America’s global war on drugs

April 19, 2012

The U.S. has appointed itself the world's enforcer of global drug prohibition, even though its citizens are the biggest consumer of illicit drugs, writes Helen Redmond.

THE U.S. State Department just released its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR) for 2012. The document, commissioned by President Barack Obama and written in conjunction with the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, assesses the global "war on drugs" and the progress of prohibition in 2011.

The report scolds, warns and bullies what it identifies as major source countries for the cultivation of illicit drugs and major drug transit routes. Some 115 countries are listed and evaluated, with one notable exception: the United States (although the U.S. does make the list of countries accused of laundering drug money).

Obama's "majors list" of drug war slackers includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Myanmar, Laos, Jamaica, Haiti, the entire region of Central America, and Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Venezuela.

The U.S. has reserved for itself the preeminent position of global drug czar and chief enforcer of drug prohibition. But who gave the U.S. the right to judge other countries? Over and over again, the report states that intervention in other countries to fight the drug war is "vital to the national interests of the United States."

A soldier makes his way through an Afghan poppy field during a security patrol in Helmand Province
A soldier makes his way through an Afghan poppy field during a security patrol in Helmand Province (Bryce Piper)

Those "national interests" are never explained, but the reason for this is simple: The U.S. regularly uses the "war on drugs" as a pretext to intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign nations. The drug war allows U.S. foreign policy objectives to be advanced in country after country by an elite force of Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, who are trained by and partner with each branch of the U.S. military.

In 2008, this partnership was formally cemented when the Department of Defense (DoD) modified a policy to allow military personnel to accompany U.S. drug law enforcement agents and host federal law enforcement agents on joint reconnaissance missions and drug raids.

Countries that adhere to United Nations Drug Control Conventions and "take legal measures to outlaw and punish all forms of illicit drug production, trafficking, and drug money laundering" are given passing grades. Three countries flunked and received the designation "failed demonstrably." They are Bolivia, Venezuela and Myanmar.

In 2008, Bolivia expelled Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents. The government of Evo Morales has insisted that Bolivians have an ancestral right to chew coca leaf. The U.S. has arrogantly insisted that consumption of all forms of coca is illegal.

U.S. hostility toward Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez virtually guaranteed that Venezuela would fail America's test for countries to be considered allies in the "war on drugs." In addition, Chávez stopped formal cooperation with the DEA, and Venezuelan officials have stated publicly that they won't work with the U.S. on counternarcotics operations.

In 2005, Antonio Maria Costa, former executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), wrote approvingly in the preface to the Myanmar Opium Survey that "opium cultivation has steadily declined since 2000, and two-thirds of poppy crops have disappeared." Fast forward to 2012, and Myanmar is the world's second-largest opium supplier, and in the past five years, poppy cultivation has doubled.

IN 1998, the United Nations International Drug Control Program (UNDCP) coined the catchphrase, "A drug-free world, we can do it!" The date estimated for the drug-free world was 2008. We didn't do it.

Every country has failed demonstrably in halting the cultivation, manufacture and consumption of drugs. The global illicit drug trade is thriving and is valued at $325 billion a year. The illicit drug trade employs an international workforce of hundreds of thousands, from the chemist who transforms raw opium gum into heroin in clandestine labs, to the women "drug mules" who swallow condoms full of heroin and board planes to deliver the drugs, and more.

A vast assortment of psychoactive substances is easily available, from new designer drugs to traditional ones like heroin, cocaine, cannabis and hashish. There's no shortage of recreational and addicted drug users, and prices have fallen dramatically in many countries. The United States continues to be the largest consumer of illegal drugs despite its own failed 40-year drug war.

Afghanistan is ground zero in the global war on drugs in South Asia. The U.S. has pumped billions into the country and deployed at least 100 DEA agents, dedicated thousands of troops, including U.S. Navy SEALs and Special Ops forces, to interdict drugs, capture smugglers and destroy manufacturing labs.

Curiously, Afghanistan made the "majors list," but isn't on the list of failed demonstrably, even though it has by every measure. The reason Afghanistan didn't receive that designation is because it would be an admission that the U.S.-led war on drugs has failed--demonstrably. Instead, the country report on Afghanistan concluded, "The overall counter-narcotics effort this year was positive...These gains remain fragile."

For an uninterrupted decade, Afghanistan has produced 90 percent of the world's illicit opium. Opium makes up 35 percent of Afghanistan's GDP and is an integral part of the economy, particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar where the majority of poppy is grown. But it is only when heroin is sold to wholesalers outside of Afghanistan that the price climbs 2,000 percent and a kilogram of heroin costs more than $50,000. The global heroin trade is valued at $32.5 billion.

Afghanistan is also the largest global producer of hashish. The farm-gate value of the crop is estimated to be worth between $85 million and $263 million. Afghan agriculture is still heavily dependent on poppy and hashish for export because those markets are guaranteed. No legal agricultural products that farmers grow can penetrate or compete in the world market and bring in a rate of return comparable to illicit drugs.

IN 2010, the U.S. government adopted a counter-narcotics strategy on behalf of Afghanistan. In a report to the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, Afghanistan was defined as a country that is "spawning narco-terrorists" and a "narco-insurgency." The report, using menacing drug war rhetoric, called heroin "a weapon" and those involved in the drug trade "merchants of death." The demonization and criminalization of the people of Afghanistan justifies, fuels and funds the war on drugs.

The report stated, "The Taliban is a terrorist organization and a drug cartel, ideology and greed being their principal motivators." But the Karzai government, the Afghan military and police are also centrally involved in drug trafficking.

The counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan continues the same failed policies of the past. President Obama is committed to ramping up all aspects of the war on drugs and taking charge of prosecuting it. U.S. drug warriors admit that the Afghan Ministry of Narcotics, the Criminal Justice Task Force, and the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan cannot sustain the war without direct support from the DoD.

The U.S. military is developing and training three specially vetted elite units to investigate, kill or capture "high-value" drug trafficking targets. The DEA wants more Chinook helicopters at a price tag of $32 million each. "The most significant factor we face in Afghanistan is helicopter lift," said U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. "The DEA must have helicopter lift capacity that is night-capable and flown by veteran pilots."

The counter-narcotics strategy includes a "judicial end game." The goal is to create a fully staffed judicial system that can prosecute Afghans involved at all levels of the drug trade and to build more jails and prisons to incarcerate them.

The reality is that, despite the massive amount of resources allocated to the war on drugs, the drug warriors haven't made a dent in the growing, refining, transporting and use of drugs in Afghanistan or in the bordering countries of Pakistan, Tajikistan and Iran.

The U.S. State Department and military officials assert that future American troop reductions in Afghanistan won't affect counter-narcotics operations. They believe that the success of the war in Afghanistan is contingent upon the success in the war on drugs.

This double fantasy, that either war can be won, is a living nightmare for Afghans and for people in the entire region.

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