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War on Drugs vs. War on Terror

Ineffectual US anti-drug policy undermines stability in Afghanistan.

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July 7, 2008 - 12:11 am

It’s been suggested that in the War on Drugs there are no winners, only losers.

But as the UN reports that the Taliban pulled in over $100 million from 2007′s opium trade, and still more from opium trade-related activities, that suggestion is being proven sorely incorrect. David Belgrove, head of counter narcotics at the British embassy in Kabul reports to BBC News that “a lot of [the Taliban's] arms and ammunition are being funded directly by the drugs trade.” Definitions regarding the terms of victory for our war efforts in the Middle East and Central Asia have always been contentious. But these findings and the manner in which they have been presented, make clear that debates surrounding definitions of the enemy, the war, and even definitions of public morality, need deeper resolutions before we can make sense of what progress might look like on any front.

Maybe it’s because the question of drug legalization so immediately conjures images of adolescent pseudo-politicized dope smokers that serious people seem disinclined to take the subject very seriously anymore. Conservatives tend toward disdain for such contingents while liberals want to be sure their politics are taken seriously, not as some extension of the free-wheeling 60′s.

But the War on Drugs has been undermining the War on Terror for long enough now that it’s time to reconsider both sides’ lack of consideration to what is an extremely pressing topic.

The conservative aversion to placating the druggie polity is, however, less warranted than some might initially think. While it may go without saying that libertarianism and conservatism are not uncomfortable bedfellows, and that libertarians often advocate drug legalization, what many conservatives may not know is what one of their great sages, the late William F. Buckley, had to say on the matter. In a statement to the New York Bar Association published by the National Review in 1996, Buckley said,

…more people die every year as a result of the war against drugs than die from what we call, generically, overdosing. These fatalities include, perhaps most prominently, drug merchants who compete for commercial territory, but include also people who are robbed and killed by those desperate for money to buy the drug to which they have become addicted.

When Buckley made this observation we were not yet engaged in a counterinsurgency against jihadist and non-jihadist opposition in the heartland of poppy country. He was only making inferences based on statistical evidence in regards to domestic policy. Today, we may now pause to consider a darker, more drastic iteration of Buckley’s point with international implications: a significant amount of casualties from the War on Drugs must be added to those from the War on Terror, and then compared to the statistics on death from possible drug overdose.

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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