Interagency Task Force Confronts Drug Trafficking

WASHINGTON, July 12, 2011 — The pop­py fields of Afghanistan — a major rev­enue source for the insur­gency there — may seem a mil­lion miles away from U.S. Pacif­ic Command’s head­quar­ters in Hawaii.

Joint Interagency Task Force West
Indone­sian police stu­dents safe­ly rig and lift a patrol boat onto a wharf in prepa­ra­tion for detailed main­te­nance work based on train­ing pro­vid­ed by a Joint Inter­a­gency Task Force West small craft main­te­nance team. The train­ing includes ded­i­cat­ed train­ing on safe­ty pro­ce­dures and equip­ment to ensure stu­dents devel­op good work habits and pre­vent job-relat­ed injuries.
Pho­to cour­tesy of Joint Inter­a­gency Task Force West
Click to enlarge

Yet the pro­duc­tion and traf­fick­ing of acetic anhy­dride — a chem­i­cal pro­duced in the Pacif­ic and shipped to Afghanistan, where it’s used to trans­form opi­um into hero­in — is one of the big con­cerns of Joint Inter­a­gency Task Force West, explained Tom Wood, its deputy direc­tor of operations. 

The task force, focused on sup­port­ing coun­ternar­cotics oper­a­tions in Asia and the Pacif­ic, rec­og­nizes the link between drug traf­fick­ing, U.S. nation­al secu­ri­ty and region­al sta­bil­i­ty, Wood told Amer­i­can Forces Press Service. 

Illic­it drugs have long been rec­og­nized as a threat to the Unit­ed States, where drug abuse takes a heavy per­son­al toll on users and their loved ones. But soci­ety at large suf­fers, too, not only from pet­ty crimes com­mit­ted by addicts to fund their habits, but also from even-more-insid­i­ous activ­i­ties con­duct­ed by transna­tion­al crime rings bankrolled by the drug trade. 

JIATF West is one of three inter­a­gency task forces that work in part­ner­ship with region­al nations to con­front this scourge. JIATF South, based in Key West, Fla., sup­ports the coun­ternar­cotics fight with­in U.S. South­ern Command’s area of respon­si­bil­i­ty. JTF North, part of U.S. North­ern Com­mand, focus­es pre­dom­i­nant­ly on the south­west­ern U.S. border. 

Acetic anhy­dride pro­duc­tion and traf­fick­ing is just one of JIATF West’s press­ing chal­lenges, Wood said. Oth­ers are the indus­tri­al-scale pro­duc­tion of chem­i­cals illic­it­ly traf­ficked to the West­ern Hemi­sphere to pro­duce metham­phet­a­mines, and the flow of drugs from the West­ern Hemi­sphere to Chi­na, Aus­tralia and oth­er parts of Asia. 

To address these chal­lenges in an area of respon­si­bil­i­ty that spans half the globe, JIATF West pro­motes col­lab­o­ra­tion between U.S. and for­eign law enforce­ment agen­cies and oth­er fed­er­al agen­cies to sup­port their efforts. 

By law, the Defense Depart­ment is barred from active­ly con­duct­ing law enforce­ment. But it con­tributes to those efforts large­ly through intel­li­gence about drug flows through the region, Wood said. When­ev­er pos­si­ble, JIATF West pass­es it to part­ner nations to act on with­in their sov­er­eign waters. 

“We use as much of U.S. and [Defense Depart­ment] intel­li­gence assets as we can to con­tribute to this fight,” Wood said. “Part of the suc­cess of what we do is the fact that we work with for­eign part­ners and exchange infor­ma­tion. While we don’t phys­i­cal­ly do the oper­a­tions, we team with them and com­bine our efforts for the goal of cut­ting back on coun­ternar­cotics flows trans-regionally.” 

But an equal­ly impor­tant part of JIATF West’s mis­sion is to help 36 part­ner nations in the region improve their own coun­ternar­cotics capa­bil­i­ties, Wood explained. 

“We spend a good frac­tion of our effort on the part­ner nation capac­i­ty-build­ing piece of the coun­ternar­cotics fight,” Wood said. “That is where we can be most effec­tive in com­bat­ing the transna­tion­al crime prob­lem out here in the Pacific.” 

Pacif­ic Com­mand has 36 part­ner nations in Asia and Pacif­ic, many of them strug­gling with drug chal­lenges of their own. But Wood said the impact extends beyond the part­ners’ own bor­ders, con­tribut­ing to region­al instability. 

JIATF West’s part­ner sup­port focus­es heav­i­ly on the mar­itime domain and help­ing part­ner nations build capac­i­ty with­in their mar­itime police or coast guards. This runs the gamut, Wood explained, from help­ing nations devel­op the phys­i­cal infra­struc­ture and bases need­ed to project pow­er with­in their sov­er­eign waters to deploy­ing train­ers to help them close capa­bil­i­ty gaps. 

“What we are try­ing to do is essen­tial­ly teach a man to fish,” he said. “We are not cre­at­ing depen­den­cy. We are cre­at­ing a sus­tain­able capa­bil­i­ty that these forces can use over the long haul.” 

Over the past three years, for exam­ple, JIATF West has deployed teams of Navy reservists through­out Asia and the Pacif­ic to help law enforce­ment and coun­ternar­cotics forces through­out the region set up oper­at­ing and main­te­nance pro­grams for their vessels. 

In Indone­sia, for exam­ple, the nation­al police charged with patrolling the nation’s waters had long been plagued by too few patrol boats and lack of a pro­gram to keep what boats it did have running. 

JIATF West worked with the State Department’s Inter­na­tion­al Nar­cotics and Law Enforce­ment and Depart­ment of Justice’s Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Inves­ti­ga­tion and Train­ing Assis­tance Pro­gram to help the Indone­sian police pro­cure more small craft. Mean­while, a JIATF West small craft main­te­nance train­ing team helped them set up a pro­gram of sched­uled maintenance.

“This group of mar­itime police now has almost no down time, with no more than one boat down at any giv­en time,” Wood said. “This has been a suc­cess, both in the deploy­ment of boats and the abil­i­ty to cre­ate this sus­tained main­te­nance cul­ture that has allowed them to keep the boats on the water, doing what they are sup­posed to be doing. 

“Boats tied up to the pier or in dry dock are not a mea­sure of suc­cess,” he said. “Just the pres­ence out on the water has a deter­rent effect. And if they are not out steam­ing, then they are not a deterrent.” 

As region­al part­ners work togeth­er to inter­dict nar­cotics ship­ments through Asia and the Pacif­ic, Wood empha­sized that they’re pro­vid­ing a strong deter­rent to oth­er transna­tion­al crime as well. 

“If you can board a ves­sel to look for nar­cotics or ille­gal fish, you can board a ves­sel to look for guns or for bombs,” he said. “No mat­ter what, the same skill sets apply. And as you teach [part­ners] how to do things bet­ter, you are help­ing them devel­op skills they can apply to any of those threats.” 

This approach has gen­er­at­ed many suc­cess sto­ries in the region, both in terms of drugs inter­dict­ed and crim­i­nals convicted. 

But Wood acknowl­edged that many of JIATF West’s biggest vic­to­ries are the ones that nev­er make the headlines. 

“A lot of what we do will nev­er see the light of day,” he said. “But that’s OK, because this is a team effort. The key thing for us is that we have a mul­ti­tude of part­ners, all work­ing togeth­er and focused on the coun­ternar­cotics problem.” 

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs) 

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