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February 2, 2007 - New York Times (NY)

An Afghan's Path From Ally Of U.S. To Drug Suspect

By James Risen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

WASHINGTON -- In April 2005, federal law enforcement officials summoned reporters to a Manhattan news conference to announce the capture of an Afghan drug lord and Taliban ally. While boasting that he was a big catch -- the Asian counterpart of the Colombian cocaine legend Pablo Escobar -- the officials left out some puzzling details, including why the Afghan, Haji Bashir Noorzai, had risked arrest by coming to New York.

Now, with Mr. Noorzai's case likely to come to trial this year, a fuller story about the American government's dealings with him is emerging.

Soon after the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Mr. Noorzai agreed to cooperate with American officials, who hoped he could lead them to hidden Taliban weapons and leaders, according to current and former government officials and Mr. Noorzai's American lawyer. The relationship soured, but American officials tried to renew it in 2004. A year later, Mr. Noorzai was secretly indicted and lured to New York, where he was arrested after nearly two weeks of talks with law enforcement and counterterrorism officials in a hotel.

In fighting the war on terrorism, government officials have often accepted trade-offs in developing relationships with informants with questionable backgrounds who might prove useful. As with Mr. Noorzai, it is often not clear whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

The government's shifting views of Mr. Noorzai -- from sought-after ally to notorious global criminal -- parallels its evolving perspective on Afghanistan's heroin trade.

In the first years after the United States invasion in late 2001, military and intelligence officials mostly chose to ignore opium production and instead dealt freely with warlords, including drug traffickers who promised information about members of the Taliban and Al Qaeda or offered security in the chaotic countryside. But in more recent years, as poppy production has soared and financed a revived Taliban insurgency that is threatening the country's stability, the Americans have begun to take some more aggressive steps.

"In Afghanistan, finding terrorists has always trumped chasing drug traffickers," said Bobby Charles, the former top counternarcotics official at the State Department.

He and other officials acknowledge that the United States initially may have had little choice other than to turn to tribal leaders with murky motives for help in bringing order to an essentially lawless society. But Mr. Charles pushed for the Bush administration to recognize suspected drug lords like Mr. Noorzai as a long-term security issue. "If we do not now take a hard second look at counternarcotics," he said, "we will not get a third look."

Administration officials say that they are working to develop a more effective drug strategy in Afghanistan, which now accounts for 82 percent of the world's opium cultivation, according to a United Nations report last September. That could include broader eradication programs, alternative crop development and cracking down on drug lords, but any such efforts are complicated by fears that they could increase instability.

Federal prosecutors in New York handling Mr. Noorzai's case refused to comment for this article, as did spokesmen for the Drug Enforcement Administration, Central Intelligence Agency and United States Central Command.

Mr. Noorzai, who has been held in a New York jail for nearly two years, has pleaded not guilty to charges that he smuggled heroin into New York and denies any involvement in drug trafficking. His New York lawyer, Ivan Fisher, argues that the arrest hurt the government's ability to gain information about the escalating Taliban insurgency.

"Haji Bashir has been making efforts to reach working agreements with the Americans in Afghanistan since the 1990s," Mr. Fisher said.

Several intelligence, counterterrorism and law enforcement officials confirm that American officials met repeatedly with Mr. Noorzai over the years. Because they provided few details about the substance of the talks, it is difficult to determine how useful Mr. Noorzai's cooperation proved to be. He was not paid for his information, and the relationship was considered more informal, the officials said.

At times, there was confusion within the government about what to do with Mr. Noorzai. In 2002, while he was talking to the American officials in Afghanistan, a team at C.I.A. headquarters assigned to identify targets to capture or kill in Afghanistan wanted to put him on its list, one former intelligence official said. Like others, he would only speak on condition of anonymity because such discussions were classified.

The C.I.A. team was blocked, the former official recalled. Although he never received an explanation, the former official said that the Defense Department officials and American military commanders viewed counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan at the time as a form of "mission creep" that would distract from the fight against terrorism.

Mr. Noorzai, a wealthy tribal leader in his mid-40s who lived with three wives and 13 children in Quetta, Pakistan, and also owns homes in Afghanistan and the United Arab Emirates, is from the same region that helped produce the Taliban. A native of Kandahar Province, he was a mujahedeen commander fighting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. In 1990, according to his lawyer, he agreed to help track down Stinger missiles provided to the Afghan resistance by the C.I.A.; agency officials were worried about their possible use by terrorists.

D.E.A. officials say that at the same time, Mr. Noorzai was a major figure in the Afghan drug trade, controlling poppy fields that supplied a significant share of the world's heroin. He was also an early financial backer of the Taliban. Agency officials say he provided demolition materials, weapons and manpower in exchange for protection for his opium crops, heroin labs, smuggling routes and followers.

Mr. Noorzai was in Quetta when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred, and he returned soon after to Afghanistan, according to his lawyer. In November 2001, he met with men he described as American military officials at Spinboldak, near the Afghan-Pakistani border, Mr. Fisher said. Small teams of United States Special Forces and intelligence officers were in Afghanistan at the time, seeking the support of tribal leaders.

Mr. Noorzai was taken to Kandahar, where he was detained and questioned for six days by the Americans about Taliban officials and operations, his lawyer said. He agreed to work with them and was freed, and in late January 2002 he handed over 15 truckloads of weapons, including about 400 antiaircraft missiles, that had been hidden by the Taliban in his tribe's territory, Mr. Fisher said.

Mr. Noorzai also offered to act as an intermediary between Taliban leaders and the Americans, his lawyer said. Mr. Noorzai said he helped persuade the Taliban's former foreign minister, Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil -- the son of the mullah in Mr. Noorzai's hometown -- to meet with the Americans. In February 2002, the Taliban official surrendered after what press accounts described as extensive negotiations and was sent to the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He was freed in 2005.

Mr. Noorzai also persuaded a local tribal figure, Haji Birqet, to return to Afghanistan from Pakistan, the lawyer said. But he said the Americans, falsely warned that Mr. Birqet and Mr. Noorzai were plotting to attack United States forces, killed Mr. Birqet and wounded several family members in a raid on his compound.

Saying that his credibility had been hurt by the imprisonment of Mr. Mutawakil and that he was angered by the attack on Mr. Birqet, Mr. Noorzai broke off contact with the Americans and fled to his home in Pakistan, according to Mr. Fisher.

The government officials could not confirm whether Mr. Noorzai had in fact played a role in those negotiations. There may be another explanation for his exile, however. In May 2002, one of his tribal commanders was killed in an American raid along a drug-smuggling route that the Americans suspected was used to help the Taliban, and Mr. Noorzai may have feared for his own safety.

Nearly two years later, in January 2004, Mr. Charles, the State Department official, proposed placing him on President Bush's list of foreign narcotics kingpins, for the most wanted drug lords around the world.

At that time, Mr. Charles recalled in an interview, no Afghan heroin traffickers were on the list, which he thought was a glaring omission. He suggested three names, including Mr. Noorzai's, but said his recommendation was met with an awkward silence during an interagency meeting. He said there was resistance to placing Afghans on the list because countering the drug trade there was not an administration priority. Mr. Charles persisted, and in June 2004, Mr. Noorzai became the first Afghan on the list.

Two months later, a team of American contractors working for the Federal Bureau of Investigation contacted Mr. Noorzai and arranged a series of meetings with him in Pakistan and Dubai, according to several government officials and Mr. Noorzai's lawyer. They wanted to win his cooperation and learn about Al Qaeda's financial network and perhaps the whereabouts of the former Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. The Americans met with Mr. Noorzai, but the talks fizzled because F.B.I. agents who were supposed to join them were unable to do so, one official said.

In 2005, the contractors, by then working for the D.E.A., reconnected with Mr. Noorzai and once again met with him in Dubai.

This time, however, the objective had changed. Mr. Noorzai had secretly been indicted by a federal grand jury in New York on drug smuggling charges in January 2005. Now the contractors needed to persuade Mr. Noorzai to come to the United States.

Mr. Fisher said the Americans were particularly interested in gaining Mr. Noorzai's help in tracking the flow of money to the Taliban and Al Qaeda. They were seeking information about Mullah Omar and other Taliban figures. The Americans asked Mr. Noorzai to come to the United States to meet with their superiors, he added.

Mr. Noorzai's lawyer said his client agreed to make the trip only after receiving assurances that he would not be arrested. Mr. Fisher also says that he has obtained transcripts from tape recordings made by the government at the sessions.

Mr. Noorzai flew to New York in April 2005 and was taken to an Embassy Suites hotel, where he was questioned for 13 days before being arrested, his lawyer said.

Mr. Noorzai has been charged with conspiring to import more than $50 million worth of heroin from Afghanistan and Pakistan into the United States and other countries. The indictment says that he imported heroin to New York in the late 1990s and that unnamed co-conspirators also did so in 2001 and 2002.

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