Oh God Please No

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by Joshua Foust on 8/10/2009 · 7 comments

So it turns out Helmand was just a sideshow. I kind of figured as much, but the reasons why turn out to be appalling:

Fifty Afghans believed to be drug traffickers with ties to the Taliban have been placed on a Pentagon target list to be captured or killed, reflecting a major shift in American counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, according to a Congressional study to be released this week.

United States military commanders have told Congress that they are convinced that the policy is legal under the military’s rules of engagement and international law. They also said the move is an essential part of their new plan to disrupt the flow of drug money that is helping finance the Taliban insurgency.

Christ. Michael Cohen only goes part of the way here. You kind of knew this was coming, given a well-publicized piece of sensationalism on the topic, along with General Craddock’s quasi-illegal order to kill drug traffickers. The trouble is, killing the engine of Afghanistan’s rural economy doesn’t address the fundamental problem, which is that opium is an indicator, not a cause, of other, deeper issues like a lack of institutions, severe insecurity, and crap infrastructure.

Then there is the bigger problem of how you build and do other COIN-y things in a crashed economy. I have reservations stil about Richard Holbrooke, but he is absolutely right to say that going after opium is the easiest and most reliable way of pushing people into the arms of the Taliban. And we’ve known this for years, but choose to ignore it in self-righteous fury over the evils of drugs.

That isn’t something to write off. Jeff Stein points out a very worrying development: Congressmen think the focus of the war in Afghanistan should be on drugs. That is not why we invaded the country, and it is not why we supported the war.

I swear to God some days I think we’re trying to lose.

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– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Jenson Daniel August 10, 2009 at 7:13 pm

Just a day before I read McChrystal’s interview in WSJ, all I could see was headlines saying President Obama was having a tough time coming up with metrics for Afghanistan.

I guess based on the success of global law enforcement in narcotics related financing, logistics, economics, and judicial actions, the US government identified a source of metrics. Drugs.

Accounts frozen. Hard currency and product seized. Acres of crops destroyed. Individuals captured and tried.

Dafydd August 11, 2009 at 7:15 am

Hmmmm, the Taliban have a mixed record on Drugs. I have no doubt they have used opium profits extensively, on the other hand they are about the only regime in recent history (possibly ever) to have put a stop to opium growing over there.

For that reason I would expect there to be some suspicion between religious Taliban and pure opium profiteers.

It is generally a mistake to unite ones enemies.

David M August 11, 2009 at 9:35 am

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 08/11/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

Nick August 11, 2009 at 11:38 am

It all begs the rather flippant and smart-alecky question: what about drug-traffickers not affiliated with the Taliban/insurgency/slash-whatever-it-was-called-at-the-last-military-press-briefing? If the mission in Afghanistan is morphing into a war on drugs, it’s a very warped war on drugs. You could call it moral midgetry.

Kasmir August 11, 2009 at 12:40 pm

Here’s a point of view about why this strategy might make sense. Hint: it has nothing to do with “War on Drugs” mission creep or other cynical nonsense:


AJK August 11, 2009 at 2:00 pm

That was interesting, but I think Mr. Fernandez is missing one key point: Afghanistan is not a free market economy. People don’t always get to simply choose who they want to be involved with. The issue is not the actual individuals who are dealing, in my mind, the issue is the smuggling routes. The Taliban (and innumerous other non-government folks) own the smuggling routes, so they’re the ones getting paid, not Kabul. So unless Kabul promises lower-level drug runners more efficiency than the other routes, they’re not going to get “adherents to their tribe.”

So it’s back to square one: the problem is lawlessness in Afghanistan. That’s nothing new, and killing drug barons is not going to change that in a positive way.

Also, am I the only one fascinated with how other online communities express themselves in comments? To wit: “For best effect the reward should be in terms of sheep and asses. The target audience is innumerate!” You keep it classy over there, folks.

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