American-funded Afghan Air Force investigated for drug running

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Michael Bastasch DCNF Managing Editor
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Two probes of the Afghan Air Force (AAF) conducted by the American-led military coalition and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration are currently underway, officials told the Wall Street Journal.

The AAF was established largely via U.S. funding, and there are allegations that some officials in the AAF have been using aircraft to transport narcotics and light weaponry around the country. The probe is still in its early stages, and no Afghan investigators are involved.

The allegations come from reportedly “credible” Afghan officers inside and outside of the AAF and also from coalition forces working with the AAF, according to investigators.

Afghanistan is home to 90 percent of the world’s opium production, according to the United Nations, and the north part of the country is a major route for opium and heroin trafficking into Russia and Western Europe. Western officials say the opium is mostly grown in southern Afghanistan before being smuggled to the north to be moved out of the country.

The commanders of the Northern Alliance, which helped the U.S. topple the Taliban regime in 2001, used opium revenues to support their war effort. Some of these same commanders occupy senior positions in the Afghan security forces and are believed to be selling drugs in order to buy weapons, according to U.S. officials. The goal of these narcotic sales is to rearm their loyal militias in the north in case another civil war breaks out after U.S. withdrawal.

The NATO Training Mission Afghanistan has been furnished with $20 billion, mostly from the U.S., with $1.9 billion going towards the AAF.

Early last year, an informal investigation was launched by U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Bryant after he witnessed AAF “helicopters just disappearing without flight plans,” according to a military officer who worked closely with him. Early last year, Col. Bryant imposed U.S. control over AAF flight scheduling and suggested cutting off fuel to the AAF until they shared more information about their flight destinations.

Of particular concern to investigators was cargo ramp no. 5 at Kabul International Airport, where aircraft were landing late at night and quickly unloading cargo. The U.S. has no oversight of ramp no. 5, and a Western military official called it the “Grand Central station of illicit activities” in Afghanistan.

However, the investigation was cut short after Col. Bryant, seven other service members, and a contractor were killed by an Afghan colonel, Ahmed Gul, on April 27. Gul killed himself later that day.

The killings prompted U.S. forces to look into whether the incident was connected to the suspected illicit activities. In a January report released by the Air Force, several U.S. officials are quoted saying the shooter Colonel Gul was likely involved in the transportation of illicit cargo and wanted to stop the probe into it. Most of the victims in the attack were involved in an early inquiry into the misuse of AAF aircraft.

The initial U.S. investigation into the shooting didn’t establish any clear motive for the attack in their report, but the report did say that the attack was “pre-meditated” and that Gul may “have had personal issues that were possibly compounded by alleged financial problems.”

The report also quotes Gul’s friends and family saying he had not become religious, but that he had financial troubles and was involved in a dispute with U.S. mentors. One family member said,  ”He wasn’t a radical or a terrorist. … He was stressed from financial problems.” The family member also denied his involvement in illicit trafficking.

A U.S. sergeant major was quoted saying that the U.S. control over AAF scheduling “could impact [Col. Gul’s] income if he took payments for arranging flight and cargo movements.”

Two Western officials also told the Journal that Gul probably bought his rank of colonel and needed the money from illicit trafficking to pay off his superiors.

American senior military officers are now saying that Gul may have trying to derail the inquiry into a “high-power 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… It’s not just Afghans profiting from Afghans but includes international mafias. In a landlocked country, moving goods by air is everything,” one of the officials told the Journal.

One U.S. lieutenant colonel was cited saying that senior Afghan officials “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,” and use the AAF as a source of income.

One coalition spokesperson suggested Col. Gul opened fire because of a disagreement with coalition forces. The Journal notes:

“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.”

Investigators continue to look into illicit activity occurring at ramp No. 5., and are also looking into movements at AAF airfields, especially those near northern border areas.

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