U.S. Army Captain Saleem Sharif seemed like one of those extraordinary American success stories. He grew up poor near Charleston, South Carolina, and was raised by his single mother—an African-American Muslim who wanted her son to be the first in the family to graduate from college. Whip smart and hardworking, Sharif received a recommendation from the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, and in 1996 he earned a coveted appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. A photo taken not long thereafter shows a dignified and thoughtful young man, dressed in his uniform, sword in hand.
Sharif had that same air of dignity in September when I watched him shuffle into a federal courtroom in Delaware, wearing shackles and a brown prison jumpsuit. The 37-year-old had been caught shipping large quantities of heroin from Kabul, where he’d worked as a private contractor. Now, with his family nearby, Sharif sat at his sentencing, his chin in his hand, hoping to catch a break. His lawyer argued that Sharif’s time in service had given him post-traumatic stress disorder, that without the devastation of war he would never have become a smuggler.
During the Vietnam War, there were a number of cases of U.S. military personnel transporting heroin from Southeast Asia. But in the past 12 years, as hundreds of thousands of Americans cycled in and out of Afghanistan, Sharif is the only U.S. soldier or contractor ever caught running a large-scale Afghan heroin operation. In that sense, some 20 years after he left South Carolina, Sharif’s life remains an extraordinary American tale. Only now his story is no longer about success; it’s about what can happen when a nation marches off to war in a country that produces the bulk of the world’s heroin supply.
The first evidence of Afghan heroin in Delaware emerged in 2011, around the time the U.S. was still pushing a military “surge” in Afghanistan. Agent David Hughes, a wiry, 14-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Agency, led a team that found it stashed under a boulder near a running trail in a public park.
The person who left it there was a white kid from a rich family in Pennsylvania—a kid who’d become a dealer. He had purchased a half-kilo for $30,000 in cash in Washington, D.C., and the drugs came concealed in hundreds of plastic DVD cases. The rich kid had sold most of his product. But when he heard he was under investigation, he panicked and stashed a few ounces. Under interrogation, he told them where he’d hid the drugs.
When Hughes saw the heroin, he knew there was something distinctive about it. This batch had an unusual, almost sandy texture. “It was a darker brown,” Hughes says. “Colombian heroin is kind of tan.”
Hughes sent the sample in for testing. When the answer came back, he was surprised: Almost pure southwest Asian heroin—from Afghanistan. He knew there might be ramifications. “I was thinking we might have some military individuals involved,” he says.
He was right.
Except for the industries built around the war, opium is the largest business in Afghanistan. Whole neighborhoods in Kabul are built with drug money: large, garish homes on rutted streets. The country, which has a gross domestic product of $18 billion a year, brings in about $2 billion in annual revenue from its illegal drug exports alone, according to the United Nations. And that’s at rock-bottom prices.
Opium also plays an important role in the war. The Taliban taxes the drug to raise money. In 2001, when I was in Tajikistan, I saw a big bag of Afghan heroin stamped kafir (infidel) that had been seized. A number of prominent Afghan officials reportedly have their hands in the drug trade too. The most notorious, before his death in 2011, was allegedly Ahmed Walid Karzai, the brother of the Afghan president and the chief power broker of Kandahar.
Over the past decade, U.S. officials have publicly been alarmed at Afghanistan’s burgeoning heroin trade. But the armed forces has never bothered to spend valuable resources destroying opium and risk alienating whole tribes that relied on the product to survive. “We don’t trample the livelihood of those we’re trying to win over,” an American military official told The New York Times in 2010.
For years, the DEA has gone after Afghan drug lords, but most American authorities have never really cared about the heroin trade in Afghanistan, except when it directly helped the Taliban. In theory, Afghan heroin rarely comes to the U.S., which gets most of its dope from Colombia and Mexico. Instead, the Kabul connection is far more worrisome for Europe and Russia. It was during the Russian occupation of Afghanistan that the drug trade really started in earnest. Burned-out Soviet soldiers became addicts and smugglers, and the routes they carved through Central Asia during the Soviet drawdown have remained the most resilient for Afghan smugglers.
The military was Sharif’s ticket out of South Carolina, and he left home for West Point set on being a soldier. Though he reportedly had a photographic memory, in many ways Sharif seemed like a normal kid with an easy-going manner. He liked rap music and basketball and worked at a local fast-food joint. But in his Muslim household, he’d also been inculcated in the language of personal responsibility, of striving for success. In an article written about him in the local paper, Sharif offered advice to his fellow teenagers: “Think about what you’re doing before you doing anything foolish.”
At West Point, by all accounts, Sharif adapted well. He liked giving his fellow cadets haircuts to keep them in line with the school’s grooming standards, one of his friends said. Eventually, he became a field artillery officer and was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas, a sprawling Army Post near El Paso.
It was there in Texas that Sharif first saw drug dealing in the military. A female officer he knew, “suggested drug dealing as a way to make some money,” he would later say in court. Junior officers don’t get paid well, and while he recoiled at the idea, the thought remained in the back of his mind.
For years, there hadn’t been a major U.S. war, so military life changed with the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Sharif deployed to Iraq in March of 2004. It was one of the worst periods of the conflict. A pompous and clumsy U.S. provisional government watched impotently as chaos spiraled and American assumptions about the war continued to unravel. That month, insurgents killed four Blackwater contractors in Fallujah and strung their corpses from a bridge. The Marines responded by sieging the city, hoping to end the resistance. But all the offensive seemed to accomplish was to unite Sunnis and Shiites in mutual hatred of the United States.
Though he was trained in artillery, Sharif took on another role in Iraq. He worked in the public information office as a liaison to local reporters. Theoretically it should have been a good fit. As a Muslim, he could have served as an Islamic ambassador to the Iraqi press. But Sharif later said the job made him uncomfortable. At one point, an Iraqi named Mohammed came to Sharif, asking for U.S. protection. Sharif told him everything would be fine, but Mohammed’s request was denied, and he wound up dead. “I kind of shut down,” after that, Sharif said in court. “I felt I wasn’t a Muslim anymore. I took part in all this death of Muslims. I never got a handle on it.”
When he came back to Ford Hood in March of 2005, Sharif felt directionless. To cope, he started smoking a lot of weed. The military was under financial stress. Recruiting standards fell and on-base repairs never seemed to happen on time. Once vibrant Army towns became run-down and barren from extended deployments.
A month after he returned to the states, the acclaimed West Point grad quit the U.S. Army. With his six-year commitment over, Sharif started drifting and partying with friends. He tried to start an ice business. When it failed, he did what many out of work veterans do: He took a job in Afghanistan as a private contractor, making more money then he’d ever made in his life. It was one of those gigs that are common in modern day war zones. He worked as the IT guy at a help desk based in Camp Eggers, a military base in central Afghanistan. But before long, he developed other responsibilities.
Almost immediately, the DEA believes, Sharif began scoping out the local scene in Kabul for heroin. Once again, he had returned to a predominantly Muslim country that the U.S. was occupying. Only this time, he didn’t merely stew in his discomfort; instead, he set out to make money.
Sharif didn’t have to look far. The driver for his employer was a young, English-speaking Afghan named Sayyid Behrooz, and he knew exactly where to score. By Behrooz’s account, Sharif said he wanted to buy dope for $7,000 to $10,000 per kilo. It can easily sell for 10 times that back in the states. Sharif would later boast he was spending just $2,500 per kilo, a fantastic price for heroin that was nearly pure.
There was something else Sharif needed from Behrooz—movies on DVD, which were readily available in the street markets of Kabul. Behrooz promptly started buying bootleg DVDs—Band of Brothers, NCIS, whatever he could get his hands on.
These DVD cases became the secret to Sharif’s smuggling. Behrooz would later tell the DEA that he saw the former Army officer in his room in Kabul with a Foodsaver machine. The device is normally used to seal edibles, but Sharif had another purpose for it.
According to Behrooz, he packed heroin into thin wafers and sealed them up, compressing his product. He placed the dope into the small hollows of the DVD cases, and wrapped the case with the Foodsaver machine, as if it were ready to be sold at Best Buy.
Sharif then sent the DVD cases to his associates in the U.S. by military mail. For years, none of his shipments were intercepted. No drug-sniffing dogs could stop him, no X-rays could expose what was inside his care packages. This was the holy grail of heroin: His product was undetectable.
Around the time that the DEA found Afghan heroin stashed under a rock in a public park, Hughes and an assistant U.S. attorney named Robert “Rocky” Kravetz, were already making progress in a case against Ronaldo Edmund—the leader of midsize Delaware-based drug gang. Edmund’s group was smuggling heroin and cocaine into Texas through Panama. And their drug mules—mainly girls hiding product in their spandex pants—were having trouble making it across the border.
Just as in HBO’s The Wire, Hughes and Kravetz started using phone intercepts to gather evidence. But over the next few months, it became clear that something strange was going on. Phone numbers from Kabul kept showing up on the wire. “We learned,” Kravetz says, “that the Wilmington people had a secondary source. And the stuff they are getting is really pure.”
Hughes and Kravetz expanded their net. They worked with authorities in Kabul to try to tap those numbers to see where the drugs were coming from. It was an elaborate intelligence operation, and they were eager to nab the Afghan supplier.
Yet whoever was calling Edmund and company was smart; the Afghan numbers quickly changed, and so the drugs continued to flow, not only into Wilmington, but to other parts of the country as well—Texas, Louisiana, New York, Illinois, South Carolina and Michigan.
Finally, Hughes and Kravetz caught a break. They set up an undercover meeting between a confidential informant and a heroin supplier in Wilmington. “They were brokering a deal,” Hughes says, “to try to elicit more information about this military thing.”
At a red brick bodega in Wilmington, the source heard a dealer boasting about his connection to “military motherfuckers.” He said he could get some pure Afghan product.
The next month, as they continued wiretapping Edmund’s phone, they listened as he took a call from a man who went by the name of Tone. Edmund had experienced some recent setbacks, but Tone informed him about a promising supplier of some unusually pure heroin. He was “government, bro. He goes out there in the war in all that.”
Before long, they arrested a drug dealer in Texas, and he betrayed the identity of his military connection: former Army Captain Saleem Sharif.
In the spring of 2012, Sharif was back in the U.S. He’d been fired from his job in Kabul after a run-in with the Afghan police. Now he was spending money lavishly, drinking and smoking weed, drifting from one hotel to the next. “I felt hopelessly unable to stop the madness that was my every day reality,” he later wrote in a letter to the court.
As Sharif’s life spiraled, Hughes began trying to lure him in. He sent a confidential informant to set up a deal with the former Army Captain. And in April, as Sharif was living in New York, the informant finally got him to take the bait. Sharif agreed to bring 100 grams to Delaware as a taste for a larger deal. “Hopefully,” he told the man over the phone, “we’ll be able to knock this out and see you again real quick.”
Not long thereafter, Sharif arrived in Wilmington. Carrying a duffel bag filled with DVDs and a copy of the Quran, he walked through the brightly lit station and out into the sunlight. The informant was waiting in his car, and when Sharif put his bag in the trunk, Hughes and his team rushed in. They found Sharif’s heroin hidden in a DVD case labeled True Blood.
During the Vietnam War, drug smuggling routes from Southeast Asia sometimes involved military personnel. Frank Lucas, the legendary Harlem heroin king, claimed he smuggled his product in the coffins of slain soldiers. And General Vang Pao, one of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Laotian allies, even set up a heroin lab at a covert agency base from which he shipped his product back to the states.
Although Sharif is the only dealer who has been caught shipping heroin in bulk to the U.S. during the decade-plus that the country has been at war in Afghanistan, some people think that fact may be misleading. “To me it’s plausible—probable, that [heroin smuggling] has gone on a number of times,” says Douglas Wankel, a former DEA agent in Kabul who later led the U.S. Counternarcotics Task Force in the Afghan capital. “My guess is it has been happening, by virtue of the fact that we have so many people right there.”
Though investigators say Sharif sent between 10 and 15 kilos of heroin to the U.S., in his plea agreement, the South Carolina-native admitted to smuggling only two and half kilos.
At his sentencing in September, I watched as Sharif’s family shuffled into the courtroom to listen to the verdict. His mother, a stout African-American woman in a black chador rose at one point and sniffled as she asked the judge for mercy. Meanwhile, Sharif’s lawyer acted as a father figure, often putting his hand on the former Army captain’s shoulder or whispering something in his ear.
As the morning wore on, Sharif stood and spoke to the judge. It was the answer I had been waiting to hear, the explanation for what had happened—the reason behind why this child prodigy and West Point grad, whose mother once said her son could memorize an entire book, had fallen so far. Yet as he spoke, Sharif’s words seemed hollow, obvious. “In Iraq, there was a lot of death,” he said. As for the drug smuggling, he added, “I didn’t consider all the consequences.”
Now it was the judge’s term to speak—and he wasn’t moved. “I do accept that the defendant has post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. But he added, “I’m not convinced that PTSD impaired his ability to control his behavior.”
He sentenced Sharif to 10 years in prison.
Through his lawyer, the former Army captain declined to be interviewed for this story. Behrooz, his Afghan helper, pleaded guilty to money laundering, and his lawyer didn’t return my calls.
As the bailiff led him away, Sharif remained silent. In fact, that was his posture throughout the entire ordeal. He never flipped. He never named a warlord or contractor, or a fellow soldier in exchange for a lesser sentence.
And so I was left with a puzzle. If the prosecutors are right and Sharif smuggled between 10 and 15 kilos of heroin back to the states, he easily could have sold it wholesale for more than a million dollars. So where’s the rest of the money? And for that matter, where’s the rest of the heroin?