Editorial: Drug Prohibition from Colombia to Afghanistan This Week

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David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
One of the less memorable moments in US official activity (well, fairly memorable to people like us, actually) came about five years ago when Rand Beers, then the Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, later a campaign advisor to John Kerry, was forced to recant a claim he had made in a sworn statement in defense of a US corporation being sued by 10,000 Ecuadorans who claimed they had poisoned them. The corporation was DynCorp, whom the State Dept. had hired to carry out aerial spraying of coca fields in Colombia. The Ecuadorans charged that chemicals from the defoliation program had blown across the border, damaging crops and livestock and causing health problems among the human population. Beers wrote, "It is believed that FARC terrorists have received training in Al Qaeda terrorist camps in Afghanistan."

Following an expose by UPI, Beers recanted. "I wish to strike this sentence," he wrote. "At the time of my declaration, based on information available to me, I believed this statement to be true and correct." Quotes from intelligence experts in the article, however, cast some doubt on even that. "That statement is totally from left field. I don't know where Beers is getting that," said one. "There doesn't seem to be any evidence of FARC going to Afghanistan to train. We have never briefed anyone on that and frankly, I doubt anyone has ever alleged that in a briefing to the State Department or anyone else," said another. "My first reaction was that Rand must have misspoke," said a congressional staffer. "But when I saw the proffer signed under oath, I couldn't believe he would do that. I have no idea why he would say that."

Colombia and Afghanistan are both in the news this week, as often happens, with the drug war playing an adverse role. In Colombia, a military official who served along the country's Caribbean coast was removed from his post; if allegations are true, profits from the illegal cocaine industry -- which exists because of drug prohibition -- tempted Rear Admiral Gabriel Arango to join the party. Several Army officers are being investigated too, for alleged collaboration with the Norte del Valle cartel, the country's most violent drug trafficking organization. In Afghanistan, US officials are citing links between the illicit opium trade -- which also exists because of drug prohibition -- and Taliban and Al Qaeda militants, as rationale for escalating the forced opium eradication program.

And that's a big mistake, as numerous Afghanistan analysts have pointed out. For example, at a forum here in Washington last March, CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen, responding to a question I had posed him on the topic, said, "[E]radication doesn't work. There's a vast amount of academic literature showing that it just pushes the growers into the arms of the insurgents." Because of prohibition, both opium growing and opium eradication now help our enemies. It's not a success story for the prohibition policy -- but then again, what is?

I hope this escalation does not include spraying -- the Ecuadorans are not the only ones to explain how reckless and inhumane the practice is. Given that it can't possibly work either -- as long as there's demand, the supply will just move around, and the Afghan farmers need the money -- there is no justification for such risks based on any legitimate hopes for success. The Karzai government has thus far resisted using chemicals, and hopefully they will continue to do so. US drug czar John Walters, however, announcing an expanded US military involvement in the opium operations this week, made an ominous sounding comment on which he would not elaborate, "We expect a more permissive environment for these operations."

Given what has happened in Colombia the last several decades, given what has happened in Afghanistan -- and how it has affected us here -- is any more evidence needed of how morally and intellectually defunct is our drug war? It's time to end drug prohibition -- to legalize drugs -- and finally rescue Colombians, Afghans, and addicts here and around the world from the hell into which prohibition has plunged them.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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Pipe Dreams

The ONDCP’s stated position on Afghani opium production sounds like an opium pipe dream that may soon be overruled by a cold dose of reality.

The United States position on issues involving war-zone international boundaries that happen to fall through the middle of opium producing regions is that national security trumps drug enforcement every time. Always. Essentially, this makes the CIA the boss of the DEA.

The best source of information I’ve read on this topic comes from an East Asian Studies professor at U-Wisconsin-Madison, Alfred W. McCoy, who wrote a book that I strongly recommend to everyone, “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade; Afghanistan | Southeast Asia | Central America | Colombia,” revised edition, 2003.

In the book, McCoy reveals (in addition to a complete history of the opium trade) the strategies used by the CIA during the Viet Nam War in the Golden Triangle (Burma, Thailand, Laos) in which Hmong hill tribesmen were allowed to grow and market opium in exchange for mounting guerilla operations against communist insurgencies from North Viet Nam and the Peoples Republic of China. The strategy worked.

Not only did the CIA allow opium production in the Golden Triangle, the agency actually provided Air America aircraft to transport the opium to Saigon where it was refined into heroin. The CIA sponsored heroin made its way to American service personnel in Viet Nam and Thailand. The result was a wave of military heroin addictions that became the basis for Nixon’s declaration of war on drugs.

As bad as the implications are for allowing opium production in Afghanistan in exchange for an opium grower alliance against al Qaeda and the Taliban, it is not as bad as the plan currently being hatched by ONDCP director John Walters. Crop substitution programs normally take about five years to implement. A main source of nutrition in Afghanistan used to be the nut trees until the Taliban cut them all down, and new trees take time to grow. The United States cannot afford to put everyone in Afghanistan on the welfare roles. So what is left?

There are no political or military advantages to Walter’s plan. But then, as we have seen before, it is typical of people with authoritarian personalities to pursue impossible goals. Following the course of events of drug prevention in Afghanistan promises to be another eye-opener illustrating the never-ending failures of prohibition.

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