad, east of Kabul. It’s an informant on the phone. Haji Aziz, a suspected trafficker who recently escaped capture during a raid by another team, has returned home, the informant says. An Afghan court has issued a warrant and now, Aziz is just an hour away.
Kruthaupt grabs his weapons, assembles his team and slips behind the wheel of an armored Land Cruiser. They head into the night, bouncing along on rough dirt roads and detouring past a construction zone, wary of Taliban insurgents who are known to snatch road construction workers and cut off their heads.
The convoy of seven vehicles arrives at the compound. They send one vehicle ahead, a pickup truck that revs up its engine and blasts through the gate into the drug trafficker’s walled estate. The rest of the team follows on foot. There are no wooden doors or glass-paned windows, just openings in the mud brick walls. The Afghan agents accompanying the DEA team trudge ahead into the men’s sleeping quarters where they rouse Aziz, handcuff him and haul him outside. The women, sleeping together on cots in the open courtyard with their children, are wailing and crying, trying to distract the raiders’ attention. But the arrest ends peacefully with no shooting or violence. Aziz is taken away.
“We caught them off guard, which was good,” Kruthaupt says.
Yet once again, someone with ties to the government intercedes with $12,000 cash, and a month later Aziz is on the run again. “It proves he’s a pretty powerful guy, powerful enough to get out of jail,” Kruthaupt says.
His capture also proves how important informants are. They come along on every mission as much for insurance as to help identify suspects. They wear head coverings to conceal their identities, because it’s certain death for them if they’re ever revealed. It’s a risky game of trust. The DEA pays them for their information, and they go in knowing if it’s a trap, they pay the price first. But, says Kruthaupt, the DEA teams couldn’t do their work without them.
The agents are trained to stay detached from their informants, although sometimes that proves difficult after working so closely with someone. Kruthaupt actually befriended one of his informants, learning about his family, sharing jokes, learning to trust each other.
“We’re not supposed to allow these guys to become friends,” he says. “But it’s hard because you see them all the time and you empathize with them. He worked really hard for us, and I really liked this guy. I saw him almost every day my first four months over there, sometimes many times a day. He was my best informant hands down. He had an amazing network of sub-sources, and he made what would be considered a small fortune in Afghanistan just from me, and he had other handlers.”
But being an informant is dangerous work, and one day when Kruthaupt was on leave, the informant-his friend-was beaten, strangled and locked in the trunk of his own car. News of the murder made Kruthaupt sick to his stomach. He had just received a gift from the man, a green silk robe, as a symbol of their friendship. He says the man appreciated the way the DEA agents treated him. Kruthaupt takes some comfort knowing the DEA made a substantial payment to the man’s widow.
“The DEA really needs these informants,” he says. “If we have a reputation that we just use them and spit them out, who’s going to work for us? They are our life blood.”
Kruthaupt returned to Afghanistan in February. It’s his third and last trip for the DEA. He expects to add to his missions, which now number 12, and to increase the number of traffickers he’s helped to arrest. But this time, he also hopes changes in the Afghanistan government will keep more of their arrestees in jail. At the same time, he hopes changes at the Pentagon free up the Army to provide more support for their raids on heroin labs and drug traffickers’ lairs and, ultimately, the whole effort to fight the Taliban’s drug war.
“I’ve been there on the ground, and it’s like walking through quicksand. It’s slow going,” he says. “You just try to win as many battles as you can and, in the end, hopefully you win the war.”