2010 Safety, Security and International Affairs

Kirk E. Meyer and Frank P. Calestino

Leading a unique, interagency effort to identify and disrupt the flow of funding from the Afghan opium trade and other illicit sources to the Taliban, al-Qaeda and other terrorist and insurgent groups in Afghanistan.

To achieve crucial military gains in Afghanistan and successfully work toward peace and stability, the United States and its allies must disrupt the flow of funding from the narcotics trade and other sources that are bankrolling the Taliban and terrorist organizations.

Afghanistan produces more opium than any other country in the world, and the Taliban are exploiting every aspect of the narcotics trade, in addition to running extortion and protection rackets, and kidnapping for ransom. Externally, insurgents also derive significant funding from foreign sources, such as donations from supporters in the Gulf.

At the forefront of the effort to identify and shut down financing for the insurgents are Kirk Meyer and Frank Calestino, the director and deputy director of intelligence for a unique U.S. interagency organization known as the Afghan Threat Finance Cell (ATFC).

In a short time and under difficult conditions, Meyer and Calestino have helped Afghan authorities investigate individuals connected to the opium trade, identify outside sympathizers who have been supplying funding, and crack down on a variety of corrupt schemes that have filled the coffers of the Taliban-led insurgency and other illicit actors.

“To succeed in Afghanistan, we must use a variety of approaches in our strategy, including disrupting and deterring the Taliban’s financial resources,” said David S. Cohen, assistant secretary for terrorist financing at the Department of the Treasury.

“The ATFC has been generating extraordinarily rich information about illicit financial networks fueling the insurgency in Afghanistan,” said Cohen.

Created in 2008, the ATFC is led by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Department of the Treasury and the Department of Defense. Meyer, from DEA, and Calestino, from Treasury, were tasked with building the organization from scratch in close collaboration with the U.S. military.

Arriving in Kabul, Meyer and Calestino were without a budget and staff, and had little equipment—just two computers full of sand and a dilapidated trailer. In the past year and a half, they have grown the ATFC to nearly 40 intelligence analysts, special agents and personnel drawn from across the U.S. intelligence and law enforcement communities, as well as all branches of the U.S. military.

Meyer and Calestino have made it a priority to integrate the concept of threat finance into their operations—looking at money as an enabler to the insurgency.

At the same time, they are seeking to build the capacity of Afghan authorities so they can eventually operate independently, which is a key U.S. policy goal. Meyer and Calestino said they work with a specially-vetted unit that received training at the Quantico Marine Corps Base and regularly take polygraphs and drug tests to help ensure their integrity and adherence to the rule of law.

Afghan authorities, including police and national security, partner with the ATFC on their raids, including one that netted some 47,000 financial documents.

The problem is complicated by Afghanistan’s rudimentary financial system. A country of 28 million people, Afghanistan has only 17 banks. About 80 percent of financial transactions are run through hawalas, an informal financial system used in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. Terrorists, insurgents and criminals misuse the hawala system to launder and transfer massive amounts of money   quickly, inexpensively and without oversight to facilitate their hostile and illicit activities.

The ATFC has been working with the Afghan authorities to help identify hawalas that are wittingly involved in criminal activities and insurgent financial activity. The ATFC has helped Afghan authorities identify regulatory and criminal violations committed by numerous Afghan hawalas.

John Arvanitis, chief of the DEA’s office of financial operations, said the investigations have yielded financial data with “potential tentacles globally.”

“The documents that the ATFC generates help fuel law enforcement actions, as well as identify additional funding networks and targets for the Department of Defense,” said Arvanitis.

Together, Meyer and Calestino bring a wealth of law enforcement and intelligence experience. Meyer has been with the DEA since 1988 and has worked in multiple overseas posts, including three years in Afghanistan. Calestino co-led a similar effort in Iraq and is considered a leading expert on countering threat finance in a war zone.

Although a relatively young operation, Meyer and Calestino’s team are “making a big difference,” said Cohen.