Kirk Meyer, Former Director of the Afghan Threat Finance Cell
This interview is taken from the collection of the Combating Terrorism Archive Project (CTAP).1 On 2 April 2014, Global ECCO director Michael Freeman and CTAP coordinator Amina Kator-Mubarez sat down with former U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency official Kirk Meyer to talk about his work to identify and dismantle terrorist financing networks in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2011. During that time, Meyer founded the first Afghan Threat Finance Cell and served as its director until his departure from Afghanistan in 2011.2
MICHAEL FREEMAN: Thank you, Kirk, for doing this interview. You were the director of the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC) for three years, from 2008 through 2011, but you are a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agent by training and by trade. How did you come to be in Afghanistan in charge of threat finance?
KIRK MEYER: It was kind of a fluke, actually. From 2006 to 2008, I was in Afghanistan as the assistant attach. for the DEA. I came back to the United States and reported to my headquarters on 4 August 2008. When I arrived to check in, the chief of operations told me to come with him downstairs, where we got into a van. Then he told me we were going to the White House. At the White House, there was a meeting led by Juan Zarate, who I believe was, at the time, the deputy national security advisor and an advisor to President George W. Bush.3 The discussion was about establishing an ATFC similar to the Iraq Threat Finance Cell (ITFC), and who was going to lead it. In Iraq, they had co-directors: one from the Treasury Department and the other from the Department of Defense (DoD). At our meeting, the Defense representative said DoD didn't want any more leadership roles but would be happy to provide a deputy. At the end of the meeting, Zarate said, "Well, we will have DEA run it," with the understanding that if DEA didn't perform well, they would revisit the leadership issue. I believe that they chose DEA on the assumption that the majority of the funding to the insurgency was drug-related.
FREEMAN: How did you set up this cell? How did you organize it? What was your mission when you established this ATFC?
MEYER: The next thing was to work with my two deputies, one from Treasury and one from CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command), to create a plan and identify resources. Six or eight weeks after the 4 August meeting, I was called back to the White House, where I met with John D. Duncan Jr., who was also affiliated with the Bush administration. The Barack Obama administration was about to come into office, and the Bush people wanted us on the ground prior to the transition. At the meeting were myself and two other DEA personnel, two people from Treasury, and a person from the Pentagon's Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats (DASD). The Pentagon person told us that they had already talked to someone at Bagram Air Base and that everything we required was in place. All we had to do was show up. So Duncan said, "Well, why don't you guys get there in the next few weeks?"
It was agreed that we would go, starting with the leadership, with the understanding that it would be a developing project. No one expected the ATFC to be up and running right away. There was some fear, expressed by Duncan, that the Obama administration might stop the idea, so they wanted to get us started. I tried to contact the woman who was at the meeting to get the contact number for the person in Bagram who was going to help us. After about a week, she e-mailed me and told me that there was a mistake and that there was nothing available for us at Bagram. I decided to go forward anyway because I had already been to Afghanistan, and I figured I would get a better understanding of what was happening if I was on the ground. Plus, this was a big deal for DEA.
DEA has a lot of experience working internationally. It has the largest presence overseas of any U.S. federal law enforcement agency, with over 90 offices. We have a tremendous amount of experience working interagency, but this new ATFC was different for DEA. We had never led anything like this. I was a little concerned that if we didn't show up as John Duncan had requested, the blame would be on DEA and not necessarily on the fact that the resources weren't available. So I arrived back in Afghanistan in late October 2008. When I arrived, I found that the embassy and U.S. Forces–Afghanistan really didn't know why I was there and what we were going to do, and neither was in a position to assist us with resources. I knew that there was an old, dilapidated trailer at Bagram Air Base that the military had given DEA several years before, and DEA wasn't really using it anymore. Consequently, I convinced the DEA regional director to transfer it to the ATFC. So the first facility for the ATFC was a trailer that had several leaks in the roof, plumbing that backed up, and the entire electrical system strung out in back of the trailer on a broken tree branch. That was our start.
FREEMAN: What was your mission? Who gave you your marching orders?
MEYER: Well, a white paper was supposed to be the initial marching orders to establish the ATFC, but all the agencies hadn't signed off on it yet. So we actually arrived in Afghanistan prior to the white paper being concurred to by the different federal agencies and the military. Our goal, though, was to identify and help disrupt the material and financial funding streams that were supporting the Taliban and other terrorist organizations.
FREEMAN: And the presumption was that that was mostly coming from drugs?
MEYER: The presumption was that a lot of it was coming from drugs, right.
FREEMAN: So you got there, and there were the three of you. How did you grow that organization?
MEYER: Initially, I borrowed two laptops and a stand-alone computer from DEA, which we had configured for military use. My Treasury deputy had served in the ITFC, so he had an idea of how we needed to progress. He started working on producing the requirements that we would need on the intel (intelligence) side, while the military deputy and I basically became salesmen or marketers. We produced a PowerPoint presentation, and we met with any military officer who would talk to us, from McKiernan (General David McKiernan, thencommander of the International Security Assistance Force [ISAF]) on down, to see whom we could solicit help from. One problem was that because the white paper hadn't been produced, there had never been a FRAGO (fragmentary order—a form of military notification) produced either. From the military's perspective, we didn't exist, so we couldn't have access to any services or any type of resources, even things like toilet paper or bottled water. Through networking with other organizations on Bagram, though, we managed to obtain necessities—those guys helped hold us together, actually. The first person to really help us was Brigadier Robert Carr, who was the senior intel officer in the country. I briefed him, and then that night at about 11:00 p.m., I got a call from his aide, who said, "Okay, General Carr has ordered the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to clear out their conference room in Bagram. How many computers do you need? We are going to drop them." In about 24 to 48 hours, he had built us our first SCIF (sensitive compartmented information facility). It was a temporary SCIF that was based inside of a DIA compound. So there were a lot of people willing to help us, but there were a lot of struggles going on at the same time.
FREEMAN: You mentioned that you had to sort of "sell" your organization and your mission to other people. How much of a priority did people place on counter-threat or counterterrorist financing? How did other people—from DoD, from other organizations in Afghanistan—see this threat finance issue?
MEYER: It really varied a lot. For example, we were almost immediately given a seat at the table with Regional Command East at Bagram. We started attending the daily stand-up (briefing) for the military commander at the time and his commanders who followed after him. Other people didn't really want to talk to us. There were some people on the military intelligence side who were, I think, a little threatened by us. There was some hesitancy because we were bringing in civilian agencies, we had different authorities, and the military didn't understand a lot of those authorities. For example, the HUMINT (human intelligence) collection teams didn't understand the fact that I, as a DEA special agent, could recruit and run informant networks, which we did at the ATFC and for DEA. Even though we were not military interrogators, we could go into the detention facility and interview detainees because there was an exemption in the system that allowed special agents, 1811s, to act as interrogators. So we were doing interrogations of detainees in the Bagram facility. We were creating informant networks. And we were starting pretty quickly to produce IIRs: intelligence information reports; we produced the first ones within a couple of months. In my understanding, the Iraq Threat Finance Cell, which was much better resourced than we were, didn't produce its first IIR until almost a year after it opened. We were doing it within a few months.
FREEMAN: What was your level of resourcing?
MEYER: I convinced DEA that if they were going to lead this, then we needed resources and DEA was going to have to use money to do it. There had been an assumption that the military was going to pay for everything. The military had a group at CENTCOM in Tampa at that time called, I think, the Interagency Action Group, and then it became the Interagency Task Force.4 A little bit of a struggle went on between them and me because everyone assumed they were going to provide resources, but they were unable to provide anything. After the Pentagon said that the resources were available and they weren't, the civilians felt that the military was balking at the fact that civilians were going to lead the organization. But in retrospect, I am not sure that was really the case. I think a lot of the problem was that everybody, including the agencies that were involved in producing the white paper, were reviewing everything through the lens of Iraq, and Iraq was very different. For one thing, the United States had a lot more control in Iraq. In Afghanistan, we rushed to give control to the Afghan government. In Iraq, everything was highly resourced. Alumni of the Iraq Threat Finance Cell talked about how they were inside a palace. When they arrived at the ITFC headquarters, they had all these new computers—anything they required was on the ground and available.
Well, I had spent two years in Afghanistan before the surge, and nobody had anything extra. Everybody was sharing things, everybody was doing favors for each other, but it took networking to do even the minor things. There was no surplus anywhere, whether it be computers or vehicles or space. When we moved into the dilapidated trailer before my deputies arrived, for example, I woke up one morning and there was a major with a clipboard and three guys following him, because they thought this was an abandoned building and they were making bunk assignments. They were actually assigning people to where they were going to sleep in a building that the military didn't even own—they were going to take it over. That was the kind of environment that was there.
Another problem was that the various civilian agencies assumed they were going to use money out of the DASD office to fund the ATFC and that there wouldn't be individual agency costs associated with the ATFC. I guess the best way to describe it is that prior to this period, the definition of what constituted a counternarcotics project was pretty broadly interpreted. I think there was an inspector general's report or some kind of evaluation of how the military had spent counternarcotics funds, and suddenly, at the time that the ATFC was standing up, there was a clampdown on how they could use that money. So when the civilian agencies were assuming that the DASD was going to fund things like the ATFC, they were making assumptions based on how things had previously operated, not realizing that the military was under this new, more-restrictive environment. It created a tremendous amount of friction between the Tampabased military interagency group that was designated to support the ATFC and me in Afghanistan. In addition, because the same group had difficulty getting the U.S. Forces–Afghanistan and the embassy to approve their initial attempts at writing a FRAGO, they were even more restricted in what support they could provide.
FREEMAN: Let me move from the organizational dynamics to the substance of what you were doing. I want to talk about a few issues that we can address one at a time. How did you see and evaluate and work against the drug issue? I have the same kind of question for corruption, for the banking sector, and for the U.S. money coming in, and trying to control that money from going to the Taliban. So maybe you can go through each of those: drugs, corruption, contracting, money.
MEYER: The first way to look at it is to talk about a couple of things we did. First, besides slowly building out the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, we immediately engaged with some Afghan units. In 2007–2008, I helped create what we called the Sensitive Investigative Unit (SIU), which was a vetted Afghan police unit. By "vetted," I mean that we got the best background checks we could do in Afghanistan, which realistically wasn't much, but we routinely polygraphed the participants in this unit. In addition, during the same time period, I helped initiate the process to establish a legal wire intercept system managed by a second vetted Afghan unit called the Technical Investigative Unit, or TIU. The TIU was developed to support the SIU. The ATFC was allowed access to that system through our engagement with the SIU. The SIU provided the ATFC with an Afghan action arm that would work with us, and partnered with the ATFC on investigations that included operations like the execution of search warrants on criminal hawalas.5 We worked with FinTRACA, the Financial Transactions and Reports Analysis Center of Afghanistan. FinTRACA was Afghanistan's financial intelligence unit and part of Da Afghanistan Bank, Afghanistan's central bank. We were pulling bank data; we were pulling hawala information and building a network of contacts within the hawala system. I spent hundreds of hours interviewing hawala agents, visiting their shops, and eating in their homes. So we were starting to gather a lot of unclassified information, which we fed into the ATFC. The ATFC intelligence analysts took the information developed through unclassified law enforcement means and linked it to develop a more holistic intelligence view. What we learned pretty quickly was that this view led us to a specific paradigm: in Afghanistan, you couldn't just look at the Taliban, you couldn't just look at corrupt officials, you couldn't just look at the drug traffickers. Even though on the surface, these groups were at odds, in reality, everybody was in the money game to some degree. You had corrupt Afghan officials; you had bad actors in the Afghan business and financial sector, the Taliban and drug traffickers, all of whom were frequently acting in tandem. So you could look at one thing, say a hawala, or a bank, or a drug trafficker, and the connections would spider out and connect to other illicit areas in operations in Afghanistan. We started collecting this information and getting a very holistic view of what was going on, and we saw that it dealt with issues broader than just threat finance. We then got customers—people actually requested this type of holistic information.
FREEMAN: So how bad was the drug trade?
MEYER: The drug trade was really bad, but I personally never believed it was as big a funding source for the insurgency as a lot of people thought. It was a funding source, I am not denying that, but you used to hear these numbers all the time—a billion dollars and the like. Unfortunately, I have to say that one of the things we discovered was that we were one of the biggest funding sources for the insurgency. "We" being the U.S. government and ISAF, through development projects. This was mostly because of a particular dynamic: in the beginning, the only metric anybody was using to measure development was how fast they could spend money, not what impact that spending had on the insurgency. So there were a lot of projects being done in areas where we didn't control the terrain. Either the Taliban controlled it or these were areas where the terrain was contested and the Taliban played a major role. In those cases, about 25 percent of every development project's funding was going to the insurgency. So we were frequently funding the insurgency through this lack of oversight and lack of thoughtfulness about where we were doing development projects.
The problem was abetted by other things, too. For example, an ancillary issue of that first one was that a lot of these projects never occurred. We paid for things that weren't built, or they were built shoddily, and a big part of the reason for that was that the contracts were often given to big American or European firms, and those firms would subcontract the work while keeping a slice of the money. That subcontractor would be an Afghan company, which would subcontract the work again, and it would be subcontracted again and again, until some guy at the very end got a little pot of money to build the project—say a piece of road. But now he didn't have enough money to build the road, plus pay the Taliban, plus pay the corrupt officials who usually took about 20 percent of every development project. So basically, the contractors didn't build the projects or they built them shoddily, and because the projects were in contested areas, nobody verified whether they were built. In Afghanistan, you frequently heard this saying: "The Russians built roads that lasted 30 years, and the Americans build roads that last 30 days." It was a very common refrain. We had one instance where there was an article in the newspaper about a school—I want to say it was built in Helmand province—and the article identified the school's principal. We actually called the principal to talk to him, and it turned out he was based at a school outside of Kabul. He didn't even know he was assigned as the principal in Helmand. It was a total charade: the school had never been built, and then individuals in the government were stealing—basically using ghost employees and stealing the teachers' salaries.
FREEMAN: Did the Afghan Threat Finance Cell, then, help reveal this environment?
MEYER: We did. Although we didn't go to look for corruption, we started reporting on it because nobody else was really doing in-depth reporting on the problem. We started getting requests for the reporting, some of which came from high-level officials in Washington, some from the U.S. embassy, and some from ISAF. There were a lot of military people who were interested in the corruption problem, so we did an assessment from the information we had and the information we could gather. People were shocked by how bad this situation was and who was involved in it. At one point, we were asked to work with the Afghan police to identify a high-level Afghan government official whom we could target, so that the Afghans could bring him into their court system for arrest and prosecution. The U.S. government was then going to press this issue with Afghan president Hamid Karzai. We were involved in a couple of those operations, and in each instance, it caused significant tension between the White House, the U.S. embassy, and President Karzai.
FREEMAN: So it got swamped by the political… ?
MEYER: These efforts were repeatedly derailed because of political concerns. Probably the biggest thing that happened was learning about Kabul Bank. While we were looking at a hawala based in Dubai, we gained the cooperation of the founder of Kabul Bank. Kabul Bank was the largest private bank in the country, and it was being used by the United States and ISAF to transfer money for all the military and police salaries. The bank was actually a giant Ponzi scheme,6 and we found out about it when we went to interview Sherkhan Farnood, the person who founded the bank, about his hawala and its dealings with somebody in the Karzai family. Suddenly, Farnood just started confessing that the bank was a Ponzi scheme. We interviewed him for hours and looked at thousands of pages of records, and we realized that about 80 percent of the bank's deposits were gone and that the money we sent through the bank for the security forces was often being used as a "float" to hide the Ponzi scheme.
For example, one scheme in particular involved the Afghan vice president's brother, Haji Haseen Fahim, who was a Kabul Bank shareholder and a British citizen, and the Afghan president's brother, Mahmud Karzai, who was also a Kabul Bank shareholder, and an American citizen. Fahim would take one of the bank security guards to an Afghan bureau called AISA, the Afghanistan Investment Support Agency, which was one of the places that issued business licenses. Fahim would purport that the security guard was the CEO of a new company, and AISA would issue the security guard a business license in his company's name. Of course, these companies were fictitious. Fahim would then take the genuine business license issued for the fictitious company to the bank and meet with bank employees who were co-conspirators in the Ponzi scheme to take out a loan in the name of the non-existent company. He, Karzai, and other Kabul Bank shareholders created numerous fictitious companies using various individuals like the security guards as proxies to obtain the genuine business licenses from AISA. Every loan was supposedly paid off, but no money was ever paid; it was an accounting trick. They would just open other fictitious companies to make it look as though the money were loaned out again.
Eventually, Sherkhan Farnood, who illegally removed money from the bank in a similar manner, ran into financial difficulties because he was heavily invested in Dubai real estate when the real estate market in Dubai crashed around 2008–2009. This caused friction between the different partners within the bank because Farnood expected the other shareholders to share in his losses, claiming he had made the investments on behalf of the group and not for his sole benefit. Basically, Farnood, along with a few minor shareholders, was in one camp, while the opposing faction, including Fahim and Karzai, was led by the bank's CEO, Khalil Fruzi.
FREEMAN: And it imploded?
MEYER: It imploded as they fought about the bank. It was a strange situation because we were regularly meeting with both factions and reviewing numerous records from Kabul Bank and Shaheen Exchange, Sherkhan's Dubai-based hawala. Each faction was feeding us information to discredit the other, and we were verifying the truth through financial records, legal wire intercepts conducted by the SIU, and other means.
FREEMAN: Who was giving the money to the Kabul Bank for them to then loan out? Was that the United States?
MEYER: No, it was small depositors.
MEYER: Afghan depositors, NGOs, and just about anybody who was using a bank in the country had an account at Kabul Bank. It was the largest private bank with the largest number of branches, and about $1.2 or $1.3 billion in deposits. The amount stolen has been estimated to be between $800 and $950 million. Basically, the majority of the money was gone. There was an instance, for example, at the U.S. embassy in which an Afghan employee and her husband wanted to buy a house. It took them an entire day to get their $1,200, and the bank vice president met with them and tried to talk them out of withdrawing their savings. Since much of the money was gone, it was difficult for the bank to meet the expectations of customers who wanted to withdraw funds.
The situation was so dire that the bank executives used the U.S. and ISAF funds intended for the salaries of the military and the police whenever the bank had inadequate reserves and somebody, like the embassy employee, wanted their money. So the bank was using the salary payments as a float. Say you were an Afghan policeman or an Afghan soldier, and you lived in a province and expected to get paid on Monday. Instead, you might not get paid until a week or 10 or 15 days later. Sometimes the money would be as much as 30 days late because the bank was holding that money until it could get enough new deposits to release the U.S./ISAF funds for those salaries. It was a common complaint among the soldiers and police that their pay wasn't routine but would come in randomly.
FREEMAN: What happened to these guys? Bernie Madoff is in jail.7
MEYER: The authorities eventually put 21 people on trial and convicted all of them. Unfortunately, some of the people they convicted were people like the head of FinTRACA, who, in my opinion, was charged because he had assisted us in our investigations into this case and others. Luckily, he only had to pay a fine, the equivalent of about $450, but other people got jail time. The Afghan vice president's brother and the Afghan president's brother were excluded from the prosecution even though they had significant involvement in the fraud.
FREEMAN: Can you describe what your best success was, and then on the flip side, what your most frustrating experience was?
MEYER: I would say our best success was two hawalas that we managed to dismantle. The first was the New Ansari Money Exchange. New Ansari was the largest hawala in Afghanistan, and the most powerful. It set the daily exchange rate for the U.S. dollar in Afghanistan. Not the central bank, not the government, not the market—New Ansari set the exchange rate. New Ansari was a global hawala that transformed itself into a corporation that was the sole distributor of Thuraya satellite telephones; it also controlled Afghan United Bank, an internet company, cellular telephone shops, construction companies, a fuel importation company, and a trading company located in Dubai. It was a global hawala with two branches in Dubai and locations in several Asian and European countries, as well as in California. The organization was born from the narcotics trade, was heavily involved in the laundering of drug proceeds, had links to the Taliban, and supported numerous corrupt government officials.
The New Ansari hawala really grew after 2001. That year, the Taliban stopped opium cultivation, and everybody—the United Nations, everybody—cheered the Taliban for taking action. But the backstory to that decision was that Mullah Omar met with his friend Haji Abdullah Barakzai Ansari, an opium broker with a small hawala business, in 2000 or 2001. According to several sources, Mullah Omar told Ansari to stockpile as much opium as he could because the Taliban government was going to stop cultivation to increase the price of opium. So Ansari did that, and when the Taliban stopped opium cultivation and the opium price went up five times, they sold the stockpile and split the proceeds. Ansari then used that money to build the New Ansari Money Exchange. He had some younger guys—and by "younger guys," I mean guys in their 30s and 40s—whom he then basically trained to manage and grow the business. They were the ones who took the profits from the hawala and invested in numerous businesses. This group had a long-term goal of relocating to the United States and even sent their families to Dubai and enrolled their kids in English-language schools. They planned to purchase U.S. businesses as a means to emigrate to the United States. In addition, they had started to infiltrate the U.S. financial system by having Afghan United Bank establish correspondent banking relationships with Deutsche Bank and Habib Bank of New York. The younger managers expanded the business through political connections and corruption. They were major contributors to President Karzai's election campaign and raised money for cabinet members to purchase their positions. They kept numerous government officials on retainer, too. The way I often explained New Ansari's operations to people was to use The Godfather movies as an analogy.8 The first generation was Vito Corleone, and the Afghan Vito Corleone was Abdullah Ansari. He created the empire and started making payments—bribes—to government officials. Then the story moved to Vito's son Michael Corleone, who acted much like the younger New Ansari managers. They expanded the business and the system of bribes, purchasing the services of the National Directorate of Security, police, Ministry of Interior Affairs personnel, and numerous other government employees. Many officials were on retainer, while others were paid for episodic events. In one instance, the Ansari group even paid a large sum of money to a family after they convinced the patriarch to confess to a crime he did not commit in order to protect a valued New Ansari member—who did commit the crime—from incarceration.
These younger New Ansari managers were involved in everything. They were involved in extortion, in major drug trafficking, in money laundering. In addition, they were annually transporting the equivalent of $2.5 billion in different currencies to Dubai through Kabul International Airport. Because of New Ansari's political connections, it was impossible to take any real action against the organization in Afghanistan, so we focused on getting them designated as a criminal enterprise through the U.S. Treasury's Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC). This really hurt them because they had invested so heavily in all these other businesses that relied on U.S. contracts, and it kept them out of the U.S. financial system because Habib Bank of New York terminated their correspondent banking system, and many others ended any financial relationship with them. For example, they had a fuel importation business and were selling fuel to the U.S. military. Once New Ansari was on the sanctions list, all those businesses dried up. We disrupted their businesses, which eliminated their ability to launder drug money and support the Taliban. Another Taliban financier we managed to get on the OFAC list was a hawala business based in the south called Haji Khairullah Haji Sattar, after its owners. This was a major mover of money for the Taliban around Afghanistan.
FREEMAN: What was your worst frustration?
MEYER: Because I was there with DEA previously, I think it probably was the drug issue. Like the corruption issue, we frequently debated how we should deal with it. One thing that I loved about the Afghan Threat Finance Cell was that we had a lot of really smart young people, a lot of whom were military analysts who never really got to think outside the box. We unleashed them. Frank Calestino, my Treasury deputy, was really good at unleashing people's thinking. So these young analysts came up with innovative ideas that had not previously been considered. For example—I don't know that the military ever acted on this, but I think it was the right way to go—the Taliban were collecting taxes on opium in the south. They were going to mirabs, who were the local officials who managed the water supplies in the villages. The mirabs knew which farmers were growing opium, and could estimate the size of their operations by the amount of water they used. The Taliban would have the mirabs calculate the amount of tax owed to the Taliban by individual opium farmers, and then also use the mirabs to collect the tax, which was paid in opium.
I went to a lot of meetings about crop substitution and eradication, but the problem with that approach is in the way the opium system works in Afghanistan. The opium farmers are given credit by opium brokers at the beginning of the growing season. This debt can be repaid only with opium. These opium brokers act like the company stores in the old coal-mining towns in the United States, where miners always had debt so they could never get out. Until they got their wages, they were always being paid in goods, and they could never leave because they owed rent on the house and money for groceries. Well, that was what would happen with the opium farmers. The opium brokers would loan the farmers money at the beginning of the season, and the only way the farmers were permitted to pay it back was in opium. Let's say a farmer won the lottery or had some other financial windfall; he couldn't go and give the opium broker money for his debt. The debt had to be paid in opium. So when the Karzai government eradicated opium or tried to substitute crops, it often worked against the individual farmers who owed debt in opium, and possibly made them into Taliban supporters.
I remember one farmer I interviewed who told me that when the government came and eradicated his crop, he couldn't pay the opium broker, and so his father gave the farmer's four-year-old daughter to the opium broker, who was some 72-year-old man, to try and settle the claim. Anyway, these young ATFC analysts came up with the idea that the military should focus on the mirabs and their relationship with the Taliban. We should wait until the mirabs gathered the opium owed to the Taliban for taxes, and at that point, conduct military and/or law enforcement operations, because then the farmers would be out of the equation. I believe that was the innovative thinking we should have been using to deal with Taliban funding through the drug trade.
FREEMAN: What would you have needed to be able to do that? What resources or what authorities or… ?
MEYER: You would have to monitor, either through legal wiretaps or other means, the phones of the mirabs, or recruit the mirabs as informants. By doing that, you should also be able to identify the Taliban members involved in the tax collection. This way, you could intercept the Taliban when they came to pick up the stockpiled opium from the mirabs. The thing that made threat finance difficult in Afghanistan was that many people in the United States had this image of a big Arab donor who was going to fly into the Kabul airport with a bag of money for the insurgents. Maybe that happened more with al Qaeda, but the local Taliban commanders were required to find their own funding sources. So these people used the funding sources that were available to them. In some areas it was kidnapping, and in other areas it was chromite or cedar smuggling. In other areas it was drug trafficking. The local commanders had to find their own funding, so they were constantly doing a variety of things to bring in cash, and frankly they didn't need a lot of money to operate.
Some young analysts—one was Treasury, one was a Navy lieutenant, and a third was a military contractor—did really detailed work, where they looked at the district-level expenses of Taliban commanders, with the understanding that these commanders had to raise their money locally. Prior to this, nobody else had done this district-level analysis. The analysts reviewed things like the troops in contact reports, the number of rounds fired, the types of IEDs used in the district, and other Taliban operational costs. The analysts would sit with the military experts on IEDs and have them explain the different components for each type of IED and each component's cost. Then they would look at the intelligence on what salaries the Taliban commanders were paying their soldiers, because there was always this argument—and I am assuming it was true—that the majority of Taliban soldiers were not ideologues but were there for financial reasons. Then these analysts explained to the military commanders that they didn't have to completely eradicate a local Taliban commander's funding stream. Instead, all they had to do was interdict enough of the funding so that the commander had to make a decision between paying and feeding his troops and launching attacks. I thought that was brilliant thinking, and that was the right way to go, but I am just not sure how many people embraced it.
FREEMAN: What sort of personal lessons did you learn? What is your takeaway from your time as the director of the Afghan Threat Finance Cell? What did it mean to you?
MEYER: I got to work with a lot of great people. I got a view of the U.S. government that somebody at my level normally wouldn't have had. I made several trips to the White House. I briefed (then-Secretary of State) Hillary Clinton in the same room where she met with heads of state, and numerous other high-ranking American and foreign officials. All the ATFC staff, at one time or another, briefed senior leaders like General David Petraeus, General Stanley McChrystal, and Ambassador Karl Eikenberry.9 We had a lot of interaction with the upper management of the war effort in both Afghanistan and the United States. The biggest thing that stands out for me is that there was no plan when the United States arrived in Afghanistan. Similar to Iraq, I think that if we are going to go into these kinds of actions, we need to do a little bit more up-front work and understand what we are getting into. There are a lot of variables that aren't easily understood on the surface, but that come out later. For example, I interacted with a lot of Afghans who said that when the United States first went into Afghanistan, we had a small window of opportunity because not only were the Taliban in hiding, but the warlords also were afraid of us. But when they saw how we were plodding around and that they could do what they wanted, that fear went away. We lost the momentum. I am glad I stayed in Afghanistan for five years. I made many Afghan friends, but I am not sure I see a great future for the country, unfortunately.
AMINA KATOR-MUBAREZ: Is that because of the Afghan leadership? If there was a change in leadership, do you think it could make a difference?
MEYER: A lot of the people who should be the leaders have been and still are moving their resources out of the country. I don't think you can understand Afghanistan unless you understand Dubai. Afghanistan had a huge diaspora that ended up in Dubai. A lot of the economic decisions for Afghanistan are made in Dubai—they are not made in Afghanistan. A lot of the political decisions are made in Dubai, not in Afghanistan. These decisions are made among elite Afghan businessmen who have been based in Dubai since the Russian occupation. I think that if the Taliban start to really turn the war in their favor, then these elites have already feathered their nests for the escape and are going to leave the regular Afghan people to survive what comes. We saw that a lot when we looked at the corruption. You have all these Afghan government officials who have houses in Dubai on places like the Palm Jumeirah, which is a group of manmade islands that were built to resemble a giant palm tree. Well, we know a lot of Afghan officials make only a few hundred dollars a month. Where did they get all that extra money? I met with some Emirati officials once, who told me that the former vice president of Afghanistan, Ahmad Zia Massoud, had brought $53 million in cash through the airport in Dubai. He was a soldier most of his life, and then served for a couple of years as vice president. Where did he get that money? All that money is gone, and it is not being invested in Afghanistan. I hope it works out. I just think it is going to be a hard road for a long time.
About the Author(s): Interviewee: Kirk Meyer was a U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency officer for 23 years, and served in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2011. Interviewers: Dr. Michael Freeman is a professor in the Defense Analysis department of the Naval Postgraduate School, and the director of the Global ECCO project. Amina Kator-Mubarez is a CTAP coordinator and a research assistant with the Global ECCO project.
1. The Combating Terrorism Archive Project aims to collect and archive knowledge on strategy, operations, and tactics used by military and other security personnel from around the world in the twenty-first-century fight against global terrorism. Collectively, the individual interviews that CTAP conducts will create an oral history archive of knowledge and experience in counterterrorism for the benefit of the CT community now and in the future.
2. This interview was edited for length and clarity. Every effort was made to ensure that the meaning and intention of the participants were not altered in any way. The ideas and opinions of all participants are theirs alone and do not represent the official positions of the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. government, or any other official entity.
3. "[ Juan] Zarate served as deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for combating terrorism from 2005 to 2009 and was responsible for developing and implementing the U.S. government's counterterrorism strategy and policies related to transnational security threats. He was the first ever assistant secretary of the treasury for terrorist financing and financial crimes, where he led domestic and international efforts to attack terrorist financing." See Zarate's extended vita at the Center for Strategic and International Studies website: http://csis.org/expert/juan-carlos-zarate.
4. The Interagency Task Force is now part of USSOCOM. Both commands are stationed at McDill Air Base in Tampa, Florida.
5. A hawala is an informal worldwide money transfer system that is indigenous to many Muslim cultures.
6. A Ponzi scheme, also called a pyramid scheme, is a form of investment fraud in which investors are paid unusually good returns from the capital coming into the operation through newer investors, rather than from earned profits. The scheme requires a constant flow of new investors to maintain itself, so disruptions in financial markets can quickly cause it to collapse.
7. American investment manager Bernie Madoff is famous for running the most massive Ponzi scheme in U.S. history (see note 6) Once uncovered by the financial crisis of 2008, investigators estimated it to involve $64.8 billion.
8. The Godfather is an iconic Hollywood film made in 1972 by Francis Ford Coppola, starring Marlon Brando as Sicilian Mafia boss Vito Corleone. Two sequels star Al Pacino as Michael Corleone, Vito's son and successor as head of the crime family. For more, see the IMDb website: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068646/ . The original film is ranked as the second greatest film in U.S. cinema history by the American Film Institute (see "100 Greatest American Films of All Time," 10th anniversary edition, AFI.com, n.d.: http://www.afi.com/100years/movies.aspx).
9. General David Petraeus succeeded General Stanley McChrystal as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010.