Lt. Col. Tom Brewer - A decorated career
A Nebraska military officer who has battled Hurricane Katrina and al-Qaida will spend his final deployment searching for a sticky black substance that might be the key to victory in Afghanistan.
Lt. Col. Thomas Brewer will soon head to Kabul, capital of the war-torn country, where he will serve as a military adviser to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as it tries to slow the production and movement of crudely processed black tar heroin.
That is a substance that is wildly popular: Poppies grown in Afghanistan produce more than 90 percent of the world's heroin, U.S. and European experts say.
It's also maddening, because the Taliban turn that black tar into gold.
Military leaders recognize that insurgent groups in southern Afghanistan use drug money to buy weapons, upgrade their communication systems and bribe politicians.
“Controlling those drugs is critical to success in Afghanistan,” said Brewer, 51, who will retire in 15 months. “This is going to be my last tour ... and I wanted to do something that really mattered.”
Brewer has spent most of his 32-year National Guard career doing things that mattered.
He forced his way into downtown New Orleans, among the first guardsmen to arrive after the fury and flooding of Hurricane Katrina. Brewer's makeshift security force rescued more than a thousand residents, some stranded in nursing homes, others trapped in their bedrooms, many near death.
He has previously been deployed three times to Afghanistan and twice to nearby Kyrgyzstan, training those countries' soldiers and teaching counternarcotics tactics.
In 2004, he took six bullets during an al-Qaida ambush on a deserted road between Jalalabad and Kabul.
The first broke a rib and caused him to bite off a chunk of his tongue. Brewer continued to fire. Subsequent shots broke more ribs, sliced through his armpit, pierced his shooting arm, tore his calf. He continued to shoot.
A British soldier eventually rescued the bleeding guardsman — but not before Brewer had killed or wounded more than a dozen enemy soldiers. He was awarded the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star after the firefight.
Brewer's experience, including a previous year training with the DEA, will come in handy during his final deployment, which will last at least a year.
The task surely won't be easy.
The DEA in Afghanistan is fighting a massive heroin operation run by Russian gangsters, Chinese chemical smugglers, Afghan terrorists — and highly placed members of Afghanistan's U.S.-backed government.
“There are no clear lines separating insurgent groups, criminal networks including the narcotics networks, and corrupt (Afghan) officials,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, reported to President Barack Obama in August.
The problem starts in the river valleys across southern Afghanistan, where farmers plant poppy that's easy to grow and far more lucrative than any other cash crop. They harvest the opium by slitting the poppy bulbs with a razor blade. Out oozes a residue that is dried and collected in burlap sacks.
A middleman transports the sacks to a processing area — usually a shack with a cooking vat outside, Brewer said. There, using chemicals generally smuggled from China, the middleman cooks black tar heroin, lets it harden into a brick and seals it inside a kitty litter bag.
For the first five years of the Afghan war, trucks loaded with these drug-filled bags rumbled out of Afghanistan, distributing them to Russian gangsters and then to European drug markets with little trouble.
The coalition forces, preoccupied with fighting, rarely worried about the drug trade, wrote Thomas Schweich, a former top counternarcotics official in the U.S. State Department.
The drug trade also received little opposition from the Afghan government, Schweich has argued, partly because so many local warlords and high-ranking politicians were getting rich off drug-related bribes — or directly profiting from the drug trade.
To illustrate, many experts point to Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, the former governor of the Helmand province and internationally infamous as an Afghan drug kingpin. British troops discovered 9 tons of heroin inside his compound in 2005.
Since then, President Hamid Karzai has attempted to reinstall Akhundzada as governor of Helmand. Akhundzada also helped lead Karzai's re-election campaign.
Then there is Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president's half brother, repeatedly accused by American and European experts of running Kandahar as his personal drug fiefdom. (Both Karzais have repeatedly denied this.)
The Pentagon is putting increased emphasis on the drug fight. More than a hundred DEA agents are now inside Afghanistan, Brewer said, many on teams that use helicopters to raid processing centers and disrupt smuggling operations.
Arrests and seizures have more than quadrupled in the past year, Brewer said.
The fight will get even more serious in 2010, he suspects.
On one side, the smugglers will find increasingly desolate roads and unguarded spots on Afghanistan's porous northern border to move drugs out of the country.
Smugglers, for example, are increasingly using donkey caravans that wind their way through the formidable mountain passes and into Tajikistan to avoid coalition forces and border guards.
On the other side, the DEA is increasingly harnessing technology as well as practicing good old-fashioned police work, Brewer said.
The agents are spreading motion sensors on those rarely used mountain passes, Brewer said. When a person or animal trips the sensor, a Predator drone or other surveillance aircraft can fly over and determine whether it is a wild animal, a nomadic herder or a drug posse.
The agents are tracking large, suspicious movements of water and chemicals. Both are needed to process the raw drug into black tar heroin.
And the DEA is developing a web of informants who mark the location of drug processing centers with hand-held Global Positioning System devices. The DEA then raids, arrests the smugglers present, interrogates them and searches their cell phones for frequently called numbers.
“It's a domino effect,” Brewer said. “If you take that same situation and do it over and over, we probably have a good chance of making the war work.”
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