WASHINGTON – American authorities sent David C. Headley, a small-time drug dealer and sometime informant, to work for them in Pakistan months after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, despite a warning that he sympathized with radical Islamic groups, according to court records and interviews. Not long after Mr. Headley arrived there, he began training with terrorists, eventually playing a key role in the 2008 attacks that left 164 people dead in Mumbai.
The October 2001 warning was dismissed, the authorities said, as the ire of a jilted girlfriend and for lack of proof. Less than a month later, those concerns did not come up when a federal court in New York granted Mr. Headley an early release from probation so that he could be sent to work for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration in Pakistan. It is unclear what Mr. Headley was supposed to do in Pakistan for the Americans.
“All I knew was the D.E.A. wanted him in Pakistan as fast as possible because they said they were close to making some big cases,” said Luis Caso, Mr. Headley’s former probation officer.
There is something seriously wrong with our priorities when the DEA’s overseas operations are trumping warnings about a terrorist threat. When some of this story came out last month — the Times story adds some new details that paint an even more damning picture of the government’s handling of Headley — Jim Hanson wrote:
[M]aybe, just maybe if we could get all of our law enforcement, intelligence and operators fighting our real enemies, we wouldn’t be paying the bills for a guy who is fully on board with the other team. If we call off the drug crusade we don’t have to alienate large swaths of the population in places we are trying to make friends like, oh I don’t know Afghanistan!
Indeed, while the Headley case is appalling for its stark illustration of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror working at cross purposes, counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan are also quietly undermining our efforts there. Christopher Hitchens noted this two years ago, and suggested a better approach:
Surely a smarter strategy would be, in the long term, to invest a great deal in reforestation and especially in the replanting of vines. While in the short term, hard-pressed Afghan farmers should be allowed to sell their opium to the government rather than only to the many criminal elements that continue to infest it or to the Taliban. We don’t have to smoke the stuff once we have purchased it: It can be burned or thrown away or perhaps more profitably used to manufacture the painkillers of which the United States currently suffers a shortage. (As it is, we allow Turkey to cultivate opium poppy fields for precisely this purpose.) Why not give Afghanistan the contract instead? At one stroke, we help fill its coffers and empty the main war chest of our foes while altering the “hearts-and-minds” balance that has been tipping away from us. I happen to know that this option has been discussed at quite high levels in Afghanistan itself, and I leave you to guess at the sort of political constraints that prevent it from being discussed intelligently in public in the United States. But if we ever have to have the melancholy inquest on how we “lost” a country we had once liberated, this will be one of the places where the conversation will have to start.
The anti-opium strategy in Afghanistan has gotten slightly less stupid since Hitchens wrote that — the focus has shifted from burning farmers’ fields (a great way to make more enemies) to targeting refiners — but the policy Hitchens suggests would cut the refiners off at the knees. Policymakers generally think of counternarcotics and counterterrorism as two sides of the same coin; the former is seen as an attack on terrorists’ funding. But there are much more effective ways to undercut the profits that our enemies make on the drug trade; we just need to stop making a fetish of destroying things that get you high.