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The War on Drugs Undermines the War on Terror Yet Again:

Over the last two years, I have written numerous posts about the ways in which the War on Terror in Afghanistan is being undermined by our misguided War on Drugs (see here for my most recent post on this subject, and links to earlier ones). In this article on Slate, Joel Cohen and Bennett L. Gershman provide yet another example:

By all appearances, Haji Bashaar Noorzai is a scoundrel. A shadowy figure with ties to the Taliban, Noorzai is heavily involved in international heroin trafficking, according to a federal indictment that is pending against him in New York. But he is a tribal rogue whom U.S. terrorism fighters have relied on, while looking away from his darker side as a dope dealer. For years, the relationship was mutually beneficial—Noorzai helped U.S. authorities uncover huge numbers of terrorist weapons, including Stinger missiles, and in return he got to ply his drug trade with impunity.

In 2004, it appears, Noorzai was invited to the United States for further briefing on his undercover work by two freelance "contractors" associated with the FBI, who told Noorzai they were FBI and Defense Department agents. He was assured that he would not be arrested, and could return home whenever he liked. The contractors introduced Noorzai to actual federal drug agents, who warmly welcomed him. He was lodged in a fancy New York hotel and debriefed for 10 days. And then he was arrested for drug trafficking. For more than two years since then, he has sat in jail.

Noorzai may indeed be a "scoundrel," one who may have committed crimes worse than drug trafficking. But it is the latter sin that got him arrested by federal agents. As Cohen and Gershman point out, other Afghan warlords and drug dealers are unlikely to cooperate with the US against Al Qaeda and the Taliban if doing so might land them in a federal prison courtesy of the Justice Department. And they are especially unlikely to do so if promises of immunity issued by the Pentagon or the FBI can be violated by the DOJ at any time. Whether or not the DOJ's actions in this case were legal, they represent spectacular stupidity from the standpoint of waging the War on Terror. Which is more important: punishing a drug trafficker or improving our ability to get intelligence on terrorists? The Bush Administration's priority seems to be the former; or at least that's what the relevant Justice Department officials seem to think. If the next president reverses these priorities, that will be an important sign that he or she is truly serious about winning the War on Terror.

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:
LTEC (mail) (www):
I'll ask a similar question:
Which is more important: punishing a slave trafficker or improving our ability to get intelligence on terrorists?
If your answer this time is punishing the trafficker, this merely relflects your vastly different judgements regarding the two kinds of trafficking, rather than some kind of serious policy analysis regarding the war on terror. To put it a different way, your post is of absolutely no relevance to someone whose opinion of slave trafficking is as harsh as your opinion of drug trafficking, and it is of absolutely no relevance to someone who shares your opinion of drug trafficking. It might, however, be convincing to someone in between.
12.15.2007 3:44pm
Ilya Somin:
I'll ask a similar question:

Which is more important: punishing a slave trafficker or improving our ability to get intelligence on terrorists?

If your answer this time is punishing the trafficker, this merely relflects your vastly different judgements regarding the two kinds of trafficking, rather than some kind of serious policy analysis regarding the war on terror. To put it a different way, your post is of absolutely no relevance to someone whose opinion of slave trafficking is as harsh as your opinion of drug trafficking, and it is of absolutely no relevance to someone who shares your opinion of drug trafficking. It might, however, be convincing to someone in between.


Yes, if you really believe that drug trafficking is as bad as slave trafficking, then my argument won't be relevant to you. I'm betting, however, that not many people share that view. For those who don't, the many ways in which the War on Drugs undermines the War on Terror might well be considered a strike against the former.
12.15.2007 3:51pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
(Oops. Of course I meant "... someone whose opinion of drug trafficking is as harsh as your opinion of slave trafficking ...".)

Say that one believes that terrorism (and slave trafficking) is much much worse than drug trafficking, but that drug trafficking is still very bad. Does that mean that it is okay to collaborate with drug trafficking to help stop terrorism? Surely this is not an easy question to answer.

By the way, I support the legalization of most drugs (for adults).
12.15.2007 4:14pm
Ilya Somin:
Say that one believes that terrorism (and slave trafficking) is much much worse than drug trafficking, but that drug trafficking is still very bad. Does that mean that it is okay to collaborate with drug trafficking to help stop terrorism? Surely this is not an easy question to answer.

The key question is whether drug trafficking is as bad or worse than terrorism. My post is premised on the notion that even most Drug War supporters don't believe that, and therefore may be moved by evidence demonstrating that the Drug War is getting in the way of what they themselves consider a higher priority.
12.15.2007 4:17pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
It is far from obvious that "the key question is whether drug trafficking is as bad or worse than terrorism." That is the point of my previous comment. Even if I agree that A -- although bad -- is not as bad as B, it is not at all clear that we should collaborate with A in order to fight against B. I suppose it depends on how much worse B is than A, and on how much we would be helping A and on how much we would be hurting B. I see no easy answers here.

Should we support one dictator in order to prevent a worse one? Again, no easy answers here.
12.15.2007 4:28pm
SenatorX (mail):
The war on drugs is a joke and everyone knows it. It appears to only serve two real purposes : keep the poor where they belong and making money guiding tax dollars into private industry. If I was really cynical I might say it also keeps the prices high.
12.15.2007 4:34pm
David Bilek (mail):
SenatorX - While I agree with your thrust, drug prohibition does not keep the prices high. If anything, it has the opposite effect.

Consider: Which is more expensive, oxycontin or heroin? Which is more expensive, illegal methamphetamine or legal amphetamines (including methamphetamine)? In both cases, the illegal drug is significantly less expensive than its legal counterpart.
12.15.2007 4:54pm
Ilya Somin:
It is far from obvious that "the key question is whether drug trafficking is as bad or worse than terrorism." That is the point of my previous comment. Even if I agree that A -- although bad -- is not as bad as B, it is not at all clear that we should collaborate with A in order to fight against B. I suppose it depends on how much worse B is than A, and on how much we would be helping A and on how much we would be hurting B. I see no easy answers here.

My argument doesn't require that we "collaborate" with drug trafficking, merely refrain from punishing it in cases where doing so might undermine the War On Terror.
12.15.2007 5:00pm
Oren:

My argument doesn't require that we "collaborate" with drug trafficking, merely refrain from punishing it in cases where doing so might undermine the War On Terror.


It can be argued that allowing a drug trafficker to operate under the implicit protection of the US force in the region is effective collaboration. At the very minimum, it is more than merely 'refraining from punishing him'.

I still agree with you that we should be cultivating our relationship with men like him but I don't think glossing over our complicity in their shady deals is productive in the long run.
12.15.2007 5:05pm
SenatorX (mail):
We have intentionally avoided destroying poppy havests there too. I remember seeing interviews where officers admitted that. I think it was to keep the economy from being to damaged.

Consider: Which is more expensive, oxycontin or heroin? Which is more expensive, illegal methamphetamine or legal amphetamines (including methamphetamine)? In both cases, the illegal drug is significantly less expensive than its legal counterpart.

Interesting but I'm not convinced yet. I think the prescription drugs prices are high not because they are legal but because of collusion between the pharma lobby and government. They are probably as high as they can artificially manage to keep them. I still think, more often than not, prohibition drives prices up.
12.15.2007 5:21pm
Curt Fischer:

Consider: Which is more expensive, oxycontin or heroin? Which is more expensive, illegal methamphetamine or legal amphetamines (including methamphetamine)? In both cases, the illegal drug is significantly less expensive than its legal counterpart.

...

I think the prescription drugs prices are high not because they are legal but because of collusion between the pharma lobby and government.


Yes, and in many cases the collusion has been written explicitly into a publicly available document called a "patent". Illegal dealers probably to not may much attention to a drug's patent status.

Also, in general, legal oxycontin and legal methamphetamines are serve different markets than illegal oxycontin, heroin, or methamphetamines. The legal market is medical. The illegal market is recreational. I have done no detailed study, but it does not seem a stretch to say that someone interested in suppressing immense and legitimate pain would be willing to pay more for a drug than someone just looking to have a good time.

Together, these are two items, one supply-side and one demand-side, which invalidate the idea that legal drugs' greater expense relative to illegal drugs is somehow relevant to the effect legalization would have on the price of recreational drugs.
12.15.2007 6:01pm
Oren:
Curt, in re the "supply side" part of your argument, Vicodin has gone off patent and is still quite expensive with respect to equivalent illegal drugs (opium). Furthermore, the illegal trade in vicodin has quite a population that are using it for pain because their doctors are afraid to do their jobs or simply because they lack access to healthcare*.

All told, I'm certain that a deregulated market for Vicodin would provide for greater consumer freedom and lower prices. This is completely apart from the intangible but substantial benefit on not having to deal with arrogant doctors.

*Perversely, the poorer you are, the more likely it is that doctors will refuse to give you proper medicine and the more likely you are to turn to the black market. Without it, many of the poor would probably just live in pain.
12.15.2007 6:11pm
michael (mail) (www):
The offense here was against hospitality which is not to say that it was nothing. We are in their house, Afghanistan, as guests to pursue a War on Terror. We should not be punishing anyone there or luring them out as a side issue of our own to pursue our 'War on Drugs.'
12.15.2007 7:01pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
I've asked this question before in a different context (regarding a rapist convicted on a technicality re: when a girl reaches her 18th birthday) and I never got an answer. This time, I probably will:

If you were President, Ilya, would you pardon this drug trafficker and release him? I would.
12.15.2007 7:11pm
Oren:

If you were President, Ilya, would you pardon this drug trafficker and release him? I would.


I wouldn't answer that if I were him, just on the off chance he wants to be a Federal judge sometime and doesn't want to have to explain to a committee of Senators why their drug policy is wrong.

That said, Ilya has probably said enough to damn himself as it is.
12.15.2007 7:15pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
michael: The offense here was against hospitality which is not to say that it was nothing.

It's also important to remember that, culturally, Muslims place different priorities on different values. Hospitality is incredibly important to them. Mr. Noorzai was enjoying the hospitality of our LEOs when he met with them. He was betrayed. We shat all over our guest, and now our anti-terror agents can't be trusted.
12.15.2007 7:16pm
Daryl Herbert (www):
Oren: I was asking the question not as a matter of law, but as executive policy. Executives are supposed to decide which is more important, drugs or terror, whereas judges are supposed to follow along.
12.15.2007 7:27pm
Oren:
DH, the point is that, politically, it's a bad idea to express your opinion on such a matter if you think there's a Federal judgeship in your future. That is all.
12.15.2007 7:31pm
happylee:
This is the kind of incredible arrogance and sheer stupidity that is the hallmark of US foreign policy. When the american bodies start piling up in Afghanistan this spring, remind readers of this small example of US incompetence. Meanwhile, the price of herion will not go up one cent on the street -- the arrest of Noorzai will not save one life but cost many.
12.15.2007 8:22pm
fishbane (mail):
The legal market is medical. The illegal market is recreational.

Oren noted one side of this; that legal pain medication access increases with wealth.

Another side of this is that it is incorrect to say that the illegal market for various drugs is strictly recreational. There are many, many people who self-medicate, with varying degrees of success, with a number of drugs. Pot is justifiably famous here, and getting more so as more people try to bring it into a legal context that can help patients more effectively than anecdote. Meth, opiates, and (in rarer cases some hypnotics (MDMA springs to mind) are used to handle various disorders outside of a government allowed medical regimen, and that is because it can work.

More sadly, tobacco and alcohol are used as palliatives by some for (mostly mental) illness*, even though those are ultimately much more harmful. Especially in cities, there's also illegally traded prescription antidepressants, because people know it will help them, but it is cheaper to buy them than to subscribe to an expensive therapeutic regimen that is legal, but they can't afford.


*Before anyone starts, yes, nicotine is pretty well known to help regulate some depression related issues for some people. And I think everyone has probably met at least one depressive alcoholic.
12.15.2007 9:41pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
Which is more important - using prohibition to subsidize criminals or winning the war on terror?

Americans repeatedly choose to subsidize criminals.

The common complaint is "too many criminals". The common answer is "raise the subsidies for the criminals". We call this "tough on crime".
12.15.2007 10:05pm
M. Simon (mail) (www):
fishbane,

The use of tobacco by schizophrenics is well known by the medical community.

Sadly the rest of the population seems deficient in that knowledge.
12.15.2007 10:10pm
Oren:
Fishbane is right on the money here. Also, if I may add,


. . . but it is cheaper to buy them than to subscribe to an expensive therapeutic regimen that is legal, but they can't afford.


A lot of the problem isn't that they can't afford the treatment but that the regiment is so insufferable that they'd just rather go without. It speaks volumes about the state of psychiatry that patients are often desperate to escape from their "treatment".
12.15.2007 10:18pm
Big Bill (mail):
I must confess I am a bit puzzled. Isn't it a fact that the police are entitled to lie to citizens at will? Isn't it routine and accepted practice everywhere in the USA? And further isn't it completely legal?

And isn't it also true that if a citizen lies when questioned by the police in any material respect that they can be convicted of obstructing justice?

Did no one think when they were establishing these practices that they might pose a problem when dealing with a more principled culture?

American citizens know that Officer Friendly will lie like a rug if it will get him evidence, a confession or a conviction. Why should we be so ashamed that other cultures for whom a man's word is his bond would learn this and treat us accordingly?

Tell them the truth: "We Westerners do not live in the desert, therefore we do not need to rely on a code of honor, personal integrity or hospitality to survive. We have corporations and bureaucracies instead, and their agents will surrender what integrity and honor they have to serve the orders of their superiors and the goals of their institutions.

Perhaps a hundred year ago when East Coast WASPs ran American institutions these principle s still lingered, but not anymore. A man's home is no longer his castle, his diaries and personal papers are no longer inviolate, and even his thoughts can be compelled as you professors have convincingly argues recently. Holmes might have been troubled by such lies, betrayals and compulsions, but I doubt that anyone on the current Supreme Court would be. And if we think so little of ourselves and the respect that WE are due, why should we care what some goombah in Afghanistan thinks? Better he and his people learn now.
12.16.2007 9:39am
ReaderY:
For better or worse, islamic reform governments -- from the very moderate ones in Turkey to the extreme ones in Afghanistan -- came in on a platform of opposing corruption, and were generally comparatively successful, much more so than the governments the West has tended to back. Even the harshest of regimes, honestly enforced, is better a than a government of gangsters and corruption. Many people who don't like harsh laws and women having to stay at home and wear a burka all the time still prefer such a situation to one where shopkeepers have to worry about getting robbed and women have to worry about getting raped by the police.
12.16.2007 10:42am
Milhouse (www):
LTEC: Were we wrong to ally ourselves with Stalin against Hitler? With the mafia against Mussolini? It isn't even a matter of which is worse, so much as which is the immediate threat. In a war you do whatever it takes to win; the people who arrested this guy clearly don't realise that we're at war, and it's ultimately up to the President to set them right.

On another note:
While I agree that this arrest was incredibly damaging to the USA's interest, and he should be returned immediately to Afghanistan with whatever it takes to make him happy, I don't think we can accept the principle that the USA must honor any promise made in their names, by people who had no authority to make such promises. There's a case to be made that a promise is a promise, and even if it was made by a random soldier it must be kept in order to save the USA's face, while the person making the promise is disciplined; but I don't think this can be accepted as a binding rule.


I note that on TV the savvier crooks know that the police have no authority to make promises on behalf of the DA, and insist that the DA approve any deal they make.
12.16.2007 11:31am
Milhouse (www):
Further to the above: When we enlisted the mafia to help with the invasion of Italy, imagine if some DoJ functionary had decided to take advantage of the situation and arrest some notorious gangster! On paper, this person could certainly justify himself, but I don't think anyone would buy it; the damage done to the USA's interests would have been obvious, and somehow or other he'd have been out on his ear and possibly under military arrest.
12.16.2007 11:35am
Oren:

There's a case to be made that a promise is a promise, and even if it was made by a random soldier it must be kept in order to save the USA's face, while the person making the promise is disciplined; but I don't think this can be accepted as a binding rule.

This was a promise by a DOJ representative about what the DOJ was committed to. That makes it quite a bit different than your scenario.
12.16.2007 11:54am
Milhouse (www):
The promise was made by two "contractors, former law enforcement personnel who were working for the United States in Afghanistan and who said they were FBI and Department of Defense agents". DoD != DoJ. FBI is DoJ, but were they actually working for the FBI, or did they just say they were?

Even if they were, if they had no authority to make such a promise, how is it different than a random soldier making promises for the USA? After all, he does represent the USA, doesn't he?
12.16.2007 2:14pm
guest from Wisconsin/Iowa (mail):
As one who has known one suicide and been acquainted with five others all of which were tied to drugs to a notable degree I'm not convinced the "war on drugs" is so fundamentally misconceived as some have expressed.
12.16.2007 2:22pm
fishbane (mail):
As one who has known one suicide and been acquainted with five others all of which were tied to drugs to a notable degree I'm not convinced the "war on drugs" is so fundamentally misconceived as some have expressed.

I'm responding to this in the sincere hope that I can help you look at this from a different viewpoint.

This is a terribly binary view - that but for drugs being available, those people would still be alive. Maybe it is the case that these people killed themselves because of drugs. I think it likely, however, that at least one of them was using drugs because of another problem, and denying (if that there possible, which it isn't) them access to drugs might have made suicide more likely, given that palliative effects would be unavailable. Locking them up isn't going to help, unless you think people can't find drugs in prison, or that locking them up grants them better access to things that will help them.

If you're promoting honest reform of healthcare to help people who need it, I'm with you. If you think throwing people in prison because they self medicated with something not on the approved list, I have to respectfully disagree. Think of it this way - would you like your tax dollars going to imprisoning someone trying (even if failing) to help themselves, keeping them from being productive, failing to help, not letting them develop coping or social skills, and exposing them to all sorts of hazards, or to actually helping them be productive? Because that is the choice.
12.16.2007 3:22pm
guest from Wisconsin/Iowa (mail):
No my view is not so binary or simple at all and though your sincerity is appreciated you are on the wrong track. As indicated the drug factor was notable but that is not to say I am not acknowledging other prominent factors as well. Ultimately I would have no way of knowing what the most critical factor(s) either is or isn't in any individual case. How would anyone know that? I also said nothing about throwing people in prison though do favor that for the mass movers and more hardened criminal element. I also said I'm not sure the war on drugs is "so fundamentally misconceived" but did not suggest specific tactics do not need to be questioned. Don't agree with your choices either which I think in general are false choices. But again I do acknowledge and appreciate your sincerity.
12.16.2007 4:51pm
SenatorX (mail):
Some people killed themselves, and they were drug users, so the war on drugs is good. Brilliant.
12.16.2007 5:19pm
fishabane (mail):
Guest,

Thanks for following up. I'd merely note that supporting the drug war mean supporting the drug was _as it is_, not as we might like it to be. That includes all of the things you don't like about it (as well as many others I didn't mention and I'm sure you don't like, like no-knock raids killing innocents, economic hardship in other countries, and dangerous intrusions into civil rights).

This is what the "drug war" is.

As far as,

Ultimately I would have no way of knowing what the most critical factor(s) either is or isn't in any individual case. How would anyone know that?

Well, thanks to the drug war, the criminal justice system makes that determination hundreds of times daily, in your name (I assume you're a U.S. citizen). We're seeing some changes in sentencing policy, but still, almost always, it doesn't matter much if you're smoking pot for health reasons, for fun, or dealing - no matter the reason, you'll end up on the wrong side of the justice system.

I don't believe I offer a false choice - the harm caused by our drug laws vastly outstrips the harm caused by even serious, untreated addicts. Take in to account civil liberties, economic harm caused by locking up people, more economic harm because those people are losing time to improve themselves and at best are learning to be better prisoners, damage to families, the sick who aren't getting the treatment they need, the creation of a black market that doesn't need to exist (look at Mexico and the border for the violence that would go away if this were a legal market), and the money wasted on enforcement that could be used for crimes that actually hurt people.

Even incremental reform would help loads. Take pot - if it were treated the same way as alcohol tomorrow, a huge black market would evaporate. Enforcement could shift to more meaningful things. Many thousands of people wouldn't have their lives ruined for doing something safer than the town drunk does every night. Plus - hey, new tax! spend it on the kids, or whatever. I don't know of any research here, but my instinct is that people with an addictive personality might migrate to it rather than alcohol, which is much more dangerous both to health and to public safety.

I am, in fact, pretty hardline on legalizing most everything. That is mainly because of the points I made above, but just to be clear, I think that addiction usually happens as a consequence of some other factor (that is, nobody seeks the misery of being a hostage to a substance). Cops and prisons are not going to fix those other factors. Additionally, there are many people caught up in the drug war who aren't even addicts, but are using drugs "off schedule" because, rightly or wrongly, they believe it helps them with physical or mental issues. Locking them up for attempting to help themselves is perverse.
12.16.2007 5:30pm
Oren:

Even if they were, if they had no authority to make such a promise, how is it different than a random soldier making promises for the USA? After all, he does represent the USA, doesn't he?


He was DoJ attache sent exclusively to deal with this individual, who had a working relationship with the US government. That makes it different.
12.16.2007 6:10pm
guest from Wisconsin/Iowa (mail):
Come now, there are no perfect scenarios but individual policies can be debated and addressed much as we address individual policies in any other department of the government. Another false choice I think. As to quoting me: "Ultimately I would have no way of knowing what the most critical factor(s) either is or isn't in any individual case. How would anyone know that?" Note taht I said "is or isn't" and earlier said I'm not convinced, not that I know with certainty one way or the other. There are too many assumptions inherent in your policy outlooks that I'm not willing to sign on with. I'm highly skeptical. My instincts are contrarian in terms of Libertarian views as commonly expressed when it comes to this topic. See Dalrymple who has medical and prisoner experience in Europe:

http://www.city-journal.org/html/7_2_a1.html

As to your response after quoting me taht is a pure Libertarian response. I don't think it's so black and white.
12.16.2007 6:49pm
Milhouse (www):

He was DoJ attache sent exclusively to deal with this individual,

Where are you getting that from? It's not in the quoted article, in fact it seems to be the exact opposite of what the article says.
12.16.2007 7:32pm
SenatorX (mail):
Even incremental reform would help loads...Enforcement could shift to more meaningful things.

That's where I would start too, with incremental change. Don't go after the funding which would cause massive resistance but relax the soft drug laws and move the money to combating violent offenses.
12.16.2007 8:04pm
fishbane (mail):
As to your response after quoting me taht is a pure Libertarian response

Actually, that's factually false. Many libertarians would disagree with the thrust of much of what I was advocating. Shifting money from enforcement to treatment? Encouraging personal self-medication be overseen by someone licensed by a state authority (because, come on, that's what it amounts to)?

I'm advocating _different_ statist solutions, that look to me to be better than what we have now. I have serious libertarian sympathies, that much is true. In fact, if you got to know me, you'd find me to be something much closer to an anarchist. But that stands apart from my policy goals here. I'm suggesting things that I think can incrementally inch us closer to sanity.

I think this conversation is coming to a close, so I'll avoid specifics, but I do hope you'd read my post again. I'm not advocating a libertarian drug policy there - very far from it.
12.16.2007 8:47pm
guest from Wisconsin/Iowa (mail):
What I meant when referring to "after quoting me" was the following: "Well, thanks to the drug war, the criminal justice system makes that determination hundreds of times daily, in your name (I assume you're a U.S. citizen)." So that suggests a government hands off approach in terms of criminalization. But I take your correction

I favor of remedial help but do not believe the ends you imagine would be achieved via those policies. My own experience is strictly anecdotal and that si fine but the senator is wrong to imagine my reasoning is so simple. My anecdotal experience corresponds to the Dalrymple position which does represent my more considered view of the world. That does include remedial help as an aspect of the approach i just do not think it solves such a large aspect ot the problem as you seem to believe. I do think were at loggerheads.
12.16.2007 10:57pm
fishbane (mail):
Guest,

Yes, I think we are at loggerheads, because I have no idea what you're talking about. A quick google of 'Dalrymple' gave me lots of hits, none of them related to drug policy. I have to admit, you lost me.
12.17.2007 12:11am
guest from Wisconsin/Iowa (mail):
the CITY JOURNAL article from the earlier comment:
http://www.city-journal.org/html/7_2_a1.html
enjoyed the exchange though
12.17.2007 3:14am