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The War on Drugs vs. the War on Terror - Redux:

Time and again, on this blog, I have warned that the War on Drugs is undermining the War on Terror in Afghanistan (see here, here, here, and here). As I explained in earlier posts, it does so in three separate ways: By diverting valuable resources away from military missions to poppy eradication; by creating a black market that provides the Taliban with the lion's share of its income; and by antagonizing rural Afghans who then start to support the Taliban or at least become less likely to provide valuable assistance and information to NATO and Afghan government forces. If the poppy eradication campaign were ended and opium production in Afghanistan legalized, legitimate businesses would begin to compete with the Taliban, and poppy growers would no longer have an incentive to support them.

In this recent Washington Post article, Misha Glenny - who is writing a book about the misguided global War on Drugs, provides further grist for my mill:

Despite the presence of 35,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan, the drug trade there is going gangbusters. According to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghan opium production in 2006 rose a staggering 57 percent over the previous year. Next month, the United Nations is expected to release a report showing an additional 15 percent jump in opium production this year while highlighting the sobering fact that Afghanistan now accounts for 95 percent of the world's poppy crop....

In the past two years, the drug war has become the Taliban's most effective recruiter in Afghanistan. Afghanistan's Muslim extremists have reinvigorated themselves by supporting and taxing the countless peasants who are dependent one way or another on the opium trade, their only reliable source of income. The Taliban is becoming richer and stronger by the day, especially in the east and south of the country. The "War on Drugs" is defeating the "war on terror."

Glenny notes that the War on Drugs has had similar perverse effects elsewhere in the world. As they say, read the whole thing.

Unfortunately, the Bush Administration remains committed to waging a large-scale poppy eradication campaign in Afghanistan, and the Democratic Congress has shown no inclination to challenge this policy.

So let me once again pose two questions that I articulated in earlier posts on this topic, one to drug war supporters, and one to congressional Democrats:

1. Even if you disagree with me on the overall desirability of the War on Drugs, is fighting the Afghan drug trade really more important than fighting the War on Terror? If one gets in the way of the other, should we not sacrifice the campaign against Afghan poppies rather than the campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda?

2. Congressional Democrats say that they are serious about fighting the War on Terror, and have repeatedly emphasized (with some justification) that the Bush Administration has dropped the ball in Afghanistan. If you truly are serious about improving the conduct of the war in Afghanistan, why not start by denying the use of US government funds for poppy eradication campaigns in that country? Why not instead devote those funds (at least $600 million for last year alone) to military operations and infrastructure development? You can simultaneously improve the conduct of the war and repudiate a failed Bush Administration policy. What's not to like?

Yes, the general public probably won't support a complete repeal of the War on Drugs here in the US. But they are unlikely to care much (or even know about) the elimination of poppy eradication programs in Afghanistan. In any event, Congress' record-low approval rating has nowhere to go but up!

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. The War on Drugs Undermines the War on Terror Yet Again:
  2. The War on Drugs vs. the War on Terror - Redux:
rbj:
And I'd submit that the War on Drugs has done more harm to our civil liberties (destruction of federalism, civil forfeiture laws) than the WoT.
8.21.2007 2:06pm
unhyphenatedconservative (mail):
Why would legalization automatically make the Taliban's opium funds wither away? Assuming that the Taliban has direct interest in some farms right now, wouldn't they simply continue producing? And wouldn't the Taliban just target those farms of non-supporters, if not driving them out of business then at least driving the prices from those farms higher than the Taliban affiliate farms that don't have to deal with terrorist attacks?
8.21.2007 2:13pm
Pyrrhus (mail) (www):
unhyphenated-

The point is that otherwise disinterested peasants looking to grow poppy currently find protection only from the Taliban. If the Afghan government does not pursue poppy growers, these poppy growers ought not gravitate toward the Taliban.
8.21.2007 2:20pm
Shake-N-Bake:
Here's the problem, and the Democrats know it -- voting to end the poppy eradication will definitely be known, because the GOP will make for darn sure that people do in the next election cycle. Nuance doesn't work very well while the easy one-liner seems to work very well, because people are often too lazy to look into nuance, they like the easy answer. "Democrats allowed rampant heroin production" is a lot easier to get out there than "We Democrats took money from the poppy eradication to better fund the war on terror in Afghanistan, and our plan will make people like us better in Afghanistan and help us against the Taliban".

Almost no one votes against any War on Drugs stuff because it's political suicide for people in both parties. The 'law-and-order' GOP set would go nuts, and there are plenty of Democrats who would hate it too. The libertarians and the hippie left aren't nearly enough to save a candidate from the wrath of the suburban moms, GOP or Dem.
8.21.2007 2:22pm
Ilya Somin:
Why would legalization automatically make the Taliban's opium funds wither away?

Because legal producers would compete with them, and poppy farmers would no longer need Taliban protection.

Assuming that the Taliban has direct interest in some farms right now, wouldn't they simply continue producing?

Maybe, but they would be at a disadvantage relative to legal producers.

And wouldn't the Taliban just target those farms of non-supporters, if not driving them out of business then at least driving the prices from those farms higher than the Taliban affiliate farms that don't have to deal with terrorist attacks?

Maybe, but that would drive the farmers into the arms of NATO and the Afghan government - the reverse of the process we are seeing today. Moreover, Taliban-affiliated farms would then be the only illegal ones, which would give THEM a major competitive disadvantage.
8.21.2007 2:24pm
Ilya Somin:
And I'd submit that the War on Drugs has done more harm to our civil liberties (destruction of federalism, civil forfeiture laws) than the WoT.

I agree, and civil forfeiture laws are just one small part of the civil liberties harm caused by the WoD.
8.21.2007 2:25pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
I understand that you are against the "war on drugs", a phrase that is used many times in your post. But what are you for? Do you support the legalization in the U.S. of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine? (For the record, I do.) If so, for purposes of transparency you should say this up front. After all, it is easy to support allowing poppy production in Afghanistan if one also supports allowing heroin sales in the US. But your argument about Afghanistan then becomes very weak for those who support laws against heroin in the US.

Imagine, for example, that the main source of income in Afghanistan was the international trade in sex slaves. Would you still be complaining about the "war on slavery" and the horrible effect it is having on the war on terror? Or would you instead accept the fact that there are conflicting values at stake here, and difficult tradeoffs to be made?
8.21.2007 2:41pm
Kelvin McCabe:
Thank you once again Mr. Somin for raising awareness on this important issue. I'm afraid your plea to the Congress will fall on deaf ears, lest they be tagged as "pro-drug" or simply "soft on crime". Its been the bogey man of the medical marijuana movement here, despite consistent polling that says a majority of Americans support the right to use medical marijuana for the seriously ill. If you could persuade them to think that they are not pro-drug but rather- pro war on terror, and change the theme of the debate, we might get somewhere, although again, i am hesistant to think the politicians would be brave enough to stand on principle and would rather play it safe to not give the opposition any ammunition to attack them with. See the recent vote on the Hinchey Rohrbacher amendment to end federal raids on medical marijuana patients in states that legalized it - - only a handful of Repubs signed on to that, and that is a federalism/state's rights issue - so its not just dems that need to be brow beaten with your excellent points regarding the failed war on drugs.

Unhyphenated - assuming the Afghan government legalized, not just decriminalized, but fully legalized poppy production, and also set up a network of buyers - say the U.S., the U.N., etc...and these countries and organizations bought up the entire regulated poppy production and diverted the product to legitimate medical ventures, or simply stored it away safe (or destroyed it), what do you think the result would be?

Yes, subsidizing the poppy production may seem radical, but is it more radical than subsidizing the continued recruitment and financing of the Taliban by spending hundres of millions on eradication - eradication that DOES NOT WORK (See e.g, Plan Columbia, after many years and hundreds of millions of dollars, cocaine is as plentiful and cheap as ever). Eradication efforts in Aghanistan have already commenced with Britain's help in partnership with Hamid Karzai - and lo and behold, production is up ONCE AGAIN. Adhering to a failed policy that helps our enemies in numerous ways is not only counter-productive, its borderline insane.
8.21.2007 2:56pm
Wes Johnson:
If anyone actually bothered to read the constitution, they would know that the federal government has no business playing poppyseed police halfway around the world.
8.21.2007 3:02pm
stormy (mail):
I have a serious problem with the authors contention that opium production is being exploited by the Taliban. They were the ones who eradicated opium production in the first place. I would bet the Bush administration is doing as much to eradicate Afghan opium production as they are securing our border. My personal opinion is the administration is simply paying lip service to eradication. The steady increase in production since the arrival of NATO forces would tend to back this up.
8.21.2007 3:05pm
ramster (mail):
There's a way around the problem that avoids actual legalization or any drug war policy changes in the US (though god knows they're needed): the allies need to set a price for poppies that is higher than the current market price and start buying it all up (and then destroy it). Naturally this will drive the price up for poppies produced for drug production but those poppies should be targeted for aggressive eradication. It'll cost a few billion but it'll be money well spent.
8.21.2007 3:08pm
PersonFromPorlock:
The problem with legalizing drugs -- anywhere -- that nobody seems to notice is that the existing drug cartels don't hesitate to kill people. Their simple option is to kill any 'legal' drug growers or distributors who compete with them, meaning that market-based solutions to 'the drug problem' are, at this late date, so much random noise.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban would simply kill any farmer who tried to stop growing poppies, or who sold them to the often suggested Allied poppy-buying program or to a non-Taliban distributor.
8.21.2007 3:10pm
Ilya Somin:
I have a serious problem with the authors contention that opium production is being exploited by the Taliban. They were the ones who eradicated opium production in the first place.

Yes, the Taliban repressed Opium production when they were in power. But they have pursued the opposite tack since they were overthrown in 2001.
8.21.2007 3:20pm
stormy (mail):
I have yet to see any information that the Taliban are profiting from opium production. They are violently oppossed to it on religious grounds. The Afghan government has nothing to gain by eradicating opium production. Obviously it's their #1 source of income and would not be well recieved by the populace.
8.21.2007 3:22pm
Ilya Somin:
The problem with legalizing drugs -- anywhere -- that nobody seems to notice is that the existing drug cartels don't hesitate to kill people. Their simple option is to kill any 'legal' drug growers or distributors who compete with them, meaning that market-based solutions to 'the drug problem' are, at this late date, so much random noise.

3 points:

1. The same argument could be made against abolishing alcohol Prohibition. Yet, organized crime lost control of alcohol production soon after Prohibition was repealed, despite their very real willingness to kill.

2. It would be impossible for the Taliban to kill hundreds of thousands of Afghan farmers - especially not with NATO forces available to protect them.

3. The Taliban even trying to kill large numbers of people would drive the Afghan population into the arms of NATO and Karzai's government.
8.21.2007 3:22pm
ramster (mail):
The Taliban aren't storm troopers that dropped out of the sky. They come from the same general local area as the farmers and aren't all powerful. Remember that this is a counter-insurgency and the key objective is for the interests of the local people (i.e. the poppy farmers) to be better served supporting and working with NATO troops and the Afghan government/army rather than the Taliban. Yes the Taliban will try and intimidate and kill farmers who sell into the poppy-buying program. But we'll be trying to kill them and the more local support we get, the more effective we'll become at it. Right now, the Taliban are the good guys for many local farmers. NATO is destroying their livelihoods whereas the Taliban is doing the opposite...not a great way to win hearts and minds.
8.21.2007 3:25pm
Ketut (mail):
PersonFromPorlock: Drug cartels gain their power BECAUSE the drugs are illegal. If drugs were legalized (in any country), ANYONE could start up a drug business. As such, profit margins would drop dramatically. The cartel's funds would drop off.

Killing people costs money. The cartels see as a maintenance cost. The more they kill, the more money is required to remain unnoticed by the authorities, and the more money is required to continue killing people.

Marijuana is a good example. If it were legalized, so many people would cultivate it (it'll grow damn near anywhere) that the price would drop so drastically low that a cartel would have almost no profit margin in it.

If the USA (or any other developed country) legalized all drugs, that country could produce them all, thus taking a significant portion of the *buyers* away from the cartels.

In the end, it all boils down to capitalism. Supply goes up, demand (and price) goes down. Simple as that.
8.21.2007 3:57pm
Matt S.:
Moreover, just look at history (think Opium wars, Prohibition).

Imagine, for example, that the main source of income in Afghanistan was the international trade in sex slaves. Would you still be complaining about the "war on slavery" and the horrible effect it is having on the war on terror? Or would you instead accept the fact that there are conflicting values at stake here, and difficult tradeoffs to be made? (LTEC)

Slavery is hardly economically similar to selling drugs.
Though I suppose legalizing prostitution would have a positive effect on the sex slave industry by making available alternatives that are morally less expensive.
8.21.2007 4:07pm
amper:
Perhaps we just haven't been going about the eradication project efficiently enough to have enough of an impact?

Regardless, I support legalization of both Papaver Somniferum and Cannabis Sativa (both industrial and medicinal varieties). These are two of the most useful known plants on Earth, and it boggles the imagination that they are banned substances in much of the world. The benefits of legalization cannot be argued without resorting to intellectual dishonesty.
8.21.2007 4:53pm
Adeez (mail):
To add to the chorus: MSNBC recently did some purported expose on how dangerous Mexican cartels use our precious national parklands to grow Mary Jane. They made sure to scare the hell out of the viewer of these threats, and harped on how our beautiful parks are being vandalized.

To any right-thinking person, the obvious conclusion is that these dangers just add to the list of reasons why it should be legalized. But no, not in this bizarro mainstream media-Big Brother world, where if you smoke MJ, you're supporting Mexican criminals and destroying our national parkland. Unbelievable.
8.21.2007 5:24pm
Smokey:
amper:
These are two of the most useful known plants on Earth, and it boggles the imagination that they are banned substances in much of the world.
Those banning something attain power. That's why they do it. Look at who's pushing to ban a completely benign substance like CO2 -- an ingredient as necessary to plant life as oxygen is to animal life. But by making CO2/carbon evil, the nameless, faceless bureaucrat class and their controllers greatly benefit -- at the direct expense of everyone's personal liberty.
8.21.2007 5:29pm
Ilya Somin:
Imagine, for example, that the main source of income in Afghanistan was the international trade in sex slaves. Would you still be complaining about the "war on slavery" and the horrible effect it is having on the war on terror? Or would you instead accept the fact that there are conflicting values at stake here, and difficult tradeoffs to be made?

It is precisely because there are tradeoffs to be made that I advocate sacrificing the "value" of the War on Drugs to the much more important objective of winning the War on Terror. If the drug trade were as evil as slavery, then I might have a different view. However, the two are not even remotely comparable - even for most people who support the War on Drugs (as I do not).
8.21.2007 5:57pm
Ilya Somin:
I understand that you are against the "war on drugs", a phrase that is used many times in your post. But what are you for? Do you support the legalization in the U.S. of hard drugs such as heroin and cocaine? (For the record, I do.) If so, for purposes of transparency you should say this up front. After all, it is easy to support allowing poppy production in Afghanistan if one also supports allowing heroin sales in the US. But your argument about Afghanistan then becomes very weak for those who support laws against heroin in the US.

It's no secret that I support drug legalization in the US. My point in this post, however, is that there are good reasons for opposing the drug war in Afghanistan even if you disagree with me about legalization more generally.
8.21.2007 5:59pm
Elliot123 (mail):
We seem to be completely entangled by religious enthusiasts. The Taliban are a religious organization we want to defeat. And the prohibition movement had its roots and much continuing support from religion. The prohibition movement aimed at both drugs and alcohol, won and lost on alcohol, but won on drugs. So, why are we being led about by religion regarding drugs?
8.21.2007 6:13pm
Earnest Iconoclast (mail) (www):
We can gain the support of Afghan poppy farmers AND reduce the drugs on the market by buying the poppy ourselves and doing something else with it.

EI
8.21.2007 7:06pm
PersonFromPorlock:
Ketut:

PersonFromPorlock: Drug cartels gain their power BECAUSE the drugs are illegal.

But the drug cartels are effectively states since they can use force to enforce policy; how are you going to get them to 'legalize' legalized drugs?

Mind you, I've been in favor of legalizing drugs (all kinds) for forty years. But the power of the drug sellers is a real problem.
8.21.2007 8:54pm
vinnie (mail):
Mind you, I've been in favor of legalizing drugs (all kinds) for forty years. But the power of the drug sellers is a real problem.

Simple revolution. We have to legalize first. The drug dealers hold over our lawmakers is the hardest to break. To stop people from growing their own takes a very strong police power that even the U.S. government doesn't even have on its home turf.
That is also why the taxes on drugs will never be extreme. The revenuers have enough trouble finding a wood burning still with smelly old mash around a flower garden or weed patch would pose much greater problem.
8.22.2007 1:50am
M. Simon (mail) (www):
unhyphenatedconservative,

The Drug War is a Price Support mechanism (socialism). Milton Friedman agrees.

You are correct that the Taliban may still derive profits from the drug trade. However, the profits will be reduced.

I should point out that legalizing the poppy in Afghanistan may not be enough since there still exists an unserved (illegal) market.

Only total legalization will fix the problem.

AS I have been saying since 9/11 (and before that re: criminals):

Do Republicans support drug prohibition because it finances criminals or because it finances terrorists?

Republican Socialism. Price supports for criminals and terrorists.

==

It always amazes me that Law and Order Republicans promote policies that finance criminals, gangs, and terrorists.

It is like they can't remember the history of alcohol prohibition or never learned it.
8.22.2007 1:44pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
PersonFromPorlock,

A reduction in the size of the market is a good thing, even if it doesn't solve all problems at once.

Alcohol prohibition exists in Saudi Arabia. Does that mean it would be wise to re-enact alcohol prohibition?
8.22.2007 1:48pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Earnest Iconoclast,

Buying up drugs will not help much as long as there are market segments unserved. Cultivation will just expand until supply and demand balance (at a price).

It amazes that the right thinks that economics is not applicable to the drug trade.
8.22.2007 1:52pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
I have a serious problem with the authors contention that opium production is being exploited by the Taliban. They were the ones who eradicated opium production in the first place.

They only went after growers when they had a large stock warehoused and were worried that additional production would depress prices. Once they worked through the warehoused supplies their opposition to poppy growing drastically declined. You can look it up.
8.22.2007 2:04pm
peter jackson (mail) (www):

It might help the prohibitionists on the right to understand the true costs to liberty posed by the drug war if they realized that our Second Amendment rights have suffered as much or more under the current prohibition regime than any of our other civil rights.

yours/
peter.
8.22.2007 3:18pm
Fat Man (mail):
I would agree that the war against drugs has been a failure. I would also agree that the best thing to do with it would be to end it. But, I think we all need to understand that changing drug policy is a political non-starter with few, if any, possible openings in the foreseeable future.

This does not mean that we should be pursuing drug policy in Afghanistan. We should not, it is counter-productive and there are far higher stakes.

What we should do in Afghanistan is stop the eradication campaign and use our money to buy the poppy crop. In order to avoid having supply rise to meet the demand, we should also subsidize alternative crops at a slightly higher economic level.

The money spent on poppies will undoubtedly be a lot less than the money we would have to spend on additional soldiers.


See, also, this Times Op-Ed
.
8.22.2007 3:31pm
Elliot123 (mail):
"Alcohol prohibition exists in Saudi Arabia. Does that mean it would be wise to re-enact alcohol prohibition?"

Prohibition does exist in Saudi, but it's also very easy to get alcohol in Saudi.
8.22.2007 5:20pm
aahpat (mail) (www):
TO: unhyphenatedconservative:

The point of regulating the $ 400-500 billion a year black market is to get that money out of the hands of terrorists, gangsters and addict dealers who all thrive in the black market. Instead that money can be regulated through the hands of responsible members of the community who will put the morals and ethics of society in between children and drugs. Today children have only the morals and ethics of addict dealers, gangsters, social predators and terrorists in between them and addiction.

Glenny notes in the Lost War:"The trade in illegal narcotics begets violence, poverty and tragedy. And wherever I went around the world, gangsters, cops, victims, academics and politicians delivered the same message: The war on drugs is the underlying cause of the misery. Everywhere, that is, except Washington, where a powerful bipartisan consensus has turned the issue into a political third rail."

New York University Asian policy expert Professor Barnett Rubin, speaking to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee in Sept. 2006 after returning from Afghanistan on a fact finding trip.

"The international drug control regime, which criminalizes narcotics, does not reduce drug use, but it does produce huge profits for criminals and the armed groups and corrupt officials who protect them. Our drug policy grants huge subsidies to our enemies."


"Our drug policy grants huge subsidies to our enemies."


the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the drug war front line elected officials in America, have come to this conclusion in their 2007 meeting: "NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the United States Conference of Mayors believes the war on drugs has failed and calls for a New Bottom Line in U.S. drug policy, a public health approach that concentrates more fully on reducing the negative consequences associated with drug abuse..."
8.23.2007 12:56pm