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Feature: Chronicle of an Offensive Foretold -- The Occupation of Marja, Afghanistan

America's twin wars without end -- the war on drugs and the war on terror -- continue to play out in the heart of Southwest Asia as the Obama administration beefs up US troop levels, but tries new tactics in its battle against the opium poppy and the Taliban insurgency grown wealthy off the drug trade. Eradication is out -- at least for now -- and interdiction and going after Taliban-linked drug lords is in.

opium field in Marja (from unodc.org)
The thousands of new troops are to provide the muscle to wrest and hold territory from the Taliban. The new drug strategy is designed to win over Afghan farmers long enough for economic development projects to take hold once the troops and their NATO and Afghan Army counterparts secure key areas.

One of those is Helmand province in the south, producer of more than half of all the opium poppies in Afghanistan. If Helmand were an independent country, it would be the world's largest opium producer. Most of Helmand's opium is produced in the Helmand River valley, whose largest town, Marja (pop. 80,000), is a commercial hub for the opium and heroin trade. It is also the main Taliban stronghold in the province.

The Taliban generates anywhere from $100 million to $450 million a year in revenues with which it can buy lots of shiny new weapons and pay lots of impoverished Afghans to pick up arms against the foreigners and their "puppet regime" in Kabul. (With the total Afghan opium and heroin economy valued at $3 billion to $4 billion a year, clearly, a lot of people other than the Taliban are profiting from the trade as well.)

Because of the weakness of the Afghan state and the relatively small NATO and US military presence in Helmand up until now, the area has been largely under Taliban control for the past several years. Occasional Western military sweeps have driven the Taliban from different locales, but only temporarily. Once the troops pass through and once local inhabitants realize the government and the West have not come through on their promises of assistance and development, let alone a permanent presence, the Taliban reassert control.

The much ballyhooed Marja offensive now underway is designed to be different. This time, commanders say, the military occupation will be followed in short order by a "government in a box," a quick rolling out of Afghan police and officials accompanied by the provision of services and development and economic assistance. Once the military succeeds in driving the Taliban from Marja, the rapid-fire creation of a government presence will ensure that the local population switches loyalties from the insurgents to the national government.

Some 15,000 US, NATO, and Afghan Army forces are now one week into assault on Marja, a According to all accounts, the operation is going as expected, with Western and allied Afghan forces slowly occupying the town block by block. They raised the Afghan flag over Marja's central market Wednesday.

While the fighting is going as planned and the immediate result -- driving the Taliban from Marja -- is not in doubt, it hasn't been a cakewalk. While the local Taliban leadership and an unknown number of fighters fled before the fighting began, hundreds of fighters stayed behind to harass the incoming troops. NATO commanders report encountering a town laced with booby traps and bombs (IEDs), and soldiers have come under attack from machine gun and sniper fire. At least nine Western troops have been killed in the fighting so far, with Thursday being the bloodiest yet, with four killed.

And despite US commander Gen. Stanley McCrystal's repeated commitment to avoiding civilian casualties in order to squelch Afghans' anger at the death of their fellow citizens at the hands of foreign invaders, civilian casualties have occurred. At least 15 civilians have been killed, including 12 -- five children, five women, and two men -- were killed early on in a NATO missile strike. Three more died after being shot by NATO forces during an engagement with the Taliban.

Not everyone is buying Western assurances that this time will be any different than before. In an interview with the London newspaper The Independent, Afghanistan's "most famous woman," parliament member Malalai Joya, voiced deep skepticism about the operations aims and its impact on Afghan civilians.

"It is ridiculous," said Joya. "On the one hand they call on Mullah Omar to join the puppet regime. On another hand they launch this attack in which defenseless and poor people will be the prime victims. Like before, they will be killed in the NATO bombings and used as human shields by the Taliban. Helmand's people have suffered for years and thousands of innocent people have been killed so far."

Joya proved prescient on that count, with the NATO missile strike and shootings mentioned above and with repeated press accounts of the Taliban in fact using civilians as human shields. Reports have come of insurgent fighters shooting at troops from the second floor of a building while their family members stand on the third floor in a bid to either prevent retaliation against the shooter or to score propaganda points in the event Western forces kill or injure civilians.

She also scoffed at Allied claims that the West won't abandon Afghan civilians after the military surge. "They have launched such offensives a number of times in the past, but each time after clearing the area, they leave it and the Taliban retake it. This is just a military maneuver and removal of Taliban is not the prime objective."

Analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week provided a decidedly mixed assessment of the offensive and what comes next. "That this is going well tactically is important progress," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drugs and insurgencies at the Brookings Institution and author of the just published [and soon to be reviewed here] "Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs." "You have to remember that there have been a number of operations in Helmand where even tactically, we were losing because they were so under-resourced. Whether it will be a strategic success remains to be seen."

It isn't all up to the West, she noted. "What complicates things is that a lot of the outcomes aren't necessarily in the hands of NATO or the West, but will instead depend on the quality of the Afghan government," said Felbab-Brown. "This government-in-a-box plan has its drawbacks and flaws, but it is better than nothing. At least now there is some effort."

Watching the offensive unfold, Sanho Tree, international drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, was reduced to quoting the ultimate realpolitiker, Henry Kissinger, on Vietnam. "As early as 1969, Kissinger wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs: 'We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed as psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win,'" Tree recited.

"This was a well-publicized invasion," Tree pointed out. "The leadership disappeared, but they'll be back to fight when the odds are better."

The Taliban weren't the only ones to take advantage of the warnings of a coming attack, said Raheem Yaseer of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghan Studies. "The drug lords are very efficient," he said. "I'm sure they are all in safe havens now. NATO talked about the attack for so long that they've had time to take care of their commodities and themselves. The war on drugs part of this has not been very successful so far because of these warnings -- and these people are smart."

The offensive could cause some temporary disruptions of the drug trade in the area, Tree said, but was unlikely to make a major dent. "The lesson from the rest of the world is that these things don't really make much difference. Last year, it was a different 'opium capital,' next year, there will be another one."

The drug trade keeps shifting," agreed Yaseer. "When one place comes under attack, they go elsewhere. They buy the people, they buy the police; they will be the last to be affected."

"This won't have a great impact on the drug trade," said Felbab-Brown. "Marja doesn't determine what happens in Afghanistan -- that depends on interdiction and rural development, which is hard and takes a lot of time."

The ability of Western and Afghan government forces to conquer Marja was never in doubt. But the big question is whether they can build on the military success to turn the region into a bastion of support for the government, eliminate the insurgent threat once and for all, and continue to wage war on the opium poppy.

"Time will tell," said Tree. "Sequencing is key to a lot of this, and in terms of the drug stuff, sequencing is everything. That was the big argument with the advocates of eradication. They said eradicate first, then talk, but that was completely backwards. Now, with the hands-off policy for opium cultivation, you need to just let the prices fall, and people will switch to other crops, but that will only work until opium supplies shrink and prices go up again. So there is probably a one- or two-year window of opportunity to roll in infrastructure and install clean governance. You have to thread a lot of needles in a very short time, and the history of US involvement in Afghanistan doesn't suggest the odds are good."

"There will be a real temptation on the part of the West to define good government as suppressing poppies, but that could be just the opposite of how Afghans see it -- they will want to see economic development to replace their losses first," she said. "There will be a temptation for us to go for planting bans and suppression, but I don't think that's a model we should really be after. If a few months from now we decide it has stabilized and we try to prevent the harvest, people will be quite unhappy."

It's not a coincidence that the population is being somewhat receptive to the foreign troops, she said. "The troops are walking through poppy fields, not destroying them. The message is that the US is focusing on interdiction and development. If we eradicate later, that will result in great political destabilization.

"The Taliban have a lot of sympathizers there," said Yaseer. "The people are disillusioned with the government because for so long it couldn't do anything. And a lot of families have people on the payroll of the Quetta Shura [the now Pakistan-based Taliban led by Mullah Omar]. By some accounts, they were paying each household $700 a month. But now the pressure is on them to quit the Taliban."

Rapid economic and security development is key, said the Afghan scholar. "Destroying the poppy fields will help, but then you have to have an alternative ready," he said. "You can distribute food, help them grow wheat, provide fertilizer, things like that."

Taliban hard-liners will leave the area voluntarily to live to fight another day, Yaseer said, but unless an effective state presence is in place, they will come back. "The promises have to be kept and the aid has to move in immediately," he said. "They have to move in humanitarian assistance, reconstruction projects, sustenance for the people. And it has to be isolated from neighboring provinces where the Taliban will infiltrate back in from if those routes are not protected."

The military battle of Marja is winding toward its inevitable conclusion. Now, the battle for the hearts and minds of its residents is about to get underway. Meanwhile, the opium trade hiccups with minor disruptions, but lives on largely untouched, and the West remains mired in a land war in Asia fighting the twin ephemera of a war on an abstraction (terrorism) and a war on an inert substance (opium).

Afghanistan: Opium Cultivation "Stable" This Year, UN Says

After declining for the last two years, opium cultivation in Afghanistan will remain close to 2009 levels, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report Wednesday. The report, the agency's annual winter opium survey is based on reports from farming villages about whether they planted opium last fall.

UNODC opium growing season map
Afghanistan supplies about 90% of the world's illicit opium, the raw ingredient in heroin. The opium trade accounts for somewhere between one-third and one-half of the Afghan economy. Profits from the trade fund not only Taliban insurgents, but also regional warlords and corrupt politicians.

Afghan opium production peaked at 8,200 tons in 2007 and was estimated at 6,900 tons last year. This year's production should be similar, although the UNODC held out the hope that drought could reduce production even if the same amount of land is planted. Global demand for illicit opium is estimated at about 5,000 tons a year.

"Overall, the cultivation of opium in Afghanistan is likely to remain stable in 2010 but the number of poppy-free provinces may decrease," from 20 to 17, the report said. "However, if timely poppy eradication measures are implemented and/or drought conditions prevail, a total of 25 provinces -- an increase of five compared to 2009 -- could be poppy-free in 2010."

The report surveyed 536 Afghan villages and found that 35% said they had planted opium for the 2010 harvest. Farmers cited better prices for opium than for other crops. While the price of dry opium has declined by 6% from last year, and the price of raw opium by 13%, prices for competing crops have declined every more severely. The farm gate price for corn is down 38% and wheat is down 43%.

"None of Afghanistan's licit agricultural products can currently match the gross income per hectare from opium, although the difference is not as high as it used to be some years ago," the report said.

Villages that reported opium cultivation tended to be villages that were outside effective government control. Nearly 80% of villages with poor security conditions grew poppy, while only 7% of villages with "very good security" did.

"This is further proof of the overlap between high insecurity and high cultivation," UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa said in a statement. "The message is clear: in order to further reduce the biggest source of the world's deadliest drug, there must be better security, development and governance in Afghanistan."

Southern Helmand province produces more than half of all Afghan opium. US and NATO forces backed by the Afghan military are preparing a major offensive aimed at breaking the back of the opium trade there. It could be underway by the time you read these words.

[Ed: It would have been more accurate for Costa to say there is overlap between high insecurity and where cultivation ends up being located. Someone is going to grow to supply the demand, if not in the current locations, then in other parts of Afghanistan or in other countries. If NATO's hope is to deny its profits to the Taliban by shifting it elsewhere -- to parts of Afghanistan not controlled by the Taliban, or even to other countries -- perhaps they can accomplish that; that's a military question. If they are claiming they will reduce surplus growing, perhaps they can even accomplish that. But supply will not drop below the level needed to supply the global demand, at least not for longer than the stockpiles that presumably exist from prior years' surpluses can hold out.]

Feature: Obama Seeks Increase in Drug War Spending in a Drug Budget on Autopilot

The Obama administration released its Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposal this week, including the federal drug control budget. On the drug budget, the Obama administration is generally following the same course as the Bush administration and appears to be flying on autopilot.

According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), the administration is requesting $15.5 billion for drug control, an increase of 3.5% over the current budget. Drug law enforcement funding would grow from $9.7 billion this year to $9.9 billion in 2011, an increase of 5.2%. Demand side measures, such as prevention and treatment, also increased from $5.2 billion this year to $5.6 billion next year.

The $15.5 billion dollar drug budget actually undercounts the real cost of the federal drug war by failing to include some significant drug policy-driven costs. For instance, operations for the federal Bureau of Prisons are budgeted at $8.3 billion for 2011. With more than half of all federal prisoners serving time for drug offenses, the real cost of current drug policies should increase by at least $4 billion, but only $79 million of the prisons budget is counted as part of the national drug strategy budget.

The Obama drug budget largely maintains the roughly two-to-one imbalance between spending on treatment and prevention and spending on law enforcement. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske called the imbalanced budget "balanced."

Highlights and lowlights:

  • Funding for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration prevention programs (SAMHSA) is set at $254.2 million, up $29.6 million from this year, while funding for SAMHSA treatment programs is set at $635.4 million, up $101.2 million from this year.
  • Funding for ONDCP's Drug Free Communities program is set at $85.5 million, down $9.5 million from this year.
  • Funding for the widely challenged National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign is set at $66.5 million, an increase of more than 50% over this year.
  • The Arrestee Drug Abuse Monitoring II program (ADAM) is funded at $10 million. It got no money this year.
  • Funding for the Department of Health and Human Services Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment program is set at $1.799 billion, the same as this year.
  • Funding for the Second Chance Act for reintegrating people completing prison sentences is set at $50 million, a whopping 66% increase over this year.
  • Funding for the Justice Department's Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force is set at $579.3 million, up $50.8 million over this year.
  • Funding for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas (HIDTA) program is set at $210 million, down $29 million from this year.
  • Funding for the Defense Department's counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan is set at $501.5 billion, up about one-third over this year.
  • Funding for State Department counternarcotics activities in West Africa is set at $13.2 million, up $10 million from this year.
  • Funding for State Department counternarcotics activities in Colombia is set at $178.6 million, down $26.6 million from this year.
  • Funding for the DEA is set at $2.131 billion, up 5.5% over this year. That pays for 8,399 employees, 4,146 of whom are DEA agents.
  • Funding for the Office of Justice Programs' Byrne grant program, Southwest Border Prosecutor Initiative, Northern Border Prosecutor Initiative, and Prescription Drug Monitoring program has been eliminated.

"The new budget proposal demonstrates the Obama administrations' commitment to a balanced and comprehensive drug strategy," said Kerlikowske. "In a time of tight budgets and fiscal restraint, these new investments are targeted at reducing Americans' drug use and the substantial costs associated with the health and social consequences of drug abuse."

Drug reformers tended to disagree with Kerlikowske's take on the budget. "This is certainly not change we can believe in," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's extremely similar to the Bush administration drug budgets, especially in terms of supply side versus demand side. In that respect, it's extremely disappointing. There's nothing innovative there."

"This budget reflects the same Bush-era priorities that led to the total failure of American drug policy during the last decade," said Aaron Houston, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project. "One of the worst examples is $66 million requested for the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign when every independent study has called it a failure. The president is throwing good money after bad when what we really need is a new direction."

Houston also took umbrage with the accounting legerdemain that continues to allow ONDCP to understate the real cost of federal drug policies. "It's disconcerting to see the Obama administration employ the same tactics in counting the drug budget that the Bush administration did," said Houston. "Congress told ONDCP in 2006 to stop excluding certain items from the budget, and we had a Democratic committee chairman excoriate John Walters over his cooking of the books, but it doesn't appear they've done anything to stop that. Maybe they have to cook the books to make this look like a successful program."

But reformers also noted that some good drug policy news had already come out of the Obama administration. They also suggested that the real test of Obama's direction in drug policy would come in March, when Kerlikowske releases the annual national drug control strategy.

"I'm a little disappointed," said Keith Stroup, founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, "but I think there is a significant difference in the environment from the Bush years. Maybe not in this budget, but things like issuing those Department of Justice regulations on medical marijuana have made a major difference."

"They are unwilling or unable to change the drug war budget, but the true measure of their commitment to a shift in drug policy will be the national drug control strategy that comes out in a few weeks," said Piper. "The question is will their drug strategy look like Bush's and like their drug budget does, or will they articulate a new approach to drug policy more in line with the president's comments on the campaign trail that drug use should be treated as a public health issue, not a criminal justice one."

The Obama administration's decision to not interfere with medical marijuana in the states was one example of a paradigm shift, said Piper. So was its support for repealing the federal needle exchange funding ban and ending the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses.

"In a lot of ways, the budget trimming that comes out of the White House is a fraud because they know Congress won't make those cuts," said Piper. "I wonder if that's the game Obama is playing with the Byrne grants. That's the kind of thing they can articulate in the drug strategy if they wanted to. They should at least talk about the need to shift from the supply side to the demand side approach. They could even admit that this year's budget does not reflect that, but still call for it."

This is only the administration's budget request, of course. What it will look like by the time Congress gets through with it is anybody's guess. But it strongly suggests that, so far, there's not that much new under the sun in the Obama White House when it comes to the drug budget.

Afghanistan: US Anti-Drug Strategy Lacking, State Department Report Finds

The US counternarcotics mission in Afghanistan, a key element in Western efforts to defeat the Taliban, is short on long-term strategy, clear objectives, and a plan to hand over responsibility to Afghan authorities, the State Department said in a report released last Wednesday. The report was written by the State Department's Office of the Inspector General.

opium poppies
The department's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (known colloquially as "drugs and thugs") is responsible for shaping and administering counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan, but it is not doing its job very well, the report said. "The department has not clarified an end state for counternarcotics efforts, engaged in long-term planning or established performance measures," it noted.

With the Taliban making hundreds of millions of dollars a year off the Afghan opium and heroin trade, a smart, effective counternarcotics strategy is critical to US plans to defeat the Taliban by sending in an additional 30,000 troops. There are already 68,000 US and NATO troops in the country, where they have suffered their worst losses so far this year. The number of US military dead in Afghanistan this year sits at 310, exactly double the number killed last year. Overall US and NATO fatalities topped 500 this year, up from 300 last year.

While an effective anti-drug policy may be critical to US plans, it may also be impossible to achieve. As analysts consulted by the Chronicle five years ago -- when opium production was just beginning to reemerge as a problem area -- noted, opium is deeply implicated in the Afghan economy, with more than a million families dependent on it for a living.

"In this case, even if you support drug prohibition in general, the war on drugs is not something we can pursue if we want a rational, effective policy in Afghanistan," said Ted Galen Carpenter, an international affairs analyst for the Cato Institute. "It will undermine everything else we're trying to achieve. The international supply side drug war is complete folly no matter where it is applied, but even if you don't accept that analysis, one ought to be aware that our top priority needs to be going after radical Islamic terrorists, not Afghan farmers," he said.

But heeding the views of the bureau's hard-line drug warriors, the report said that poppy eradication was "essential" to the success of the strategy. But Richard Holbrook, Obama's emissary to the region, abruptly ended the US role in eradication earlier this year, arguing that it served only to alienate poor poppy farmers and drive them into the arms of the Taliban. Instead, Western forces have concentrated on capturing or killing traffickers linked to the Taliban.

Even so, the report found, the bureau had "no clear strategy for transitioning and exiting from counternarcotics programs in Afghanistan." It added that while Afghan contractors working on poppy eradication were meeting agreed-upon goals, vague performance measures in their contracts made it difficult to tell how effective they were.

The report did cut the bureau some slack, noting that it faced tough challenges in Afghanistan, including "a weak justice system, corruption and the lack of political will" in the Afghan government. It also acknowledged the powerful economic incentives for poor Afghan farmers to grow opium poppies.

It recommended setting "a defined end state" for US anti-drug programs, in-country monitoring of contractors, and establishing benchmarks for measuring the Afghan takeover of anti-drug programs.

The Year on Drugs 2009: International Drug Policy Developments

(Please read our top ten US domestic drug policy stories review too!)

As 2009 winds to a close, we review the global year in drug policy. There were a number of events of global significance -- the trend toward decriminalization of drug possession in Europe and Latin America, the slow spread of heroin maintenance therapy, the frontal assault on global prohibitionist orthodoxy at the UN -- as well as new developments in ongoing drug-policy related struggles from the poppy fields of Afghanistan to the cannabis cafes of Amsterdam.

This review can't cover everything -- it's a big world, and there's a lot happening in drug policy these days. Among the items worth at least mentioning in passing: Israel's embrace of medical marijuana, Canada's flirtation with mandatory minimum sentences for marijuana growers (still in process, and amended to be less harmful by the Canadian Senate), the continuing resort to the death penalty for drug offenses in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, the bemusing link between cannabis and schizophrenia apparently at work only in some Commonwealth countries, the Andean drug war (unchanged in its essential outlines this year), and the rise of poor West African nations as favored smugglers' destinations.

What about Mexico? There is one glaring omission here, but there is a reason for that: In the third year of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's offensive against the so-called drug cartels, the violence is more intense and destabilizing than ever. What is happening in Mexico is certainly a drug policy-related phenomenon of global significance, but this year, with more than a billion US dollars in the anti-drug aid pipeline, beefed up border security, official acknowledgement that insatiable American appetites play a crucial role, and growing public and political concern about the violence on the border, we will examine the Mexican drug war in the context of US domestic drug policy issues. Look for it to be among the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories in our feature next issue.

With that as a caveat, here are this year's biggest global drug policy developments:

Afghanistan: War on Drugs, Meet War on Terror

Afghan opium
Eight years after the US and NATO forces invaded and occupied Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from power, the Taliban have returned with a vengeance, fueled by revenues from the country's primary cash crop: opium. Western estimates of Taliban income from the poppy and heroin trade are in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually, which buys a lot of shiny new weapons for the resurgent insurgents.

This year has been the bloodiest yet for Western occupiers, with 495 US and NATO forces killed this year, according to iCasualties.org. Part of the uptick in violence can be attributed to the Taliban's opium wealth, but the decision by US and NATO forces to move aggressively into the Taliban's eastern and southern heartlands, especially Helmand and Kandahar provinces, has also led to increased fighting and higher casualties.

In June, President Obama, adhering to his election campaign vows if not the wishes of his some of his most ardent supporters, moved to directly confront the drug trade, sending 20,000 troops into Helmand to take on the Taliban and allied traffickers. But while that looked like more of the same, just weeks later, the US announced a major shift in its anti-drug policy in Afghanistan when US envoy Richard Holbrooke announced the US would no longer participate in poppy eradication campaigns. That was a startling, reality-driven break from previous US policy in Afghanistan, as well as with current US policies against coca production in Colombia and Peru.

Instead of persecuting poverty-stricken opium-growing peasants, the US and NATO would concentrate on drug manufacturers and traffickers, but only those linked to the Taliban -- not those linked to the corrupt and illegitimate (after this fall's fraudulent election fiasco) regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The US beefed up the in-country DEA contingent and even came up with a "hit list" of some 50 Afghan traffickers linked to the Taliban.

This fall, fighting has been intense in southern and eastern Afghanistan, as well as across the border in Pakistan, and now, the first of President Obama's promised 30,000-troop escalation is headed precisely for Helmand, where one of its first assignments will be to take and hold a major Taliban trafficking center. The war on drugs and the war on terror will continue to collide in Afghanistan, but now, at least, the imperatives of the war on terror have forced a historic shift in US anti-drug policy, at least in Afghanistan.

Latin American Leaders Call for a Drug Policy Paradigm Shift

Commission panel, former President of Colombia Cesar Gaviria on left (courtesy comunidadsegura.org)
In February, a blue-ribbon panel of Latin American leaders, including former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria issued a report and statement saying the US-led war on drugs has failed and it is time to consider new policies, particularly treating drug use as a public health matter and decriminalizing marijuana possession.

The report, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, is the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, which also includes prominent writers Paulo Coelho, Mario Vargas Llosa, Sergio Ramírez and Tomás Eloy Martínez as well as leading scholars, media members and politicians.

Latin America is the leading exporter of both cocaine and marijuana. As such, it has faced the ravages of heavy-handed American anti-drug interventions, such as Plan Colombia and earlier efforts to destroy the Bolivian coca crop, as well as the violence of drug trafficking organizations and politico-military formations of the left and right that have grown wealthy off the black market bonanza. And while the region's level of drug consumption has historically been low, it is on the rise.

"The main reason we organized this commission is because the available evidence indicates the war on drugs is a failed war," said Cardoso at a February press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce the report. "We need a different paradigm to cope with the problem of drugs. The power of organized crime is undermining the very foundations of democracy in some Latin American countries. We must acknowledge that these policies have failed and we must break the taboo that prevents us from discussing different strategies."

''Global Marijuana Day'' demonstration in Mexico City, May 2008
The report garnered considerable attention, not only in the US and Latin America, but worldwide, and it set the tone for a very reformist year in Latin America.

Mexico Decriminalizes Drug Possession

In May, Mexico decriminalized the possession of small amounts of illicit drugs, including up to five grams of marijuana, a fifth-gram of ecstasy and methamphetamine, a tenth-gram of heroin, and a half-gram of cocaine. The new law closely resembled a 2006 decriminalization bill that had passed the legislature only to die in the face of US protests. There were no US protests this time.

With the Mexican government's action, drug decriminalization has now reached the very borders of the US.

But, according to well-placed observers, the Mexican decriminalization is a case of two steps forward, one step back. In addition to decriminalizing possession of very small amounts of drugs, the new law grants drug enforcement powers to state and local police forces that they never had before. That could mean an increase in the arrests and prosecution of retail-level drug sellers. Still, the long-term political ramifications could be helpful; as one observer noted, "the headline will read that Mexico decriminalized drugs."

Argentina Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession, Laws Against Possessing Other Drugs Tremble

Supreme Court of Argentina
While Mexico decriminalized through the legislative process, Argentina is doing it through the courts. In a series of cases dating back to 2006, Argentine judges have grown increasingly skeptical of arguments for criminalizing drug use. In the spring, judges in Buenos Aires threw out marijuana cultivation charges against a defendant, saying the plants were for personal use, and the following month, a federal appeals court threw out ecstasy possession charges against a group of defendants, again saying the drugs were for personal use. In both cases, the courts cited a 2006 Argentine Supreme Court ruling that it was the burden of the state "to demonstrate unequivocally that the drugs were not for personal use." In the ecstasy case, the appeals court held that the portion of the country's drug law regarding drug possession must be declared unconstitutional.

In August, the Supreme Court did just that, using another marijuana possession case to rule that the section of the country's drug law that criminalizes drug possession is unconstitutional. While the ruling referred only to marijuana possession, the portion of the law it threw out makes no distinction among drugs.

Imprisoning people absent harm to others violates constitutional protections, a unanimous court held. "Each individual adult is responsible for making decisions freely about their desired lifestyle without state interference," their ruling said. "Private conduct is allowed unless it constitutes a real danger or causes damage to property or the rights of others. The state cannot establish morality."

"It is significant that the ruling was unanimous," said Martin Jelsma, coordinator of the Drugs and Democracy program at the Transnational Institute, which has worked closely with Latin American activists and politicians on drug reform issues. "It confirms the paradigm shift visible throughout the continent, which recognizes that drug use should be treated as a public health matter instead of, as in the past, when all involved, including users, were seen as criminals."

UN's Global Anti-Drug Bureaucracy Meets Organized Resistance

demonstration at the UN drug meeting, Vienna
It wasn't like this a decade ago, the last time the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs took place. This year, for the first time, the UN's global anti-drug bureaucracy ran into organized resistance when its Committee on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met in March in Vienna. Not only did a large contingent of drug reform, human rights, and public health NGOs show up to challenge global prohibitionist orthodoxy, they were joined by a number of European and Latin American countries showing serious signs of defecting from the half-century old prohibitionist consensus.

In the end, the CND issued a political statement and plan of action that largely reaffirmed existing prohibitionist policies and ignored harm reduction, but with some victories for reformers both substantive and symbolic. For one, the US delegation finally removed its objection to needle exchanges.

But if the global anti-drug bureaucracies ignored their critics in their report, they were impossible to ignore in Vienna. Demonstrations took place outside the meeting hall, and Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished then chewed coca leaves as he demanded that his country's sacred plant be removed from the list of proscribed substances.

Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa was forced to publicly acknowledge the failures and unintended consequences of prohibition. In his address opening the session, Costa bravely argued that "drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful," but was forced to concede that prohibition had created a dire situation in some places. "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing" he said. "While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions."

All the more reason to challenge prohibitionism and its consequences. After this year, the global anti-drug bureaucracy knows that not only is its long-held consensus under assault, it is beginning to crack.

Czech Republic Decriminalizes Drug Possession, Finally Sets Quantity Limits

Czech marijuana reform demonstration, 2005 (courtesy Michal Vlk)
Following in Portugal's footsteps, authorities in the Czech Republic voted late last year to decriminalize the possession of "smaller than large amounts" of drugs. But that term was vague, leaving its interpretation up to police and prosecutors and resulting in situations where people like personal marijuana growers were being charged as traffickers.

This month, Czech authorities formalized "smaller than large amounts." The new guidelines mean Czechs will suffer neither arrest nor prosecution for up to 15 grams or five marijuana plants, five grams of hashish, 40 magic mushroom segments, five peyote plants, five LSD tablets, four ecstasy tablets, two grams of amphetamine or methamphetamine, 1.5 grams of heroin, five coca plants, or one gram of cocaine.

The new quantity rules go into effect on January 1.

Science vs. Politics in Great Britain

The British Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) is an official body charged with providing evidence-based analysis of drug policy issues for the British Home Office. Tensions between the ACMD and the Labor government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown had been on the rise since it rejected the ACMD's recommendation that marijuana, which had been down-scheduled from a Class B to a Class C (least harmful) drug under Brown's predecessor, Tony Blair, remain at Class C. The government instead up-scheduled it back to Class B.

David Nutt
The ACMD was slighted again in February, when it recommended that ecstasy be down-scheduled from Class A (most harmful) to Class B, only to have the Home Office reject that recommendation the same day. ACMD head Professor David Nutt also drew heated criticism from the Home Office -- as well as Britain's horsey set -- for heretically suggesting that ecstasy was safer than horse-riding. Nutt was forced to apologize for his remarks.

After a relatively quiet summer, the clash between drug science and drug politics exploded anew when Home Secretary Alan Johnson fired Nutt in late October for again criticizing the government's refusal to follow the science-based recommendations of the panel. That firing caused a huge fire storm of protest, including the resignations of at least six ACMD members, and was splashed across newspaper front pages for weeks.

Now, the credibility of the Labor government and its adherence to evidence-based policy-making have been called into serious doubt, as it becomes clear that Home Office drug scheduling decisions are driven by a political calculus, not a scientific one. And if the Home Office thought firing Nutt was going to make him go away, it was sadly mistaken. Nutt is maintaining a high public profile and is vowing to set up his own independent drug panel.

Whither Holland's Cannabis Coffee Shops?

downstairs of a Maastricht coffee shop (courtesy Wikimedia)
This year has seen the long-running battle over the Netherland's famous cannabis coffee shops continue to escalate. Under the Dutch policy of "gedogen," or pragmatic tolerance, marijuana remains technically illegal in Holland, but the sale and possession of small amounts is tolerated and even regulated.

But that tolerant policy is not a favorite of the conservative coalition national government, and it has created a number of problems. "Drug tourism," as the influx of border town marijuana buyers from more repressive neighboring countries is known, has led to everything from traffic jams to public urination to lurking hard-drug peddlers.

And Holland's halfway approach to marijuana policy -- it does not allow for the regulated provision of marijuana to the coffee houses -- has led to the "backdoor problem," in which coffee shop proprietors must rely on criminal-by-definition suppliers to provide them with their product. That provides additional ammunition for the anti-coffee shop crowd.

The conservative coalition government, however, is split on how best to rein in the coffee shops and has promised not to take action at the national level until after the 2010 elections. That has left the field to local authorities, and they have responded.

In March, the "drug tourism" problem resulted in the announcement by the mayors of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom that they would close all the coffee shops in their towns by September. In May, the mayors of the eight towns in the border province of Limburg announced coffee shops would be "members only." In August, the Dutch government announced it was providing more than $200,000 for a pilot "members only" program in the border town of Maastricht. Court challenges from coffee shop owners have so far failed to stop any of this.

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, an urban renewal plan unveiled in May called for a reduction in coffee shops there from 226 to 192, with a 50% reduction in the number of coffee shops in the central Red Light District. But just last week, Amsterdam Mayor Job Cohen fought back, saying that national coffee house policy should not be based solely on border "drug tourism" concerns, that he opposed the "members only" option, and that he rejected a ban on coffee houses within 250 yards of schools.

Holland's marijuana coffee shops have been around for more than 30 years now, but as was made clear this year, they will continue to be a battle front between the forces of Dutch conservatism and Dutch liberal pragmatism.

Heroin Maintenance Continues to Spread

maintenance programs can make heroin addiction cleaner and safer
This year saw a continuation of the slow spread of heroin maintenance programs for severely addicted users unamenable to other forms of drug treatment. At the beginning of the year, permanent or pilot heroin prescription programs were in place in Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland.

Denmark joined the club in February and Germany came aboard in June. These moves come after Switzerland voted in a popular referendum last year to move from a pilot to a permanent heroin maintenance program, based on favorable results from the pilot program.

Canada is about to join the club, too. After the success of the three-year North American Opiate Maintenance Initiative (NAOMI) in Vancouver, Canadian researchers are moving forward with SALOME (the Study to Assess Long-term Opiate Maintenance), a pilot heroin maintenance program set for Vancouver and Montreal. But as of late last month, Montreal's participation was a question mark after Quebec authorities said they would not pay their share of program costs.

Despite lingering political distaste for heroin by prescription, the body of evidence demonstrating its efficacy -- in terms of users' quality of life, public health, and public safety -- continues to grow. There has even been some discussion of bringing a heroin maintenance pilot program to the US. Dr. Peter Reuter, the renowned University of Maryland drug policy expert, authored a study this summer about the possibility of a pilot program in Baltimore.

There is an old saw about not being able to turn an ocean liner on a dime. That's certainly true when it comes to changing drug policies for the better at the national or international level. But each year, it seems that more progress is being made. Let's see what 2010 brings.

Southwest Asia: Three DEA Agents Among Dead in Afghan Helicopter Crash

Three DEA agents and seven US soldiers were killed Monday when their helicopter crashed as they were returning from a firefight with suspected drug traffickers in western Afghanistan. They were among 14 US casualties suffered in helicopter crashes Monday. An additional eight US soldiers were killed Tuesday, making October the bloodiest month for the US in Afghanistan since it invaded and occupied the country eight years ago.

DEA memorial for agents Leamon, Michael and Weston
The DEA identified the dead agents as Forrest Leamon, 37; Chad Michael, 30; and Michael Weston, 37. Leamon and Michael were members of the DEA's FAST (Foreign-deployed Advisory and Support Teams) and Weston was assigned to the DEA's Kabul country office. Their deaths were the first reported by the DEA since it initiated operations in Afghanistan in 2005 in a bid to thwart the country's multi-billion dollar opium trade.

Afghanistan supplies more than 90% of the world's illicit opium, the raw ingredient for heroin. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported last week that Taliban insurgents earn as much as $160 million a year from taxing poppy farmers, protecting drug shipments, and operating their own drug smuggling networks. Those funds help finance Taliban operations against US and NATO forces and their allies in the Afghan armed forces.

The helicopter crashed in the predawn hours Monday after returning from a raid in which US and Afghan soldiers attacked a suspected drug trafficking compound. The US military said a dozen insurgents were killed in the raid. The Taliban claimed credit for shooting down the chopper, but US officials denied that it had gone down because of enemy fire.

The incident came as Afghan officials fiercely criticized a US military hit list of about 50 suspected drug traffickers, saying targeting them to be killed or captured "on the battlefield" undermines the Afghan justice system and could trigger a backlash against foreign troops. It was unclear if the compound attacked Sunday night belonged to a trafficker on the hit list.

Anti-Western sentiment is already running high in Afghanistan. This weekend, police in Kabul clashed with anti-American rioters infuriated by rumors that American soldiers had burned a copy of the Koran. Several people were wounded when police opened fire on the angry crowd.

Southwest Asia: Afghan Opium Trade Wreaking Global Havoc, UNODC Warns

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned Wednesday that the traffic in Afghan opiates is spreading drug use and addiction along smuggling routes, spreading diseases, and funding insurgencies. The warning came in a new report, Addiction, Crime, and Insurgency: The Threat of Afghan Opium. "The Afghan opiate trade fuels consumption and addiction in countries along drug trafficking routes before reaching the main consumer markets in Europe (estimated at 3.1 million heroin users), contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases," the report said.

Afghan opium
Neighboring countries, especially Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian republics, are among the hardest hit, said UNODC. According to the report, Iran now has the highest opiate addiction rates in the world. "Iran faces the world's most serious opiate addiction problem, while injecting drug use in Central Asia is causing an HIV epidemic," UNODC said.

But the impact of the multi-billion flow of Afghan opiates could have an especially deleterious impact on Central Asia, UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa warned in remarks accompanying the report. "The Silk Route, turned into a heroin route, is carving out a path of death and violence through one of the world's most strategic yet volatile regions," Costa said. "The perfect storm of drugs, crime and insurgency that has swirled around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border for years is heading for Central Asia."

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the opium trade is funding violent radicals. "The funds generated from the drugs trade can pay for soldiers, weapons and protection, and are an important source of patronage," the report said. In Afghanistan, the Taliban generated between $90 million and $160 million annually in recent years, the UNODC estimated. In Pakistan, the UNODC estimated the trade at $1 billion annually, with "undetermined amounts going to insurgents."

Although Afghan opium production declined slightly last year, the country is producing -- and has produced -- more opium than is needed to meet global demand. As a result, the UNODC estimates that there is an unaccounted for stockpile of 12,000 tons of opium -- enough to satisfy every junkie on the planet for the next three to four years. "Thus, even if opiate production in Afghanistan were to cease immediately, there would still be ample supply," the report said.

Unsurprisingly, the UNODC report did not address the role that global drug prohibition plays in exacerbating problems related to opiate use and the opiate trade. Prohibitionist attitudes restrict the availability of harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges, that could reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases. And it is global drug prohibition itself that creates the lucrative black market the UNODC says is financing insurgencies and spreading political instability.

Southwest Asia: Afghan Opium Trade Wreaking Global Havoc, UNODC Warns

Southwest Asia: Afghan Opium Trade Wreaking Global Havoc, UNODC Warns The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned Wednesday that the traffic in Afghan opiates is spreading drug use and addiction along smuggling routes, spreading diseases, and funding insurgencies. The warning came in a new report, Addiction, Crime, and Insurgency: The Threat of Afghan Opium. "The Afghan opiate trade fuels consumption and addiction in countries along drug trafficking routes before reaching the main consumer markets in Europe (estimated at 3.1 million heroin users), contributing to the spread of HIV/AIDS and other blood-borne diseases," the report said. Neighboring countries, especially Iran, Pakistan, and the Central Asian republics, are among the hardest hit, said UNODC. According to the report, Iran now has the highest opiate addiction rates in the world. "Iran faces the world's most serious opiate addiction problem, while injecting drug use in Central Asia is causing an HIV epidemic," UNODC said. But the impact of the multi-billion flow of Afghan opiates could have an especially deleterious impact on Central Asia, UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa warned in remarks accompanying the report. "The Silk Route, turned into a heroin route, is carving out a path of death and violence through one of the world's most strategic yet volatile regions," Costa said. "The perfect storm of drugs, crime and insurgency that has swirled around the Afghanistan/Pakistan border for years is heading for Central Asia." In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the opium trade is funding violent radicals. "The funds generated from the drugs trade can pay for soldiers, weapons and protection, and are an important source of patronage," the report said. In Afghanistan, the Taliban generated between $90 million and $160 million annually in recent years, the UNODC estimated. In Pakistan, the UNODC estimated the trade at $1 billion annually, with "undetermined amounts going to insurgents." Although Afghan opium production declined slightly last year, the country is producing—and has produced—more opium needed than to meet global supply. As a result, the UNODC estimates that there is an unaccounted for stockpile of 12,000 tons of opium—enough to satisfy every junkie on the planet for the next three to four years. "Thus, even if opiate production in Afghanistan were to cease immediately, there would still be ample supply," the report said. Unsurprisingly, the UNODC report did not address the role that global drug prohibition plays in exacerbating problems related to opiate use and the opiate trade. Prohibitionist attitudes restrict the availability of harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges, that could reduce the spread of blood-borne diseases. And it is global drug prohibition itself that creates the lucrative black market the UNODC says is financing insurgencies and spreading political instability.

Southwest Asia: Russia Says US, NATO Anti-Drug Efforts in Afghanistan "Inadequate," Urges Aerial Eradication of Poppy Crops

In a Wednesday interview with the Associated Press, Russia's anti-drug chief said US and NATO anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan were "inadequate" and called for joint action to stem the flow of Afghan heroin flooding into Russia and the former Soviet republics.

anti-drug artwork, Nejat Center, Kabul (photo by Phil Smith, fall 2005)
Viktor Ivanov told the AP that he had recently urged the Obama administration to begin a program to eradicate opium poppies by spraying them with herbicides from the air. Such a program was argued for by former drug czar John Walters and others during the Bush administration, but was rejected. Earlier this year, the US announced it was shifting away from any eradication and would focus instead on interdiction, destroying drug-making facilities, and disrupting the drug trade.

Russia is burdened with rising heroin addiction rates fueled by cheap Afghan heroin, and injection drug use has been a key factor in spreading the HIV virus there. There are an estimated 2 to 2.5 million heroin addicts in Russia, with about 30,000 dying from overdoses each year.

Ivanov, a former KGB captain who served in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, complained that by abandoning eradication efforts in Afghanistan, the West was dooming Russia to a wave of heroin addiction. He also said that growing wheat and other legal crops isn't practical in the middle of a war.

"As long as the situation remains tense and the confrontation continues, no one will engage in agriculture," he said. "They won't be able to cultivate grain even if they want to."

Ivanov noted that the US continues to fund a similar program to eradicate Colombian coca plants. Manual eradication in Afghanistan has failed and will continue to fail because the West has left it to the Afghan government and local authorities lack the clout (or sometimes the will) to effectively implement it, he said.

Ivanov said he had discussed the matter with Obama drug czar Gil Kerlikowske and State Department officials during a September meeting and that both sides agreed to continue discussions on aerial eradication. "I hope that our open-minded dialogue will encourage the US to take more adequate measures," Ivanov said. "We are interested in cooperation."

Feature: Hit List -- US Targets 50 Taliban-Linked Drug Traffickers to Capture or Kill

hidden drug cache, Afghanistan 2008 (from nato.int)
A congressional study released Tuesday reveals that US military forces occupying Afghanistan have placed 50 drug traffickers on a "capture or kill" list. The list of those targeted for arrest or assassination had previously been reserved for leaders of the insurgency aimed at driving Western forces from Afghanistan and restoring Taliban rule. The addition of drug traffickers to the hit list means the US military will now be capturing or killing criminal -- not political or military -- foes without benefit of warrant or trial.

The policy was announced earlier this year, when the US persuaded reluctant NATO allies to come on board as it began shifting its Afghan drug policy from eradication of peasant poppy fields to trying to interdict opium and heroin in transit out from the country. But it is receiving renewed attention as the fight heats up this summer, and the release of the report from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee has brought the policy under the spotlight.

The report, Afghanistan's Narco War: Breaking the Link between Drug Traffickers and Insurgents, includes the following highlights:

  • Senior military and civilian officials now believe the Taliban cannot be defeated and good government in Afghanistan cannot be established without cutting off the money generated by Afghanistan's opium industry, which supplies more than 90 percent of the world's heroin and generates an estimated $3 billion a year in profits.
  • As part of the US military expansion in Afghanistan, the Obama administration has assigned US troops a lead role in trying to stop the flow of illicit drug profits that are bankrolling the Taliban and fueling the corruption that undermines the Afghan government. Simultaneously, the United States has set up an intelligence center to analyze the flow of drug money to the Taliban and corrupt Afghan officials, and a task force combining military, intelligence and law enforcement resources from several countries to pursue drug networks linked to the Taliban in southern Afghanistan awaits formal approval.
  • On the civilian side, the administration is dramatically shifting gears on counternarcotics by phasing out eradication efforts in favor of promoting alternative crops and agriculture development. For the first time, the United States will have an agriculture strategy for Afghanistan. While this new strategy is still being finalized, it will focus on efforts to increase agricultural productivity, regenerate the agribusiness sector, rehabilitate watersheds and irrigation systems, and build capacity in the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock.

While it didn't make the highlights, the following passage bluntly spells out the lengths to which the military is prepared to go to complete its new anti-drug mission: "In a dramatic illustration of the new policy, major drug traffickers who help finance the insurgency are likely to find themselves in the crosshairs of the military. Some 50 of them are now officially on the target list to be killed or captured."

Or, as one US military officer told the committee staff: "We have a list of 367 'kill or capture' targets, including 50 nexus targets who link drugs and insurgency."

burning of captured Afghanistan hashish cache, world record size, 2008 (from nato.int)
US military commanders argue that the killing of civilian drug trafficking suspects is legal under their rules of engagement and the international law. While the exact rules of engagement are classified, the generals said "the ROE and the internationally recognized Law of War have been interpreted to allow them to put drug traffickers with proven links to the insurgency on a kill list, called the joint integrated prioritized target list."

Not everyone agrees that killing civilian drug traffickers in a foreign country is legal. The UN General Assembly has called for a moratorium on the use of the death penalty. In a 2007 report, the International Harm Reduction Association identified the resort to the death penalty for drug offenses as a violation of the UN Charter and Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

"What was striking about the news coverage of this this week was that the culture of US impunity is so entrenched that nobody questioned or even mentioned the fact that extrajudicial murder is illegal under international law, and presumably under US law as well," said Steve Rolles of the British drug reform group Transform. "The UK government could never get away with an assassination list like this, and even when countries like Israel do it, there is widespread condemnation. Imagine the uproar if the Afghans had produced a list of US assassination targets on the basis that US forces in Afghanistan were responsible for thousands of civilian casualties."

Rolles noted that while international law condemns the death penalty for drug offenses, the US policy of "capture or kill" doesn't even necessarily contemplate trying offenders before executing them. "This hit list is something different," he argued. "They are specifically calling for executions without any recourse to trial, prosecution, or legal norms. Whilst a 'war' can arguably create exceptions in terms of targeting 'enemy combatants,' the war on terror and war on drugs are amorphous concepts apparently being used to create a blanket exemption under which almost any actions are justified, whether conventionally viewed as legal or not -- as recent controversies over torture have all too clearly demonstrated."

But observers on this side of the water were more sanguine. "This is arguably no different from US forces trying to capture or kill Taliban leaders," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drugs, security, and insurgencies at the Brookings Institution. "As long as you are in a war context and part of your policy is to immobilize the insurgency, this is no different," she said.

"This supposedly focuses on major traffickers closely aligned to the Taliban and Al Qaeda," said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign policy analyst for the Cato Institute. "That at least is preferable to going around destroying the opium crops of Afghan farmers, but it is still a questionable strategy," he said.

But even if they can live with hit-listing drug traffickers, both analysts said the success of the policy would depend on how it is implemented. "The major weakness of this new initiative is that it is subject to manipulation -- it creates a huge incentive for rival traffickers or people who simply have a quarrel with someone to finger that person and get US and NATO forces to take him out," said Carpenter, noting that Western forces had been similarly played in the recent past in Afghanistan. "You'll no doubt be amazed by the number of traffickers who are going to be identified as Taliban-linked. Other traffickers will have a vested interest in eliminating the competition."

"This is better than eradication," agreed Felbab-Brown, "but how effective it will be depends to a large extent on how it's implemented. There are potential pitfalls. One is that you send a signal that the best way to be a drug trafficker is to be part of the government. There needs to be a parallel effort to go after traffickers aligned with the government," she said.

"A second pitfall is with deciding the purpose of interdiction," Felbab-Brown continued. "This is being billed as a way to bankrupt the Taliban, but I am skeptical about that, and there is the danger that expectations will not be met. Perhaps this should be focused on limiting the traffickers' power to corrupt and coerce the state."

Another danger, said Felbab-Brown, is if the policy is implemented too broadly. "If the policy targets low-level traders even if they are aligned with the Taliban or targets extensive networks of trafficking organizations and ends up arresting thousands of people, its disruptive effects may be indistinguishable from eradication at the local level. That would be economically hurting populations the international community is trying to court."

Felbab-Brown pointed to the Colombian and Mexican examples to highlight another potential pitfall for the policy of targeting Taliban-linked traffickers. "Such operations could end up allowing the Taliban to take more control over trafficking, as in Colombia after the Medellin and Cali cartels were destroyed, where the FARC and the paramilitaries ended up becoming major players," she warned. "Or like Mexico, where the traffickers have responded by fighting back against the state. This could add another dimension to the conflict and increase the levels of violence."

The level of violence is already at its highest level since the US invasion and occupation nearly eight years ago. Last month was the bloodiest month of the war for Western troops, with 76 US and NATO soldiers killed. As of Wednesday, another 28 have been killed this month.

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