The DEA FAST are an elite tactical unit which focuses exclusively on counter-narcotics (CN) operations. There are only five of these teams within the administration with one permanently stationed in Afghanistan. They are there to conduct CN and counterterrorist missions as Afghanistan is the world’s most prolific narcotics production and trafficking countries.

Although they are designated as law enforcement officers, they are trained like every other special operations unit via the U.S. Special Operations Command in the use of advanced weapons, strategies, and technologies. They conduct operations throughout the world’s most prolific narcotics production regions, and they also enjoy an open-ended legal framework which allows them to target and remove potential threats to the United States of America.

The DEA website details how FAST jobs require their operatives to master: covert infiltration of hostile zones, long distance marksmanship, interrogation and intelligence gathering, immediate battlefield decision-making, work seamlessly within a diverse tactical unit, operate communications equipment and vehicles within high risk situations, and establish intelligence resources within criminal organizations.

It also states that FAST recruits will receive training by the U.S. Special Operations Command in areas such as: close quarter combat shooting, surveillance detection, small unit tactics, combat lifesaving, IED and demolitions identification, counter-threat driving, land warfare, escape and evasion methods, convoy operations, and counter-narcotic tactical police operations.

It is not hard to draw parallels between the capabilities of the DEA FAST and any other special operations outfit working in Afghanistan. Even though they are classified as law enforcement and not military, their training and capability has allowed them to operate in the most dangerous of countries targeting the most deadly of organisations and individuals. Wherever there is a strong drugs trade, there are equally dangerous groups willing to protect their lucrative source of income. Afghanistan is certainly no exception.

With over 90% of the world’s non-pharmaceutical grade opiates originating from the country which equates to upward of $4 billion in export value annually, the insurgency certainly has a vested interest in maintaining its production and distribution channels.

The author seen here (left) on board a Mil Mi-17 helicopter with a DEA FAST Team Commander (right) during a counternarcotics operation in southern Afghanistan.

The KCO’s and Rick knew that a potential relationship would be mutually beneficial, and it was up to Rick to navigate the plethora of Australian Government policy and SOTG directives to make it happen. Rick was realistic in his outlook, though, and he told the KCO that the concept was unlikely to progress any further than just a great idea. Despite the obvious and glaring hurdles standing in his way, there was absolutely no way Rick was going to stop pursuing this until every possible avenue was exhausted. Rick subsequently immersed himself into all of the SOTG policy and directives in order to find a potential loophole that he could exploit.

Whilst reading through the riveting directives relating to the hair cuts and dress and bearing of deployed operators, Rick found what he was looking for in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) Counter Narcotics Directive. The Directive was written in a way which was very specific in some guidance, but rather open ended in others. It gave Rick the open he was searching for and he presented a proposal to the SOTG CO shortly after. The CO was clearly impressed with the tenacity and perseverance of Rick. He didn’t know whether to think it genius or madness that it had got to the point it had by that stage. Regardless, he gave Rick permission to commence the staff work to get the concept of the SOTG conducting counter-narcotics operations approved.

This was by no means an easy feat and it almost entirely consumed the next six months of Rick’s life. The military can be a slow moving beast at the best of times, and the staff process for Rick’s brain child was certainly no exception. The proposal hit every kind of obstacle as soon as it left SOCOMD and made its way through the conventional hierarchy. In fact, there were a number of officers and civilian advisors who were quite outspoken and against the idea altogether, with some slowing down the process as much as they possibly could.

One delay in particular revolved around a female civilian advisor to one of the most senior commanders in the ISAF hierarchy. She told Rick that his proposal was being shelved for nearly two months as she was trying push through the Female Engagement Team (FET) concept. It was obviously a frustrating time but Rick saw it as just another hurdle that needed to be dealt with. He took everything in his stride and his perseverance did not waiver in the slightest.

Once I heard this, however, I could not help but feel frustration on behalf of Rick. From my experience, FET centric operations were, for the most part, the most tactically and culturally ineffective – although politically admirable – concept that we ever engaged in. The SOTG incorporated a number of FET’s on low key operations which were an absolute waste of time.

One operation we conducted near the Mirabad Valley saw two female interpreters accompany the FET in an attempt to try and engage the local female population in some capacity. One of the interpreters looked like she tipped the scales at around 110 kg (242 lbs) which ultimately saw the days events revolved around the local male population flocking to see a novelty which they had clearly never seen before.

They were trying to offer us gifts and their most prized possessions in order to secure the rights to owning this woman. Not one local female came out to the Medical Civil Action Program (MEDCAP) nor engaged with the FET or interpreters. I’m sure other task forces may have had different stories, but this was our overall exposure to a concept that just reeked of political correctness. Rather than seeing the potential effect that joint operations between the SOTG and DEA FAST was going to have on the insurgency, it just appeared that certain individuals were pushing their own agenda and, unknowingly or knowingly, curtailing what became some of the most effective operations in our unit’s history.

Like any well calibrated special operations leader, though, Rick was always looking for ways to efficiently expedite the process. Sure enough, one presented itself when the Minister for Defence (MINDEF) was visiting Afghanistan and met with the SOTG CO. Rick made sure he was there for the meeting and the CO presented his idea to MINDEF directly, thus circumventing the bureaucratic inefficiencies that had been stalling the process from the beginning. MINDEF saw the logic in the proposal and was just as keen to get the idea underway as Rick and the CO were. After he personally approved the concept of operations, the outspoken staff officers and civilian advisors suddenly had a change of heart and were also on board and backing the plan.

(Part four to follow)