Eradication

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How Bush's Drug Czar Fooled the Media and the American People


Remember back in 2007 when Bush's drug czar John Walters announced that cocaine prices were spiking and proceeded to do a proud drug war victory dance in newspapers nationwide? It was the high-water mark of his tenure in terms of positive press for the national drug strategy he'd championed shamelessly since taking office in late 2001. If drug prices were increasing, his argument claimed, then our campaign to rid the nation of drugs must be on the right track and our arsenal of brutal drug war tactics was being vindicated for all to see.

John Walters
Well, it looks like the truth finally caught up with him. Ryan Grim has a fascinating piece at Reason laying out the plotline behind Walters's victory parade and it's really a remarkable window into the epic dishonesty that characterizes not only John Walters, but the foundations of the drug war itself.

I recommend reading Grim's account to understand how badly Walters manipulated the data to make his case, but what I find most troubling in all of this is the role of the press in enabling such a transparent and self-serving deception. This is the story of a man who had already jettisoned all credibility through an endless series of similarly dubious pronouncements. ONDCP's bogus theatrics were sufficiently notorious by this point that even the conservative Washington Times balked at the opportunity to break the story of the Bush Administration's self-proclaimed surprise victory in the war on drugs.

It was Donna Leinwand at USA Today who gave Walters a podium from which to deceive the American public about the success of his policies. Drug policy was – and remains – Leinwand's beat at USA Today, thus she could easily have included a counterpoint in her coverage from one of the many experts that would gladly take her call. Instead, she uncritically passed along the claims of a notoriously deceitful propagandist to the American public, igniting a firestorm of press coverage that fraudulently propped up the drug czar's political agenda.

If there's a lesson to be learned from all this, it seems not to have sunk in yet. Only a month ago, Leinwand was still promoting misleading claims about the success of the war on cocaine. It is, of course, perfectly appropriate to quote the leaders of the worldwide war on drugs as they endeavor desperately and predictably to highlight any and all miniscule data points that favor their fixations. But that should only be half the story. If you base an entire news report on something a drug war cheerleader told you, then your story won’t be true and the public that relies upon you for drug policy news will end up understanding less about the issue than if they'd never read your article to begin with.

Ironically, widespread disgust with John Walters and the entrenched drug warrior mentality he represented has likely helped set the stage for the present political climate in which the drug policy debate has finally gone mainstream. The case for reform is at long last embraced and amplified by the same media that once ignored it at every turn. Prominent journalists themselves are speaking out and saying things that used to be off-limits.

Still, all those who rejoice at the impending collapse of the great drug war juggernaut should not lose sight of the fact that only 2 years ago, a single man was able to freeze time with a simple lie.

Afghanistan: The DEA Is on the Way

The Obama administration has shifted gears in Afghanistan, rejecting the Bush administration's emphasis on opium poppy eradication in favor of attacking Taliban-linked drug trafficking networks as it increases the number of US military personnel in the country to nearly 70,000. Along with that increase in American servicemen and women in Afghanistan, the administration is also ramping up the DEA presence in the country.

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opium poppies (incised papaver specimens)
The number of DEA agents in the country will increase five-fold this year, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun. The agency currently has 13 agents in Afghanistan; that number will jump to 68 by September and 81 by 2010. An unspecified number of additional agents are also being sent to Pakistan, through which a large portion of the Afghan drug trade flows.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium poppy supply, from which heroin is derived. One province now in the sights of a 4,000 strong US Marine expeditionary force, Helmand province, by itself produces more than half of all Afghan opium and if it were its own country, would be the world's largest opium supplier.

While all factions in Afghanistan have their fingers in the poppy pie, including numerous officials and warlords linked to the Karzai government, the US and NATO are especially interested in disrupting those portions of the drug trade that help finance the Taliban insurgency. The Taliban is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year from taxing poppy crops, acting as armed escorts for drug caravans, and running international drug trafficking operations.

In the past, the Taliban has benefitted from eradication campaigns in at least two ways. First, to the extent such campaigns are successful, they drive up the price of opium, which the Taliban has abundantly stockpiled. Second, the eradication campaigns have proven a fertile recruiting tool for the Taliban as farmers angry at seeing their livelihoods destroyed look to join those who ostensibly oppose eradication.

Latin America: Obama Administration Declines to Restore Bolivian Trade Preferences, Cites Government's Acceptance of Coca Production

President Barack Obama has declined to restore trade benefits under the Andean Trade Preference Act to Bolivia, citing the Bolivian government's acceptance of coca growing. The decision came in a Tuesday report from the office of the US Trade Representative.

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare area of Bolivia
The report also complained about Bolivian nationalization of the hydrocarbon sector and increases in tariffs, but it was the pro-coca policies of the government of President Evo Morales that drew the sharpest language. Even while acknowledging that the Bolivian government continues to undertake significant interdiction efforts against the cocaine trade, the report criticized Bolivia for failing to adhere to US demands to decrease coca cultivation and for expelling the DEA from the country last fall.

Since assuming the presidency, Morales has dramatically changed Bolivian drug policy from "zero coca" to "zero cocaine, not zero coca." Coca production has seen slight annual increases under Morales, but Bolivia remains only the third largest coca and cocaine producer, behind Colombia and Peru.

"The current challenges include the explicit acceptance and encouragement of coca production at the highest levels of the Bolivian government; government tolerance of and attractive income from increased and unconstrained coca cultivation in both the Yungas and Chapare regions; and increased and uncontrolled sale of coca to drug traffickers," the report scolded. "The efficiency and success of eradication efforts have significantly declined in the past few years."

Tensions between La Paz and Washington have been high in recent years as Morales has defended the use and cultivation of coca and expelled US diplomats after accusing them of intervening in Bolivian internal affairs. Bolivia's close relationship with Venezuela under the leadership of President Hugo Chavez hasn't helped, either.

And this won't help, either. President Morales reacted angrily Wednesday, saying the move contradicted Obama's vow to treat Latin America countries as equals. "President Obama lied to Latin America when he told us in Trinidad and Tobago that there are not senior and junior partners," he told reporters. The report, he added, used "pure lies and insults" to justify its decision.

Feature: US Gives Up on Eradicating Afghan Opium Poppies, Will Target Traffickers Instead

Thousands of US Marines poured into Afghanistan's southern Helmand province this week to take the battle against the Taliban to the foe's stronghold. But in a startling departure from decades of US anti-drug policy, eradicating Helmand's massive opium poppy crop will not be part of their larger mission.

US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke told members of the G-8 group of industrialized nations Saturday that attempting to quash the opium and heroin trade through eradication was counterproductive and bad policy. Instead, the US would concentrate on alternative development, security, and targeting drug labs and traffickers.

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Afghan anti-drug artwork, Nejat Center, Kabul
"Eradication is a waste of money," Holbrooke told the Associated Press during a break in the G-8 foreign ministers meeting on Afghanistan. "The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban, so we're going to phase out eradication," he said.

"The farmers are not our enemy; they're just growing a crop to make a living. It's the drug system," Holbrooke continued. "So the US policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

The Taliban insurgents are estimated to earn tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the opium and heroin trade, which generates multiple streams of income for them. Taliban commanders tax poppy farmers in areas under their control, provide security for drug convoys, and sell opium and heroin through smuggling networks that reach around the globe.

As late as last year, US policymakers supported intensifying eradication efforts, with some even arguing for the aerial spraying of herbicides, as has been done with limited success, but severe political and environmental consequences in Colombia. That notion was opposed by the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, as well as by the US's NATO partners, particularly Britain, which supports expanded manual eradication of the poppy fields.

On Sunday, Afghan counternarcotics minister General Khodaidad disputed Holbrooke's claims that eradication was a failure, telling the Canadian Press that Afghanistan had achieved "lots of success" with its anti-drug strategy, which relies heavily on manual eradication of poppy fields. Still, he said he was open to the new American strategy. "Whatever program or strategy would be to the benefit of Afghanistan, we welcome it," Khodaidad said. "We are happy with our policy... so I'm not seeing any pause or what do you call it, deficiency, in our strategy. Our strategy's perfect. Our strategy's good."

Britain and US are at odds over opium field eradication plans. According to the London newspaper The Independent, British officials said Sunday they would continue to fund manual eradication in areas under their control. Those officials downplayed any dispute, however, saying details remained to be worked out.

But eradication has met with extremely limited success. According to the UN Office on Crime and Drugs, eradication peaked in 2003, while the Taliban were in retreat, with more than 51,000 acres destroyed. By 2007, that figure had declined to 47,000 acres, and last year, it was a measly 13,500 acres. Similarly, a survey of villages that had participated in eradication last year found that nearly half of them were growing poppy again this year.

The shift in US policy drew praise from observers across the ideological spectrum. It also aroused speculation that it could be emulated elsewhere, particularly in Latin America.

"The new counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan which scales down eradication and emphasizes rural development and interdiction is exactly right," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drugs, development, and security expert with the Brookings Institution. "Under the prevailing conditions in Afghanistan, eradication has been not only ineffective; it has been counterproductive because it strengthens the bond between the rural population dependent on the illicit economy and the Taliban. Backing away from counterproductive eradication is not only a right analysis, it is also a courageous break on the part of the Obama administration with decades of failed counternarcotics strategy worldwide that centers on premature and unsustainable eradication," she added.

"This is clearly a positive, pragmatic step," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It seems that the Obama administration is so deeply invested in succeeding in Afghanistan that they're actually willing to pursue a pragmatic drug policy. This is an intelligent move," he added. "It is an implicit recognition that you are not going to eradicate opium production in this world so long as there is a market for it. Given that Afghanistan is the dominant opium producer right now, the pragmatic strategy is to figure out how to manage that production rather than to pursue a politically destructive and ineffective crop eradication strategy."

"This administration is finally showing some pragmatism," said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "We are beginning to understand that our policies are affecting the policy outcomes we want. We didn't see this under the previous administration, so this is definitely very promising," she added.

But it doesn't necessarily mean there is light at the end of the tunnel, she was quick to add. "Sadly, this doesn't make me more optimistic about our prospects," she said. "This will win us more hearts and minds on the ground, but it also has to be linked to fewer targeted killings, fewer airstrikes that generate civilian casualties, or any good will is likely to be canceled out," she said.

Similarly, Felbab-Brown cautioned that the Obama administration must be prepared to defend the shift at home. "It is imperative that the administration lay down the political groundwork and inform Congress, the public, and the international community that it is unlikely that the new policy will result in a substantial reduction of cultivation or of the dependence on the illegal economy any time soon since rural development is a long-term process dependent on security," she said. "Setting the right expectations now is necessary so that accomplishments of the new strategy in two or three years are not interpreted as failures since the numbers of hectares cultivated with poppy has not dramatically decreased."

Nadelmann suggested that the new strategy is not likely to significantly impact the drug trade. "With the alternative measures they're proposing, such as the focus on traffickers, there's not much reason to think it will have any significant impact on Afghan opium and heroin exports, but it will enable the US, NATO, and the Afghan government to pursue a more discriminating and productive strategy, at least at the political level," he said.

"The really potentially interesting implication of this is for Latin America," said Nadelmann. "It makes one wonder if the Obama administration might come to realize that the same strategy they are pursuing for opium in Afghanistan makes sense in Latin America for coca cultivation in the Andes."

That may be premature. With analysts predicting no decrease in the poppy crop and little impact on the drug trade, in the medium term, the only political selling point for the move away from eradication will be success in defeating or significantly weakening the Taliban insurgency. That will be a difficult task, one whose success is by no means guaranteed.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda," by Gretchen Peters (2009, Thomas Dunne Press, 300 pp., $25.95 HB)

Gretchen Peters certainly has a sense of timing. She spent the last decade covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, first for the Associated Press and later for ABC News, and managed to bring "Seeds of Terror" to press just as the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan begin lurching toward a new approach to drug policy there. Just this past weekend, the US announced it was giving up on trying to eradicate its way to victory over the poppy crop, and for the past few weeks, news accounts of US and NATO attacks on traffickers, opium stockpiles, and heroin labs have been coming at a steady, if not escalating, pace.

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Afghan opium
Peters' thesis -- that the immensely lucrative opium and heroin trade is funding the Taliban and Al Qaeda to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, which they use to wage their insurgency against the West and allies in Afghanistan -- while portrayed as stunning and shocking, is nothing new to readers of the Chronicle, or anyone else who has been following events in Afghanistan since before the 2001 US invasion.

But where "Seeds of Terror" shines is in its unparalleled detail and depth of knowledge of the drug trade, the Taliban/Al Qaeda insurgency, the Pakistan connection, and the intricate and complicated linkages between the actors. With access to government and security officials from the US, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and through interviews with everyone from simple famers to fighters to opium traders and even some amazingly high-up people in the international heroin trade, Peters is able to navigate and share with readers the murky, ever shifting nature of the beast.

She is especially useful in unraveling the various groupings that are simplistically referred to as "the Taliban." There is no single Taliban, Peters explains; there are rival warlords (Hekmatyar, Haqqani, Mullah Omar) running their drug empires and fighting to drive out the Westerners, their jihadist convictions clouded more each year in a haze of opium smoke and illicit profits. And then there are what are in essence criminal drug trafficking organizations. They, too, will identify themselves as Taliban for pragmatic reasons -- the intimidation factor, mainly -- but have little interest in holy war, except as it provides the chaotic cover for their underground trade.

Actually, as Peters details, the story goes back a generation further, to the last great American intervention into this Fourth World country on the other side of the planet. Then, during the Reagan-era sponsorship of the Afghan mujahedeen fighting to drive out the Soviet Red Army, millions of Afghans fled into refugee camps in Pakistan, and would-be warlords and foreign jihadis (including a young Osama bin Laden), tussled for the billions of dollars coming from Washington and doled out by Pakistani intelligence, or, alternately, from funding sources in Saudi Arabia.

Those warlords turned Pakistan, particularly the refugee-ridden Northwest Frontier territories into a leading opium producer during the 1980s, to ensure sources of funding for their armies, and secondarily, to turn as many Russian soldiers into junkies as they could. The Pakistani drug trafficking networks, including some very highly placed army and other officials, set up then are still the main conduits for the opium and heroin leaving Afghanistan today. Man, talk about your blowback.

Peters has a keen grasp of local affairs, knows how to write, and has constructed a gripping and informative narrative. But, faced with a counterinsurgency effort that has floundered, in good part because of profits from the illicit drug trade keeping the Taliban well-supplied with shiny new weapons, she cannot resist the temptation to try her own hand at recommending more effective policies. Here, unfortunately, she is decidedly conventional and unquestioning of the prohibitionist paradigm.

For example, the proposal floated by The Senlis Council in 2005 to simply buy up the poppy crop and divert it into the legitimate medical market gets remarkably short shrift. Peters devotes a mere paragraph to the plan, dismissing it as not pragmatic -- a position not universally held by experts.

Similarly, her policy prescriptions, while including such progressive developmentalist planks as alternative livelihood programs, strengthening institutions, and opening new markets for new crops, also include a call to "arrest or kill" drug kingpins, heroin lab chemists, and even mid-level traffickers. She also advocates air strikes against smuggling convoys, "smarter" counterinsurgency, and beefed up law enforcement against the "bad guys."

Peters' thinking on drug policy may be decidedly inside the box, but her contribution to our understanding of the complex nexus between the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan, local insurgencies, and global jihadi ambitions is important and chilling. This is the best layperson's guide to that nexus out there.

U.S. Admits Failure, Calls Off Opium Eradication in Afghanistan

This is big news:

TRIESTE, Italy (Reuters) - Washington is to dramatically overhaul its Afghan anti-drug strategy, phasing out opium poppy eradication, the U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan told allies on Saturday.

"The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work," [Richard] Holbrooke told Reuters after a series of bilateral meetings in Italy.

"We are not going to support crop eradication. We're going to phase it out," he said. [Reuters]

It's not everyday that a major international drug war program gets the rug pulled out from under it. Only two months ago, the plan was to increase eradication efforts by flooding Afghanistan's major opium producing regions with U.S troops. It was a terrible plan for lots of reasons, thus this sudden reversal is a surprising positive development.

Put simply, it appears that the State Dept. was trying to choose between escalating eradication efforts or eliminating them. After weighing their options, they eventually made the right decision. It would be nice to see a similar analysis applied to the war on drugs in its entirety.

Latin America: Coca Cultivation, Cocaine Production Down Last Year, UNODC Says

In its World Drug Report 2009, released Wednesday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that coca cultivation and cocaine production had fallen slightly last year. The report attributed most of the decline to a massive eradication campaign in Colombia, which was not offset by modest increases in coca production in Peru and Bolivia.

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statues of coca leaves, Municipal Park, Pichari, Peru
According to UNODC, there were 167,000 hectares of coca cultivated last year, with Colombia accounting for nearly half (81,000 hectares), Peru accounting for 56,000 hectares, and Bolivia 30,500. The figure is below 2007's 181,000 hectares and significantly lower than the more than 210,000 hectares reported in 1999-2001, but higher than the 2005 and 2006 figures.

The UNODC estimated potential cocaine production at 845 metric tons, lower than any year since 2002 and down 15% from 2007's 994 tons. But, despite billions of dollars spent to wipe out cocaine production by the US and its allies and client states, the 2008 figure is just slightly smaller than the 891 tons reported 15 years ago, after campaigns against coca and cocaine in Peru and Bolivia, but before the beginning of Plan Colombia in 1999.

The report credited Colombia's aggressive eradication program for the decline. In addition to 133,000 hectares sprayed with herbicides in Colombia, manual eradication tore out another 95,000 hectares of coca bushes. While Colombia has sprayed more than 130,000 hectares each year since 2002, manual eradication is rapidly catching up. It increased from 2,700 hectares in 2002 to 32,000 hectares in 2005 and 67,000 in 2007. The amounts eradicated in Peru and Bolivia were negligible compared to the figures from Colombia.

Sanho Tree, drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies,
writing yesterday in the Inter-American Dialogue's Latin American Advisor (by expensive subscription only), suggested another explanation for the reduction of cultivation in Colombia: instead of just replanting eradicated fields, as they typically did, farmers last year were able to take advantage of a not-yet-collapsed Ponzi scheme that flooded the countryside with capital, allowing for other opportunities, such as opening up restaurants and other small businesses. But that boom went bust in November, and now farmers are planting with a vengeance, Tree wrote.

"Beware of lights at the end of the tunnel because this one is likely an oncoming train," Tree warned. "When I was in southern Colombia four months ago, people were in a terrible state of economic distress and replanting coca in earnest."

The reduction in cocaine supply may be having an impact on prices. The UNODC reported retail gram prices in the US bottoming out at about $85 in 2005 before rising to about $120 last year. But that's still well under the $160 a gram price reported in 1990, the first year in UNODC's price series.

Still, according to UNODC, while cocaine use is falling in the US, the world's largest market, and stabilizing in Europe after years of rising popularity, it continues to rise in South America and, more recently, West Africa.

Is DEA Illegally Forcing Agents to Serve in Afghanistan?

Interesting piece from McClatchy:

WASHINGTON — As the Obama administration ramps up the Drug Enforcement Administration's presence in Afghanistan, some special-agent pilots contend that they're being illegally forced to go to a combat zone, while others who've volunteered say they're not being properly equipped.

In interviews with McClatchy, more than a dozen DEA agents describe a badly managed system in which some pilots have been sent to Afghanistan under duress or as punishment for bucking their superiors.

They're suing and it will be interesting to see how this turns out. Their argument is that DEA agents are technically civilians and can only be sent into a war zone voluntarily. Makes sense to me. Of course, I'm sympathetic to any argument that begins with "the DEA shouldn’t be doing this…"

Drugs and Terror on the Daily Show


The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Gretchen Peters
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorNewt Gingrich Unedited Interview

Did you notice anything missing from this conversation? Seriously, if we're concerned about the drug trade funding terrorism, the only answer is to fundamentally rethink our drug policy. This problem didn't just arrive on our doorstep last year. We've been fighting a hopeless and counterproductive war against these guys for decades and they're more powerful now than ever before. The solution is to do the opposite of what we're doing, not to make little adjustments or try a little harder.

Obama Goes to War Against Afghan Opium

In a renewed effort to stamp out the Taliban by cutting off their cash flow, Obama is sending 20,000 troops into opium producing regions of Afghanistan. It's going to be a disaster. Jacob Sullum dug through this New York Times story and found several reasons why this plan will fail spectacularly:

1. Although the Taliban "often fade away when confronted by a conventional army,"
they "will probably stand and fight" to protect their revenue stream.

2. "The terrain is a guerrilla's dream. In addition to acres of shoulder-high poppy plants, rows and rows of hard-packed mud walls, used to stand up grape vines, offer ideal places for ambushes and defense."  

3. "The opium is tilled in heavily populated areas...The prospect of heavy fighting in populated areas could further alienate the Afghan population."

4. "Among the ways the Taliban are believed to make money from the opium trade is by charging farmers for protection; if the Americans and British attack, the Taliban will be expected to make good on their side of that bargain."

5. Opium poppies are "by far the most lucrative crop an Afghan can farm."

6. "The opium trade now makes up nearly 60 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product, American officials say."

7. "The country's opium traffickers typically offer incentives that no Afghan government official can: they can guarantee a farmer a minimum price for the crop as well as taking it to market, despite the horrendous condition of most of Afghanistan's roads."

8. "Even if the Americans are able to cut production, shortages could drive up prices and not make a significant dent in the Taliban's profits."

There's also the fact that there's enough opium buried somewhere in Afghanistan to supply the entire world for years. Sorry guys, eradication won't work. Stop trying it.

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