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War on Drugs vs. War on Terror

Ineffectual US anti-drug policy undermines stability in Afghanistan.

by
Josh Strawn

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July 7, 2008 - 12:11 am
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Drug policy has been sculpted by notions of public morality, out of the supposed desire to maintain order and to preserve quality of life instead of letting it deteriorate. But the evidence proves that those objectives are not only failing to be met, the inverse is being accomplished. Drug policies — in particular those defined by eradication of crops and draw-down of demand — create more chaos than order, and destroy more lives than they save. This argument needs now to extend beyond the crack alleys of America and into rural Afghanistan, where farmers and their families — our potential allies in the quest for peace and stability in Afghanistan — are suffering because of our own stale ineffectual anti-drug policy.

Buckley goes on to cite a startling statistic about the economic dynamics of illegal drugs:

the pharmaceutical cost of cocaine and heroin is approximately 2 per cent of the street price of those drugs. Since a cocaine addict can spend as much as $1,000 per week to sustain his habit, he would need to come up with that $1,000. The approximate fencing cost of stolen goods is 80 per cent, so that to come up with $1,000 can require stealing $5,000 worth of jewels, cars, whatever. We can see that at free-market rates, $20 per week would provide the addict with the cocaine which, in this wartime drug situation, requires of him $1,000.

This point is relevant to our dilemma with the Afghan opposition for a single, obvious reason. Mark-up due to criminalization turns drugs into big business. Some of the revenues from that big business in America may funnel back into the economy as dealers buy fancy cars, and enjoy extravagant lifestyles, but in Afghanistan it buys arms for the enemy. But most importantly it delivers the hearts and minds of the population to those who protect their poppy harvest; and that, of course, is not the U.S. and its allies.

If the pharmaceutical price of heroin is two percent the street price, then one need only imagine the deflation in revenues for the Taliban if the product was no longer going to generate the inflated street price. But never mind street drugs. The majority of the world’s opium is sold to the world’s wealthiest nations for medical use. Who thinks that the world’s poorest nations have no use for those same medications? Why should farmers in Afghanistan starve, so that the infirmed in Uganda might suffer?

Fortunately, there are obvious solutions that can be implemented, but unfortunately nobody wants to come near them. As Frank Kenefick, a development specialist for USAID and former World Bank consultant told me, “the Taliban’s entry into the opium fields (as ‘protectors’ of the poor sharecropppers and growers) was a political and insurgency coup handed to them by INL’s ignorance of insurgency and drugs control.”

But Kenefick believes that, if only policymakers could quietly gulp down their pride and change the failed strategies of the past, Afghanistan could survive and begin to stabilize. For now, though, the path is a direct one toward factionalization and growing mistrust, which he believes will create dire circumstances vis-a-vis Pakistan, should matters continue to progress along the present trajectory.

Faced with the choice between saving face and achieving victory on behalf of the peaceful, moderate Afghans in whose interests we are supposed to be fighting, the current administration appears to be choosing the former. Such stubbornness has been praised and sometimes rightly so, as the Bush administration has not failed to call militant theocratic fascism an unequivocal enemy of civilization. However, in having done so, it seems to have gotten perhaps too carried away with terms like the “War on Terror” and the “Taliban” as catch-all bogeymen. By grouping all opposition forces under the “Taliban” rubric, Kenefick says, continuing mistakes in strategy “have been covered by masking activities under a (domestic media) ‘counterterrorism’ banner. Afghans desperately need real economic help — including an interim ‘legalization’ of the poppy while other agricultural production can be re-established — and regional/socio-ethnic political reconciliations.”

As long as we define victory in the War on Drugs as the eradication of criminalized and thus overpriced substances and all those involved in the highly lucrative distribution and thereof, while defining victory in the War on Terror as the defeat of the “Taliban” as opposed to the more accurate jihadist forces in places like Afghanistan, the War on Drugs will continue to undermine the War on Terror.

This is purely a consequence of our own self-imposed conceptual framework. We may not have control over what rogue Islamists do with their time and resources, but we have absolute control over whether we choose to allow the truly un-winnable war on drugs to stop us from defeating the most ruthless adversaries of democracy.

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Josh Strawn is a writer and musician based in New York. His band is Blacklist.
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