Within the borders of the United States, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have often provoked controversy. Abroad, however, these two security agencies have enjoyed a more positive reception. 

Afghanistan and Iraq, two war zones where few Americans even know that the DEA and FBI have operated, offer the best examples. Whereas Western intelligence agencies and militaries have struggled to make significant headway, the DEA and FBI cemented the rule of law in both countries.

In Afghanistan, which produced 80 percent of the world’s opium in 2018, the DEA collaborated with local law enforcement agencies to combat the illegal drug trade. American special agents guided and trained the Sensitive and Technical Investigative Units, components of the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics—dedicated to fighting drug lords. The DEA and its local counterparts managed to capture several kingpins, among them Haji Bagcho and Khan Mohammad.

In Iraq, the FBI was overseeing a parallel effort to rebuild the country’s capacity for law enforcement.

A thousand miles away in Iraq, the FBI was overseeing a parallel effort to rebuild the country’s capacity for law enforcement. American special agents taught Iraqi police officers techniques for conducting intelligence analysis and counteracting kidnapping, organized crime, and terrorism. FBI-facilitated Iraqi security agencies grew better resourced and more sophisticated.

Though the DEA dominated Afghanistan and the FBI Iraq, the two security agencies worked in one another’s territory more than once. FBI special agents often joined American commandos on raids in Afghanistan, and the DEA helped the Iraqi Interior Ministry limit narcotrafficking.

The DEA and FBI’s involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq peaked during the height of U.S. presence in both countries during the late 2000s and early 2010s. The two law enforcement agencies, which report to the U.S. Justice Department, fell outside the purview of the generals prosecuting the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Even so, both relied on the security guaranteed by the deployment of tens of thousands of American soldiers. When most American troops withdrew from both countries, so did the special agents of the DEA and FBI.

At one point, the U.S. had over one hundred DEA employees stationed in Afghanistan. By 2011, though, that presence had dwindled by a quarter to seventy-five, all of them restricted to the cities of Herat, Jalalabad, Kandahar, and Kunduz. Neither the DEA nor the FBI have released statistics on the number of special agents and other employees in Afghanistan and Iraq now, but it has likely shrunk in unison with the departure of American soldiers from both countries.

The U.S. had one-hundred thousand soldiers in Afghanistan in 2010, and 160 thousand in Iraq in 2007, enabling the DEA and the FBI to deploy officials across the countryside and fulfill their mission in every corner of the region. Today, the U.S. has redeployed about five thousand troops to Iraq after withdrawing them all in 2011. Around twelve thousand remain in Afghanistan.

At the same time, much of the progress which DEA and FBI special agents had risked their lives for has disappeared. As Afghan soldiers continue to lose ground to the Taliban, Afghanistan is redirecting resources from counter-narcotics to counter-insurgency, and officials plan to disband the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics. 

In Iraq, Iranian-funded militias involved in organized crime and war crimes have infiltrated the same law enforcement agencies that the FBI spent years building. In the absence of the DEA and FBI, the rule of law has crumbled.

Meanwhile in Iraq, Iranian-funded militias involved in organized crime and war crimes have infiltrated the same law enforcement agencies that the FBI spent years building. In the DEA and FBI’s absence, the rule of law has crumbled.

The cultivation of opium in Afghanistan increased 63 percent from 2016 to 2018, well after the American withdrawal had begun. In more recent months, overwhelmed Iraqi security agencies have shot dozens of protesters demonstrating against their ill-equipped government, undermining confidence in the ability of Iraqi police officers to respect the laws that they enforce.

Countless factors have played a role in Afghanistan and Iraq’s challenges with the rule of law, foremost among them their ongoing battles against political corruption and terrorism. However, the American pullback from both countries and the departure of DEA and FBI special agents in particular has done little to improve respect for due process in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the U.S. wants to stabilize both countries, sending more DEA and FBI officials there would represent a start.

Without the DEA’s assistance, Afghan law enforcement agencies likely would have struggled to arrest a ranking Taliban drug lord and seize twenty tons of opium in 2016. For its part, the FBI not only developed Iraqi intelligence and law enforcement agencies but also investigated crimes on their behalf. A former FBI special agent also assisted in the establishment of the Commission on Integrity, an Iraqi government agency specializing in countering corruption. On the brink of civil war, Afghanistan and Iraq would benefit from this kind of help now more than ever.

On the brink of civil war, Afghanistan and Iraq would benefit from this kind of help now more than ever.

As the American airstrike that killed the Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani and his Iraqi deputy Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis in Baghdad turns public opinion in Iraq against the U.S., the DEA and the FBI could put a friendlier face on the U.S. presence in the Greater Middle East. Regardless of the controversy surrounding American military interventions in the region, few Afghans and Iraqis would refuse the U.S. making their security agencies more accountable and effective.

Many Americans, like their Afghan and Iraqi counterparts, have grown weary of the U.S. decades-long military involvement in the Greater Middle East. Nonetheless, the DEA and FBI barely turned heads when they first expanded their presence there in the early 2000s. 

Both security agencies strengthened the rule of law in Afghanistan and Iraq, a result that benefited the two countries and their American backers alike. If the U.S. wants to reestablish a semblance of stability in Afghanistan and Iraq, the DEA and the FBI likely know where to start.