Rip open a bag of cat food that's loaded on a truck rumbling through Afghanistan, and Col. Tom Brewer guarantees you'll find something wholly unfit for Fluffy's dinner.
The Army colonel from Nebraska helped search hundreds of trucks during a special yearlong mission that took him into the rugged mountains of northern Afghanistan and that country's wide-open desert near the Iran border.
Nearly every time that Brewer, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents with him and Afghan security forces found a bag labeled “cat food,” the search ended with the authorities taking the truck driver into custody and gamely — and often futilely — questioning him for information that could lead to a drug kingpin.
See, there aren't many domesticated cats in Afghanistan. Even the most pampered felines generally don't receive a daily dish of dried food.
Tear open one of these bags and you'll find opium that's been crudely processed into a sticky substance commonly known as black tar heroin.
It's the stuff that makes the global heroin market go round: Nearly 90 percent of the world's opium is harvested in Afghanistan.
It's the stuff that is enriching both the Taliban and Afghans who are closely tied to the U.S.-backed government of Hamid Karzai, experts say.
“There's absolutely no reason to ship cat food out of Afghanistan,” Brewer said. “It's a dead giveaway. That's the easy part. It's everything else that's hard.”
Brewer spent most of 2010 as a military adviser to the DEA as it attempted to crack down on black tar heroin being moved through Afghanistan and eventually into Europe.
The good news: The mission seized far more heroin than its leaders anticipated — up to two dozen tons a month, largely from trucks trying to cross north into Tajikistan or west into Iran.
They seized so much they held giant twice-a-month drug burns, charring the heroin to ash so drug runners couldn't salvage it.
The bad news: The joint mission seldom succeeded in following the money trail to the masterminds of the drug trade.
Brewer, 52, now an Army Reservist after 32 years in the Nebraska National Guard, had expected to help plan multiple raids on drug processing centers and foul up both the production and trafficking of heroin.
But tight-lipped drug runners, a lack of border guards and the corruption that is a fact of Afghan life made the mission's loftier goals unreachable, he said.
“We rarely, rarely caught the big fish,” he said. “We are arresting fourth- and fifth-level folks. To go up the ladder ... the intelligence is just about impossible.”
Brewer has spent much of his long military career trying to survive and thrive during nearly impossible missions.
In 2005 he forced his way into New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, becoming one of the first guardsmen into the city, and his troops rescued more than a thousand residents stranded on rooftops and in nursing homes.
In 2004 Brewer killed or wounded nearly a dozen al-Qaida soldiers after being ambushed while traveling near the Afghan-Pakistan border.
During that firefight, six bullets broke several of Brewer's ribs, tore a calf, pierced an arm and caused him to bite off a chunk of his tongue. He was later awarded the Purple Heart and Bronze Star.
Neither that nor four previous deployments to Afghanistan and nearby Kyrgyzstan prepared Brewer for the difficulty in combating Afghanistan's drug trade.
Seizing the drugs wasn't a problem.
The joint DEA-Afghan mission did much of its work at the border.
The agents paid special attention to trucks driven by a lone man. To avoid multiple arrests, drug kingpins rarely sent more than one employee at a time.
The agents also closely scrutinized trucks with foreign license plates: The Afghan drug trade is truly international, involving Russian gangsters, Chinese chemical smugglers, Iranian and Pakistani middlemen.
When a truck was deemed suspect, the DEA agents would use a test kit to detect any heroin or hashish residue floating in the air. If any residue was picked up, the agents would tear apart the truck's cargo. Often they would find legitimate cargo until they got to the load's center.
There, hidden, they would find dozens of bags of heroin masquerading as cat food.
Early in his deployment, though, Brewer began to wonder: If they were finding this much heroin during random, scattered border searches, how much was exiting Afghanistan undetected?
Afghanistan's borders, particularly with Iran, are relatively unguarded. Afghanistan employs 5,000 border police, Brewer said, and the nation's borders stretch for 3,500 miles.
Even border checkpoints that are well-manned might employ guards who take bribes to let certain trucks pass, he said.
Corruption extends to the highest levels in Afghanistan, according to U.S. military leaders, Afghanistan's former deputy attorney general and an international watchdog group that ranks the country the third-most corrupt in the world.
The Taliban are widely assumed to profit from the drug trade by doing things like charging a farmer a fee for growing poppies and then using the money to buy weapons, Brewer said.
And Ahmed Wali Karzai, one of southern Afghanistan's most powerful politicians — and President Hamid Karzai's half brother — is widely believed to take a share of the drug profits in exchange for allowing the manufacture and transport of heroin in his province.
The WikiLeaks cables and investigations by military officials and the U.S. Embassy show that drug lords, Taliban leaders and Afghan politicians are often closely aligned.
Consider the case of Haji Juma Khan, an Afghan arrested by U.S. authorities in Indonesia in 2008.
Juma Khan was allegedly one of Afghanistan's top drug smugglers, a funder of the Taliban insurgency and a moneyman for a Pakistani security agency closely aligned with the Taliban.
He's also allegedly a business partner and moneyman for Ahmed Wali Karzai and other government officials, according to the Associated Press. For good measure, he's believed to have served as a paid CIA informant during the early years of the war, AP says.
“There are no clear lines separating insurgent groups, criminal networks — including the narcotics networks — and corrupt (Afghan) officials,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal told Congress in 2009.
The DEA and the U.S. military had trouble getting reliable information on where drugs came from and where the money goes, Brewer said.
They did find the locations of several processing areas, he said — usually remote shacks where a middleman cooks opium into bricks of black tar heroin.
During his one-year mission, Brewer remembers only one significant raid that shut down a processing center, with tons of heroin seized.
Brewer said he considered the DEA mission alternately frustrating and successful.
“This is a slow growth process,” he said of training Afghan police and military units to combat the country's drug problem. “It's gradual and it's important.
“But the situation is ripe for corruption,” Brewer said. “It's a situation where you are going to have problems. And, to date, we just haven't come up with an answer to that.”
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