When Bowe Bergdahl got in the Way of DEA in Afghanistan

The secret story of how America lost the drug war with the Taliban

A high-stakes plan to indict Afghan drug lords and insurgency leaders on criminal conspiracy charges ran afoul of the Obama team. Five years later, it remains buried under Trump.

As Afghanistan edged ever closer to becoming a narco-state five years ago, a team of veteran U.S. officials in Kabul presented the Obama administration with a detailed plan to use U.S. courts to prosecute the Taliban commanders and allied drug lords who supplied more than 90 percent of the world’s heroin — including a growing amount fueling the nascent opioid crisis in the United States.

The plan, according to its authors, was both a way of halting the ruinous spread of narcotics around the world and a new — and urgent — approach to confronting ongoing frustrations with the Taliban, whose drug profits were financing the growing insurgency and killing American troops. But the Obama administration’s deputy chief of mission in Kabul, citing political concerns, ordered the plan to be shelved, according to a POLITICO investigation.

Now, its authors — Drug Enforcement Administration agents and Justice Department legal advisers at the time — are expressing anger over the decision, and hope that the Trump administration, which has followed a path similar to former President Barack Obama’s in Afghanistan, will eventually adopt the plan as part of its evolving strategy.

“This was the most effective and sustainable tool we had for disrupting and dismantling Afghan drug trafficking organizations and separating them from the Taliban,” said Michael Marsac, the main architect of the plan as the DEA’s regional director for South West Asia at the time. “But it lies dormant, buried in an obscure file room, all but forgotten.”

A senior Afghan security official, M. Ashraf Haidari, also expressed anger at the Obama administration when told about how the U.S. effort to indict Taliban narcotics kingpins was stopped dead in its tracks 16 months after it began.

“It brought us almost to the breaking point, put our elections into a time of crisis, and then our economy almost collapsed,” Haidari said of the drug money funding the Taliban. “If that [operation] had continued, we wouldn’t have had this massive increase in production and cultivation as we do now.”

An Afghan poppy farmer uses a blade to score the surface of a poppy in order to extract raw opium. | Getty Images A poppy farmer in Laghman Province scores a poppy to extract raw opium in April 2004. Afghan drug lords have pledged financial support to the Taliban in exchange for protection of their vast swaths of poppy and cannabis fields, drug processing labs and storage facilities. | Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Poppy cultivation, heroin production, terrorist attacks and territory controlled by the Taliban are now at or near record highs. President Ashraf Ghani said recently that Afghanistan’s military — and the government itself — would be in danger of imminent collapse, perhaps within days, if U.S. assistance stops.

But while President Donald Trump has sharply criticized Obama’s approach in Afghanistan, his team is using a similar one, including a troop surge last year and possibly another, and, recently, a willingness to engage in peace talks with the Taliban.

The top-secret legal document that forms the plan’s foundation remains locked away in a vault at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, and would need to be updated to reflect the significant expansion of the Taliban-led insurgency, said retired DEA agent John Seaman, who helped draft it as a senior law enforcement adviser for the Justice Department in Kabul. But he said the organizational structure of the Taliban leadership has remained mostly the same.

John Seaman
Retired DEA agent and Justice Department contractor in Kabul who distilled mountains of U.S. and Afghan evidence into a 940-page prosecution plan that detailed a decade-long complex conspiracy case against Taliban leaders and drug lords, traffickers, money launderers and other alleged associates.

“We have the ability to take these folks out,” he said. “Here’s your road map, guys. All you need to do is dust it off and it’s ready to go.”

The plan, code-named Operation Reciprocity, was modeled after a legal strategy that the Justice Department began using a decade earlier against the cocaine-funded leftist FARC guerrillas in Colombia, in concert with military and diplomatic efforts. The new operation’s goal was to haul 26 suspects from Afghanistan to the same New York courthouse where FARC leaders were prosecuted, turn them against each other and the broader insurgency, convict them on conspiracy charges and lock them away.

In Afghanistan, though, there was exponentially more at stake in what had become America’s longest war — and the clock was ticking.

By the time that plans for Operation Reciprocity reached fruition, in May 2013, the conflict had cost U.S. taxpayers at least $686 billion. More than 2,000 American soldiers had given their lives for it. And the Obama administration already had announced it would withdraw almost entirely by the following year. Like the Bush White House before it, it had concluded that neither its military force nor nuanced nation-building could uproot an insurgency that was financed by deeply entrenched criminal networks that also had corrupted the Afghan government to its core.

“We looked at this as the best, if not the only way, of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a narco-state,” said Seaman, referring to the government’s term for a country whose economy is dependent on the illegal drug trade. He described Operation Reciprocity as a fast, cost-effective and proven way of crippling the insurgency — akin to severing its head from its body — before the U.S. handed over operations to the Afghan government. “Without it,” he said, “they didn’t have a chance.”

A U.S soldier holds a machine gun in Afghanistan. A U.S soldier shows members of the Afghan media reconstruction projects in Panjshir Province, north of Kabul, in October 2007. The U.S. has spent billions of taxpayer dollars a year on its military campaign and reconstruction effort. But Congress earmarked just a tiny percentage of that spending for DEA efforts to counter the drug networks that bankroll the increasingly destructive attacks, records and interviews show. | Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The document — a 240-page draft prosecution memo and 700 pages of supporting evidence — was the result of 10 years of DEA investigations done in conjunction with U.S. and allied military forces, working with embassy legal advisers from the departments of Justice and State. In May 2013, it was endorsed by the top Justice Department official in Kabul, who recommended it be sent to DOJ’s specialized Terrorism and International Narcotics unit in Manhattan. After agents flew in from Kabul for a three-hour briefing, the unit enthusiastically accepted the case and assigned one of its best and most experienced prosecutors to spearhead it.

The timeline

1970s and 1980s

Drug Enforcement Administration agents investigate Afghanistan’s narcotics trade but evacuate in 1979 when Soviet troops invade. Opium trafficking skyrockets with help from U.S.-funded Pakistani agents, who deliver weapons to Afghan mujahedeen freedom fighters and help them export their opium.


The DEA leads Operation Containment, a coalition campaign launched after 9/11 to thwart the global narcotics trade by choking off the flow of heroin out of Afghanistan, the world’s leading opium producer, and helping the new Kabul government develop drug enforcement capability.


The DEA takes custody of the first of several Taliban-affiliated Afghan heroin kingpins ultimately tried and convicted in New York courts of overseeing international trafficking organizations importing millions of dollars of narcotics into the U.S. since 1990. Baz Mohammad told co-conspirators that Islamic law approved of their “jihad” to take Americans’ money and kill them through heroin use and addiction.


The DEA helps seize $3.5 billion in narcotics in Afghanistan, up from $1.6 billion in 2005, but the drug trade continues to fuel a massive expansion of the Taliban insurgency and governmentwide corruption. DEA agents double down on tactics they used against Colombia’s FARC narco-terrorists, including military style raids and targeting kingpins with U.S. indictments.


Alarmed by Afghanistan’s inability, or unwillingness, to use its own courts to tackle drug kingpins, Congress funds the biggest-ever international surge of agents in DEA history. More than 80 agents ultimately deploy; three are killed in a November helicopter crash after a major drug raid.


President Barack Obama announces a September 2014 U.S. troop withdrawal and end to the U.S. involvement in the conflict. DEA Kabul soon launches Operation Reciprocity in hopes of quickly decapitating the Taliban leadership before handing over operations to the Afghan government.


DEA Kabul, with support from Justice and State department officials in Afghanistan, unveils a 940-page narcoterrorism prosecution plan to indict 26 Taliban commanders and allied drug lords and try them in U.S. courts. After DOJ’s Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit in New York approves it, a State Department diplomat in Kabul finds out and shuts down all investigative activity in the case.


DEA agents bust a multimillion-dollar Afghanistan-to-U.S. heroin-smuggling ring that informants said had operated for decades. Presidential candidate Donald Trump vows to withdraw from Afghanistan but, once elected, says Taliban leaders and drug kingpins have fostered 20 terrorist groups in the country and threaten U.S. security.


Senior Trump administration officials visit Afghanistan to discuss an additional troop surge and even peace talks with the Taliban but include no plans for incorporating DEA law enforcement efforts as part of their evolving Afghanistan strategy.

“These are the most worthy of targets to pursue,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fee, who had successfully prosecuted some of the FARC cases, wrote in an email to Seaman.

But before Fee could pack for his first trip to Afghanistan, Operation Reciprocity was shut down.

Its demise was not instantaneous. But the most significant blow, by far, came on May 27, 2013, when the then-deputy chief of mission, Ambassador Tina Kaidanow, summoned Marsac and two top embassy officials supporting the plan to her office, and issued an immediate stand-down order.

In an interview, Kaidanow — currently the State Department‘s principal deputy assistant secretary for political-military affairs — said she didn’t recall details of the meeting or the specifics of the plan. But she confirmed that she felt blindsided by such a politically sensitive and ambitious effort and the traction it had received at Justice. If she did issue such an order, she said, it was because she — as the administration’s “eyes” in Afghanistan — had concerns it would undermine the White House’s broader strategy in Afghanistan, including a drawdown that included the DEA as well as the military.

And the White House’s overriding priority ahead of the drawdown, she told POLITICO, was to use all tools at its disposal “to try and find a way to promote lasting stability in Afghanistan,” with peace talks integral to that effort. “So the bottom line is it had to be factored into whatever else was going on,” she said of the Taliban indictment plan. “We look at that entire array of considerations and think, you know, does it make sense in the moment? Does it make sense later on? Does it makes sense at all?”

Tina Kaidanow: State Department deputy chief of mission in Afghanistan who issued an immediate stand-down order halting Operation Reciprocity after discovering Justice Department prosecutors in New York had approved building a narcoterrorism criminal conspiracy case against Taliban leader Mullah Omar and 25 top associates.

Its authors counter that Operation Reciprocity was designed in accordance with that White House strategy, an assertion backed up by interviews with current and former officials familiar with it and a review of government documents and congressional records. The authors believe the real reason it was shut down was fears it would jeopardize the administration’s efforts to engage the Taliban in peace talks and still-secret prisoner swap negotiations involving U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl. They tried to revive the effort after Kaidanow transferred back to Washington that fall, but by then, they say, circumstances had changed and the project never gained traction again.

Recently, Seaman came forward to say that he and his former colleagues had all but given up on Operation Reciprocity until they discovered that the Trump administration had established a special task force to review and resurrect Hezbollah drug trafficking cases after a POLITICO report disclosed that they were derailed by the Obama administration’s determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran.

The secret backstory of how Obama let Hezbollah off the hook

The Afghanistan team members said there are striking parallels between their case and Project Cassandra, the DEA code name for the Hezbollah investigations, as well as nuclear trafficking cases disclosed in another POLITICO report as being derailed because of the Iran deal. Taken together, they said, the cases show a troubling pattern of thwarting international law-enforcement efforts to the overall detriment of U.S. national security.

Now they are hoping the Trump administration will review and revive Operation Reciprocity, too, saying Trump’s Afghanistan strategy cannot succeed without also incorporating an international law enforcement effort targeting the drug trade that helps keep the Taliban in business.

Besides helping the military take strategic leaders off the battlefield, they said, it could provide much-needed leverage to finally bring the militant group to the negotiating table and also break up the criminal patronage networks undermining the Kabul government.

For now, though, the plan remains buried in DEA files, and even most agency leadership is unaware of it, several current and former agency officials said. “I don’t think a lot of people even know that we did this, that this plan is in existence and is a viable thing that can be resurrected and completed,” said Marsac, whose eight years in and around Afghanistan for the DEA make him one of the longest-serving Americans there during the war.

Michael Marsac Drug Enforcement Administration regional director in Kabul who launched Operation Reciprocity to combine 10 years of DEA investigations tying Taliban leaders directly to the global heroin trade into one unprecedented prosecution in U.S. courts before President Barack Obama withdrew American forces from Afghanistan.

Such an undertaking would involve serious logistical challenges to capture drug lords and prosecute them in the United States, not to mention the destabilizing effect on the Afghan economy, from farmers who grow poppies to corrupt government officials accustomed to bribes.

“We’ve made a deal with the devil on many occasions, in an effort not to antagonize anybody and kick the can down the road,” Marsac said. “But you’ve got to cut that off. It might be painful at first, but it has to be confronted.”

Haidari, the director-general of Policy and Strategy for Afghanistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, agrees and says it is something his country cannot yet do entirely on its own. Haidari recently helped lead a summit meeting in Kabul of 23 countries, including the United States, in proposing another round of peace talks with the Taliban as well as more military aid. Last month, Afghanistan had its first official cease fire since the insurgency began, but it lasted only three days — and demands that the Taliban get out of the narcotics trafficking business weren’t among the conditions.

M. Ashraf Haidari Afghan counternarcotics official who lobbied Bush, Obama and Trump officials — mostly unsuccessfully — for more aggressive law enforcement efforts to take out drug kingpins and to stanch the flow of illicit narcotics proceeds that have fueled the Taliban insurgency and corrupted the Kabul government.

Haidari said the missing ingredient in the current scenario is a robust U.S. law enforcement effort to help Afghanistan starve the insurgency by attacking the Taliban’s drug funding, which, he noted, was precisely what Operation Reciprocity was designed to do.

“That much money automatically involves their leadership and shows that they are narco-terrorists. You have to go after them,” even if peace talks are also pursued, Haidari said. “If you want to make peace with them, and you discontinue going after them, then the DEA is no longer allowed to do what it needs to do. And that is exactly what happened.”

The alliance of the kingpins

Obama was upbeat in his June 2011 address announcing a gradual end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, saying, ”We’re starting this drawdown from a position of strength.” The rugged country that once provided Al Qaeda its haven no longer represented the same terrorist threat to the American people, Obama said, and U.S. and coalition forces had thwarted the insurgency’s momentum.

The DEA’s Marsac believed from his many years in country that the situation on the ground wasn’t nearly as stable as Obama suggested. And that things were getting worse, not better.

Obama was correct that most of Al Qaeda’s remaining forces had left for neighboring Pakistan. But Taliban-controlled territory was now home to at least a dozen other terrorist groups with international aspirations. The Taliban itself had evolved, too, from an insular group without animus toward the United States into a lethal narco-terrorist army waging war against the American forces that had deposed it for its indirect role in the 9/11 attacks.

To finance its insurgency, the Taliban was reaping anywhere from $100 million to $350 million a year from its cut of the narcotics trade in hashish, opium, heroin and morphine, according to U.S., United Nations and other estimates. Much of the money went to pay for weapons, explosives, soldiers for hire and bribes to corrupt government officials.

For decades, much of the region’s narcotics trade had been controlled by the Quetta Alliance, a loose confederation of three powerful tribal clans living in the Pakistani border town of the same name. At a June 1998 summit, the clan leaders gathered secretly to approve another alliance — with the Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan at the time, according to classified U.S. intelligence cited in Operation Reciprocity legal documents.

Victims of violence are seen in Afghanistan.  CONTINUED VIOLENCE: A U.S. soldier and Afghan policemen (top) are seen through the broken window of a suicide bomber‘s car in Kabul in February 2013. Bottom left, an Afghan patient is wheeled on a trolley at Salang Hospital, north of Kabul, in September 2016. Bottom right, an Afghan amputee practices walking with her prosthetic leg at a Red Cross hospital in Kabul in April 2016. President Ashraf Ghani said recently that Afghanistan’s military — and the government — would be in danger of collapse, perhaps within days, if U.S. assistance stops. | Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

Under the “Sincere Agreement,” the drug lords pledged their financial support for the Taliban in exchange for protection of their vast swaths of poppy and cannabis fields, drug processing labs and storage facilities. The ties were solidified further when the U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban after 9/11 and forced top commanders to flee to Quetta, where they formed a shura, or leadership council.

In the early years of the U.S. occupation, the Pentagon and CIA cultivated influential Afghan tribal leaders who were not part of the Quetta Alliance, even if they were deeply involved in drug trafficking, in order to turn them against the Taliban. That willingness to overlook drug trafficking was assisted by their belief that the drugs were going almost entirely to Asia and Europe.

But a lot of Afghan heroin was also coming into the United States, indirectly, including through Canada and Mexico, according to DEA, Justice Department and congressional officials and documents. Over time, growing numbers of Americans addicted to legally prescribed opioids were finding an alternative in the ample, but often deadly, narcotics supply on the streets.

Even as the body counts mounted in Afghanistan, few Americans associated the war with growing opioid death and addiction rates in the U.S., including, importantly, appropriators in Congress. Lawmakers spent billions of taxpayer dollars annually on both the U.S. military campaign and reconstruction effort. But they earmarked just a tiny percentage of that for DEA efforts to counter the drug networks bankrolling the increasingly destructive attacks on both of them, records and interviews show.

As a result, as of 2003, the DEA deployed no more than 10 agents, two intelligence analysts and one support staff member in the entire country.

The agency’s primary mission was to disrupt and dismantle the most significant drug trafficking organizations posing a threat to the United States. Another mission was to train Afghan authorities in the nuts and bolts of counternarcotics work so that they could take on the drug networks themselves.

Over the next three years, as the U.S. military cut back its presence in Afghanistan to focus on the Iraq War, the Taliban roared back to life. The DEA agents and their Afghan protégés were left to stanch the flow of drug money to the growing insurgency.

Even after the U.S. and NATO countries began adding troops in 2006, the Afghan police and military counternarcotics forces were outgunned, outnumbered and outspent by the drug traffickers and their Taliban protectors, according to documents and interviews.

Kabul’s criminal justice system remained a work in progress. Afghan prosecutors, with help from the DEA and the Justice Department, were putting away 90 percent of those charged with narcotics crimes. But most were two-bit drug runners whose convictions didn’t disrupt the flow of drug money, records show.

Washington was coming to the realization that the Kabul government lacked the institutional capacity and the political will to take on the top drug lords, according to Rand Beers, who held a top anti-narcotics position in the George W. Bush administration.

Lucrative bribes had compromised police and government officials from the precinct level to the inner circle of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai. That meant the more senior that suspected drug traffickers were, the less successful U.S. authorities were in pressuring the Afghans to act against them.

As had been the case in Colombia, the drug kingpins were overseeing what had become vertically integrated international criminal conglomerates that generated billions of dollars in illicit annual proceeds. That made them, effectively, too big for their home government to confront.

The only criminal justice system willing and able to handle such networks was the one in the United States. By then, the U.S. Justice Department had indicted and prosecuted significant kingpins from Mexico, Thailand and, beginning in 2002, dozens of FARC commanders and drug lords from Colombia.

In response, the DEA took two pages from its “Plan Colombia” playbook. It began embedding specially trained and equipped drug agents in military units, to start developing cases against the heads of the trafficking networks. It also worked closely with specially vetted Afghan counternarcotics agents. These Afghans were chosen by DEA agents for their courage, experience and incorruptibility, and then polygraphed and monitored to keep them honest.

Together, the vetted Afghans and their DEA mentors established a countrywide network of informants and undercover operatives that penetrated deeply into the transnational syndicates. The crown jewel of that effort was a closely guarded electronic intercept program, in which DEA agents showed their Afghan counterparts how to obtain court-approved warrants and develop the technical skills needed to eavesdrop on communications.

The hundreds of warrants authorized by Afghan judges provided a real-time window into the flows of drugs and money — from negotiations of individual narcotic sales to forensic road maps of the trafficking networks’ logistics and financial infrastructure. DEA agents also worked with a special Sensitive Investigative Unit to map the drug, terror and corruption networks.

Afghan counternarcotic forces inspect sacks of opium.  Afghan counternarcotics forces inspect sacks containing opium after they were discovered in a fuel tanker traveling to Kabul in May 2005. Even after the U.S. and other NATO countries began adding troops in 2006, the Afghan police and military counternarcotics forces were outgunned, outnumbered and outspent by the drug traffickers and their Taliban protectors, according to documents and interviews. | Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

As the insurgency grew and became more costly to sustain, that evidence began to show the Taliban methodically assuming a more direct operational role in the drug trade, pushing out middlemen and extracting more profit — and money for the war effort — at every step of the process. All of the evidence was admissible in courts in Kabul and the United States. And it led agents straight to the top of the Taliban leadership — including its one-eyed supreme commander, Mullah Mohammad Omar, according to documents and interviews.

By the end of the Bush administration, the Justice Department had indicted four top Afghan drug lords, who were ultimately captured and flown stateside or lured there under pretense, then prosecuted and convicted. A top-secret “target list” circulating at the time drew a bull’s-eye on three dozen others who were next in the barrel, a Pentagon counternarcotics official said in an interview.

As Bush prepared to pass the reins of government to Obama, it was clear to both administrations that the Afghan government wouldn’t be able to halt the flow of drug money to the insurpgency on its own.

Bush’s outgoing Ambassador William Wood acknowledged as much in a withering cable back to Washington in January 2009, saying that the narcotics trade had become so pervasive that it made up one-third of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, but “no major drug traffickers have been arrested and convicted [by local authorities] in Afghanistan since 2006.”

The battle against the Taliban would have to extend to courtrooms in the United States.

Launching ‘Plan Afghanistan’

The incoming Obama administration also publicly backed the “kingpin” strategy, as part of a counterinsurgency plan that focused on increased interdiction and rural development.

“Going after the big guys” was how Richard Holbrooke, Obama’s special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, described it to Congress.

That March, the DEA announced the most ambitious overseas deployment surge in its 40-year history — a six-fold increase of agents from 13 to 81.

Not everyone was an unflinching fan of the DEA’s approach. Many people in and out of the government feared that targeting those at the apex of the drug trade could backfire in a place like Afghanistan, where it often meant taking on tribal leaders with armies of fighters, tanks and even missiles at their disposal, recalled Kenneth Katzman, a senior analyst on Afghanistan issues for the Congressional Research Service, the independent research arm of Congress.

“These guys are powerful people,” Katzman told POLITICO. “Many have militias, and there are tribes, and subtribes, that depend on them for sustenance. You try to arrest someone like [that] and you are going to have a rebellion on your hands.”

But Haidari — then Afghanistan’s top national security diplomat in Washington — hailed the shift as being not only urgently needed but long overdue.

“A surge not only of military but law enforcement is exactly what we need,” said Haidari, who was then a senior official in the Karzai government. “It is something we have always demanded of the U.S. government.”

The DEA agents answering the call included a former Denver Broncos linebacker-turned-wiretapping expert and a former Marine with a Harvard Law degree. Several veteran commandos of the agency’s Latin American drug wars signed up too, including one storied agent who had built the case against the FARC.

“It was ‘Game on,’” Marsac said. “People wanted in on the fight. We were pulling them in from everywhere, and bringing them over in waves.”

After completing several months of special operations training, new agents hit the ground running, sweeping through fortified drug compounds as allied military forces provided cover fire. The agents seized and cataloged as evidence multi-ton caches of narcotics, as well as stockpiles of Taliban weapons found, increasingly, alongside them.

In November 2009, three DEA agents and seven American soldiers were killed when their helicopter crashed after a particularly intense drug raid in western Afghanistan. Obama and his attorney general, Eric Holder, traveled to Dover Air Force Base to receive their bodies.

For the tight-knit and fast-growing DEA team in country, the fight against the Taliban was, from that point on, an intensely personal one. So-called FAST teams — for foreign-deployed advisory support — brought Afghan drug agents to the front lines of the drug war, including Helmand Province, the epicenter of both the drug trade and the insurgency. U.S. and coalition military forces now embraced both the DEA agents and their Afghan trainees as full partners who were making significant inroads in attacking the increasingly intertwined drug-terror networks.

On June 22, 2011, Obama formally announced a September 2014 drawdown date for almost all U.S. troops and DEA agents. Marsac, the leader of all the DEA staff in the region, figured he had two years, at most, in which to marshal his agency’s newfound horsepower in ways that would make a lasting difference and give the Afghans a fighting chance on their own.

There wasn’t time to wrap up the myriad open investigations, even the multiyear ones targeting the kingpins. So Marsac proposed a legal Hail Mary of sorts: one giant U.S. conspiracy prosecution of the trafficking chieftains and the Taliban associates they financed.

In January 2012, he assembled a team to review the mountains of evidence in DEA vaults to see whether it supported such a prosecution.

Officials cut down poppies in Afghanistan. An Afghan government official (left) and two Afghan National Army soldiers cut down opium poppies in Bihsud District, north of Jalalabad, in April 2004. Afghan prosecutors, with help from the DEA and the Justice Department, were able to put away 90 percent of those charged with narcotics crimes. But most were two-bit drug runners whose convictions didn’t disrupt the flow of drug money, records show. | Shah Marai/AFP/Getty Images

The Justice Department had used such “wheel conspiracy” prosecutions for decades against international organized crime syndicates and drug cartels that had many tentacles. One especially potent advantage of such an approach was that evidence gathered against each defendant could be used to strengthen the overall conspiracy case against all of them.

The team concluded that the evidence didn’t support a conspiracy case centering on the fractious and fragmented trafficking networks. But Marsac believed it might support something even more audacious, which DEA and Justice had never done before: a conspiracy case combining major drug traffickers and terrorist leaders.

The Taliban senior leadership would be the hub in the center of the wheel, and its various trafficking partners, money launderers and the Quetta Shura the spokes arrayed around it. The main charge: That the Taliban had engaged in a complex conspiracy to advance the war effort through the production, processing and trafficking of drugs.

Marsac obtained approval from DEA’s Special Operations Division, a multi-agency nerve center that coordinates complex international law enforcement efforts. His deputy later did the same with DEA’s New York field office, which would be needed to help with support and logistics, such as safeguarding evidence and shepherding Afghan witnesses in country to testify before the grand jury hearing testimony in the case.

Marsac opened an official case file and, requiring a name, called it Operation Reciprocity. It would be DEA’s way of settling the score against the Taliban, he told the team, for its complicity in the 9/11 attacks and the deaths of the DEA’s own agents.

A tapestry of criminality

By the end of 2012, the team members were struggling to make progress on building the conspiracy case, given their crush of daily caseload demands. So Marsac asked the Justice Department attache in Kabul for reinforcements.

Specifically, Marsac wanted John Seaman, his old partner from their early days in Denver, who had become one of the DEA’s top experts in building conspiracy cases. After retiring in 2005 and doing some contract police work in Iraq, Seaman had spent the previous year on a Justice Department contract helping the Afghans identify sensitive anti-corruption and drug cases to pursue.

With time running out in Afghanistan, Marsac hoped Seaman could find a way to jump-start Operation Reciprocity. The Justice Department’s attache in Kabul, David Schwendiman, himself a veteran prosecutor of international war crimes tribunals, quickly approved the request.

David Schwendiman
Justice Department attache in Kabul who advised and supported Operation Reciprocity, fought unsuccessfully to save it and warned a DOJ lawyer in Washington that Kaidanow’s plan to dismantle DEA efforts in Afghanistan would leave “the Afghans blind” to the Taliban’s drug-fueled insurgency.

Marsac and Seaman believed the evidence for a Taliban-led conspiracy existed somewhere in the thousands of intercept recordings, cooperating witness statements, financial transaction records and everything else that DEA personnel had gathered, processed and filed away since first deploying in 2002. Seaman’s particular talent was in finding the puzzle pieces and understanding how they fit together.

Seaman, who was then 60 years old and a cancer survivor, scoured the evidence with focused intensity. Marsac would often leave work around 10 p.m., he said, “and I’d come back in the morning and John would still be still there.”

A few weeks later, Seaman quietly took Marsac aside and showed him a sheaf of papers summarizing evidence to build a prosecution against Taliban leaders and drug lords. “You’ve got it,” he said. “It’s there.”

Marsac and Seaman set up a war room within the DEA’s bunker near the Kabul airport, far from the U.S. Embassy. They papered the walls with photos of suspects, maps, charts and to-do lists.

One by one, Seaman constructed “target memos” for 26 key conspirators, each memo featuring 30 or so pages of alleged crimes committed, witnesses and evidence, along with, most importantly, a list of investigative avenues to pursue. Seaman then weaved all of it into the 240-page prosecution memo, an extraordinarily detailed tapestry of Afghanistan’s narcotics trade and the Taliban’s central — and financial — role in it from 1990 onward.

All the information in the memo was relayed to agents in the field, and to the legal advisers in Kabul. The team enlisted Ambassador Stephen McFarland, one of five State Department officials of ambassadorial rank in Afghanistan. McFarland’s special role was to oversee DEA and other law-enforcement programs.

Stephen McFarland
State Department ambassador overseeing law enforcement and “rule of law” programs in Afghanistan whose support of DEA counternarcotics investigations into politically sensitive targets — including Operation Reciprocity — prompted clashes with Kaidanow and his early and forced transfer back to Washington.

Schwendiman, the Justice attache, was encouraged. He sent for the FARC case files from Washington and determined that the Kabul investigators exceeded the standard of evidence used to indict and convict the Colombian guerrilla commanders in U.S. courts.

On his recommendation, the team sent the prosecution memo to the Justice Department’s Terrorism and International Narcotics unit in the Southern District of New York, which was known for taking on, and winning, the most ambitious and complex conspiracy cases.

Three Operation Reciprocity agents flew to Manhattan to brief the prosecutors, who quickly greenlighted taking the case. They spent three hours strategizing and discussing the monumental challenges inherent in building such a case, securing final DOJ headquarters approval and taking it to trial. The logistical hurdles would be predictable — and surmountable — but the political ones would not.

All agreed, however, that with Afghanistan descending into chaos, they had to try, according to Michael Schaefer, the supervisory DEA agent leading the investigation, and a second meeting participant.

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