Three U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents were killed on a U.S. military helicopter that crashed in western Afghanistan yesterday during a counternarcotics mission, according to two law-enforcement sources who asked not to be identified.
The deaths of the three federal drug agents—along with seven U.S. members of the military on the flight—underscored the sharp escalation in the DEA's presence in Afghanistan in recent months as NATO forces make fighting the drug trade a major focus in their war against the Taliban.
The three agents were the first from DEA to lose their lives in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. All three were described as veteran agents; their identities won't be released until officials have a chance to notify the families. "This is tough," said one DEA veteran. "It's a small agency that's like a close-knit family."
The deaths—on what turned out to be an exceptionally bloody day for U.S. forces, with 14 people killed overall on Sunday—are also certain to highlight the mounting risks in the U.S. fight in Afghanistan. The DEA agents were accompanied by U.S. Marine and U.S. Army special forces. Their chopper went down after a firefight, but one source said the crash appears to have been unrelated to hostile fire.
U.S. officials say they have found growing evidence of connections between the Taliban and the heroin trade, causing the U.S. military—working closely with the DEA—to step up raids on drug trafficking sites. DEA officials recently confirmed that the agency's own presence in Afghanistan has increased sharply, from 13 agents to about 80.