Haji Abdul Satar Abdul Manaf wanted to make it in New York.
Specifically, the 53-year-old was hungry to establish an American distribution pipeline for heroin from the Helmand province of Afghanistan, according to a criminal complaint recently filed in Manhattan federal court. Manaf was allegedly slated to do so with the blessing of the Taliban, the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist organization that has reemerged as a formidable power in Afghanistan since being ousted in 2001, now claiming some 70 percent of the country’s territory. The group’s resurgence has largely been financed by Afghanistan’s opium trade despite US efforts to bomb it out of existence.
Manaf, the Afghan owner of a money remittance service, first raised alarms with the US government over six years ago in connection with the movement of Taliban funds, according to the complaint. But when an associate—who was also a confidential source for the DEA—offered contact information for a man Manaf was led to believe was an international drug trafficker based in New York City, he made a much bigger play, prosecutors said.
During two wiretapped phone calls in February and March 2018, Manaf and the man he believed to be the New York drug dealer discussed linking up to send heroin to the US, according to the complaint. Things went further, the feds said, on March 10, when the men talked about a possible test run entailing a five-kilo shipment from Kabul to the Big Apple. “Once the five pieces arrive here, and when I sit with my friends and find they are happy, we will make a big plan for several hundred [kilos,]” the man told Manaf, according to the complaint. “If possible, we will speak in person so we can set everything up.”
An excited Manaf was said to reply, “Indeed, Indeed."
Unbeknownst to Manaf, the New York trafficker was in fact an undercover DEA agent. Along with some Afghan locals on the DEA snitch payroll, the agent spent seven months gathering evidence against Manaf, from recording calls to picking up the heroin test shipment to using him as a go-between to allegedly send drug cash to the Taliban offshoot group, the Haqqani Network. According to the complaint, Manaf arranged for about $35,000 in alleged drug proceeds to be sent from Melbourne, Australia to Kabul with the understanding the funds would be given to the network.
On February 6, Manaf was extradited from Estonia—where he had been jailed since October—to New York City, where he faces federal charges of attempted narcotics importation, narco-terrorism and attempted narco-terrorism. He has pleaded not guilty, according to the court docket, and his public defender did not respond to a request for comment.
It wasn’t the first high-profile DEA bust tying back to the Taliban.
Last year, Shamsuddin Dost and Jawed Ahmadi, two men living in San Jose, California, received lengthy prison sentences after being convicted in a conspiracy to import heroin from Afghanistan. In recorded conversations, Dost boasted to an undercover investigator that he was friends with Taliban members and Afghan government officials, though he later testified he had not returned to his home country since he was a child.
Trafficking cases involving Afghan heroin into the US have historically been rare; Southwest Asian heroin in general only accounted for less than 1 percent of America’s opioid black market in 2016, according to DEA estimates. But the two busts paint a picture of the Taliban as an increasingly ambitious—and well-financed—opioid cartel at a time of intense national demand for those drugs.
The most glaring part of the whole story, some experts said, was that it was US policy in the region that arguably made the opioid explosion there possible.
Abigail Hall Blanco, a University of Tampa assistant economics professor who co-authored a 2016 white paper on the Afghanistan drug war, said the US government’s intervention efforts in the war torn nation had been an “overarching failure.”
“The US and Afghan governments created a strong prohibition policy that led to the conditions allowing the Taliban to act as a cartel,” Hall told me. “They [the Taliban] provide protection to poppy farmers, accepting payments they then use to fund terrorist activities.”
As the US government engages in peace talks with the Taliban, Hall said, it is highly unlikely the fundamentalist paramilitary group will honor any agreement that calls for total opium eradication. She suggested a lax drug policy in Afghanistan would have more success at cutting off the Taliban’s drug profits. “It’s a counterintuitive way to defund the Taliban,” Hall said, referring to prohibition feeding the black market, a hallmark of decades of US drug policy.
Vanda Felbab-Brown, a foreign policy senior fellow with the Brookings Institution, agreed that the Taliban was not likely to give up its opium income stream as part of any peace deal. Instead, she said, Afghanistan was becoming more volatile despite recent US bombing missions on the country’s poppy fields: The United Nations 2018 Afghanistan Opium Survey found that opium poppy cultivation remained at very high levels despite a 20 percent territorial drop compared to 2017. (The decrease was largely due to a severe drought that hit the country and not US eradication efforts, according to the report.)
The author of a 2017 piece explaining why Afghan’s opium trade had a negligible impact on America’s opioid crisis, Velbab-Brown argued the Taliban’s grip would only strengthen as the US continued to draw down its presence. “As the number of US troops gets smaller and smaller, there will be fewer interdictions,” she said. “And there is concern there could be a civil war or that the Afghan government gets toppled.”
Felbab-Brown said fewer US military-led missions to eradicate poppy fields in Afghanistan helped explain the DEA’s emerging role in targeting the opium trade in the Southwest Asian nation. “Even though Mexico and China are the main countries supplying opiates in the US, that doesn’t mean the DEA should ignore a huge opium production area like Afghanistan,” she said. “Still, it is a very difficult environment to build cases because the country is much more unsafe than it was in 2010 and 2011. That limits how DEA agents can get around the country.”
Melvin Patterson, a spokesman for DEA headquarters in Washington DC, said in an interview that the amount of Afghan heroin making it to US street corners was insignificant, but that the agency was tasked with assisting their counterparts in other countries stop drug trafficking anyway. “In Manaf’s case, the agents were able to prove that there was a goal afoot to deliver multi-kilogram quantities of Afghan heroin to New York City,” Patterson said.
The investigation kicked off in January of last year when an Afghan local working as a paid DEA confidential source since 2014 called Manaf at the direction of DEA agents, and told him how to contact a New York-based trafficker. Over the next seven months, the undercover agent posing as the trafficker befriended Manaf, who confided many secrets about his involvement in heroin trafficking in Asia and the Middle East, as well as his good standing with the Taliban, the complaint states.
During a recorded phone call on July, Manaf relayed to the undercover agent that he had met with the “bearded people, the Mullahs,” which is a common reference for Taliban leaders in Afghanistan. He said the Taliban was charging 150,000 Pakistani rupees to register its stamp on the heroin packages, plus 5,000 rupees per kilo for transporting and protecting the test shipment, which had increased from five to ten kilos.
On August 5, according to the complaint, one of the DEA’s snitches picked up the ten kilos in Helmand Province and delivered it to agents in Kabul; about two days later, the undercover agent spoke to Manaf to confirm the pick-up. He later told Manaf that the next order would be for 500 kilos. Manaf was said to reply, “Hopefully, it will be 1,000.”
Going ahead, Hall said it was likely the US government will resort to more undercover sting operations even though such interdiction missions did not stand much of a chance to make a real dent in the Taliban’s booming opium empire. “My guess is that you are likely to see the DEA and different US government bureaus make a push for additional funds and personnel to combat [the opium trade],” she said. “Will it be successful? No. I think it will be more of the same."
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