In a dramatic change of policy ordered by the Obama administration, the U.S. military has been given approval to "kill or capture" 50 Taliban-connected drug lords whose names are on a classified "kill list" being circulated to commanders, according to a report prepared for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and obtained by ABCNews.com.
Military officials expressed anger today that the "classified program" had been revealed in the Senate report.
A Department of Defense spokesman, Bryan Whitman, declined to comment on the target list, but said "where terrorists do interface with drug networks that produces a security threat, a force protection threat, and is a legitimate target in those regards."
Senate investigators were told military commanders have been given, for the first time, the green light to "remove from the battlefield" the 50 drug lords on the kill list, which also includes another 317 Taliban and al Qaeda figures.
U.S. military commanders told Senate investigators that their classified rules of engagement and recognized Law of War "have been interpreted to allow them to put drug traffickers with proven links to the insurgency" on the kill list, called the "joint integrated prioritized target list."
The report said the military placed "no restrictions on the use of force with these selected targets" but said the military does not "authorize targeted assassinations away from the battlefield."
Commanders said the standard for inclusion on the list included two "verifiable human sources and additional evidence."
"It gives them legal authority to assassinate," said one person involved in the military's briefing for the committee, headed by Sen. John Kerry (D-MA).
Investigators said a new study found that the Taliban collected about $125 million a year in taxes and protection money from the heroin traffickers and growers.
U.S. officials in Afghanistan reported an "absence of any concerted effort" by the CIA "to monitor the money movement between traffickers and insurgents."
"I have to ring their neck to get anything out of them," a senior official at the U.S. embassy in Kabul said, according to the report.
Karzai Denies Connection to Afghanistan's Heroin Business
The report also concludes that corruption at "district, provincial and national levels" of the Afghanistan government seriously compromises the Obama's administration's strategy to assign a higher priority to counter-narcotics efforts.
There have been recurring allegations and circumstantial evidence that the brother of Afghan President Harmad Karzai is closely linked with major heroin traffickers but the Senate report said the U.S. had yet to produce evidence that could be used in court.
An unnamed U.S. General told investigators, "We all assume that he is totally corrupt and engaged in the drug trade but when you ask for the portfolio, we don't have it."
Investigators said U.S. intelligence agencies had gathered evidence against Karzai's brother through the use of electronic intercepts but that the information could not be shared with the Afghans or used in court because the method of collection was top secret.
President Karzai and his brother have repeatedly denied any connection to the country's heroin business.
"I never was in drug business," the President's brother told ABC News in a 2006 interview. "I never benefited. I never facilitated."
As President Karzai seeks re-election next month, he has reportedly pardoned the nephew of his campaign manager and four other soldiers convicted of transporting $3 million worth of heroin to the U.S.
Also cited by U.S. authorities in Afghanistan is the case of a regional governor who was found with nine tons of opium in his office but allowed to resign and take a new position in the Afghan Senate. He was never charged with a crime.
In another example of the pervasive drug corruption, a U.S. State Department official told the Senate investigators that police chiefs in poppy growing areas "pay as much as $100,000 to get appointed to a job that pays $150 a month, with the knowledge that they will recoup far more in bribes and kickbacks."
Heroin Industry in Afghanistan
Afghanistan now accounts for 90 percent of all the heroin sold in the world and the report estimates the profits for the traffickers to be between $3 billion to $4 billion a year.
More than half of the significant attacks on coalition troops and Afghan soldiers occurred in the southern provinces, where the report said poppy cultivation and heroin manufacturing are concentrated.
Yet, according to the report, for most of the eight years since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, American and NATO forces "ignored the drug trade flourishing in front of their eyes."
Senate investigators found that the months-old Obama administration strategy "is still developing, and years of neglect must be undone." But the report said the U.S. military is finally learning to work alongside agents from the DEA, who previously had been given short shrift by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his top generals.
"No longer are U.S. commanders arguing that going after the drug lords is not part of their mandate," the report said.