Abandon the Drug War to Save It

by Joshua Foust on 3/4/2010 · 5 comments

I wish the Marine Corps would make up its mind: are they going after drugs or not?

Even by Afghan standards, it was a startling find: An opium packaging workshop, buried under donkey dung and old hay in a stable that U.S. Marines turned into a patrol base in southern Afghanistan.

Two U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration employees nosing around the base found more than two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of opium, five large bags of poppy seeds, some 50 sickles, jugs and a large scale for measuring opium.

When the Marines leave the compound this week, though, they won’t detain the old, bearded Afghan man suspected of owning the hidden cache. Instead, they’ll hand him $600 in rent for using his place as a base.

Okay, so in fairness it’s the DEA continuing to do the DEA’s least effective mission (hunting drugs) while the Marines seem to embody all the wonderful counterinsurgency ideas we expect them to. (Glad to know they’re seizing currency and bagel toppings, right?) That’s a start at least. And it gets us part of the way toward the counterintuitive idea that abandoning the drug war is actually the best way to win it.

That doesn’t mean it comes without cost. Russia, on whom the U.S. depends for a growing amount of its supply chain, is pressuring a stepped up drug war. It makes sense from a Russian perspective, as Russia and Iran right now bear the brunt of Afghanistan’s opium traffic (and thus opium addiction). And it’s resulted in the U.S. issuing hasty denials that it is, in fact, walking away from focusing on opium.

Indeed, one of the dark secrets of opium in Afghanistan is that simply declaring an area “poppy-free”—as the UNODC does via satellite imagery—doesn’t mean it’s actually free of poppy. The last several years of outrageous production surpluses mean Afghanistan alone could supply the entire planet for years and still have some leftover for the next year. And just as interestingly, more and more processing labs are migrating into the country.

We first saw this on any real scale in 2005, when Gul Agha Sherzai terrorized Nangarharis into not planting opium and crashed the local economy. The traffickers instead cut deals with local counternarcotics officials and built several dozen processing labs. Further north, in provinces like Balkh, actual growing of opium has stopped for the most part. But it is a major trafficking route, and its influence is arguably bigger than ever.

This is because for most of the country, opium underpins the economy. We cannot destroy opium without also destroying the economy. So the Marines’ tactics in Marjeh—of compensating an opium processor when the DEA comes and ruins his ability to generate income—is an enormously positive step, a brief flash of hope that maybe, just maybe, the military can wrap its head around prioritizing the insurgency over the drugs.

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This post was written by...

– 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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David M March 4, 2010 at 12:50 pm

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 03/04/2010 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

monte lasagna March 4, 2010 at 6:38 pm

the cancer that is the drug war on people continues to metastasize.

the vampire orgs at the top of the food chain make too much money to stop the war.

you’ve got all these facts at your fingertips but no mention that the taliban reduced poppy production NINETY-FIVE PER CENT ten years ago.

now think creatively.

Baildog March 4, 2010 at 6:54 pm

So if we adopt Taleban tactics, we can kill the CANCER and thus starve the VAMPIRES!!? Is that your creative plan?

Toryalay Shirzay March 4, 2010 at 11:14 pm

NOTICE,NOTICE,NOTICE TO ALL!! especially Yankee doodle dandys!
Millions of cold cash mostly US dollars are hand carried to Dubai from Kabul through the airport;read Washington Post,Feb.25,2010.
Talk about corruption,you ain’t seen nothing yet.
New York Times,Dexter Filkins,where are you?? Hey ,hey ,we all should know about this;follow the money and we will find the truth.There got to be some Yanks with guts left out there,now get going,don’t give me that s**t.

Aurelia March 9, 2010 at 5:12 pm

Perfect. http://www.ergistan.net is amazing.

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