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War, drugs, and the war on drugs
date: 17-January-2005
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Please don't start bothering us with facts....For reference, see WMD!

With the belated realization that the war in Afghanistan has turned the country once again into a narco-state, Washington has announced an increase in aid to Afghanistan from US$130 to US$780 to combat the opium and heroin trade. But the US record in Latin America leaves little room for optimism in Central Asia.

By Ustina Markus for ISN Security Watch (17/01/05)

US President George Bush announced in November that Washington would be increasing its aid to Afghanistan from US$130 million to US$780 million to combat the country’s opium and heroin trade. The steep increase was a tardy realization that the country had become a narco-state. Washington’s belated recognition of the problem is odd given its experiences in the drug trade in Colombia. Since 2000, the US has spent over US$2.5 billion trying to curb coca production in that country, out of a total US$3.3 billion in aid to Colombia. The results are mixed. Despite large-scale coca eradication, cocaine production has remained steady. As a result, Colombia is the only other country apart from Afghanistan that has been referred to as a narco-state.

The US experience in Colombia
Colombia is the source of 90 per cent of cocaine consumed in the US and 50 per cent of its heroin. Until the mid-1990s, Colombia produced only a small fraction of the world’s cocaine. Peru and Bolivia were much larger producers of the coca crop, although much of their crops were processed into cocaine in Colombia by drug cartels. In the mid-1990s, a series of crop-substitution programs were introduced in Peru and Bolivia, and the Peruvian government took an extremely hard line towards shooting or forcing down planes suspected of carrying the crop. As a result, coca production declined in those countries. The slack was taken up in Colombia, where the soil not only lends itself to coca cultivation, but large tracts of the country are not under government control, but run by either FARC (the Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces) or ELN (National Liberation Army), two guerrilla groups that have been battling the government in Bogota for over 40 years. The areas of Caqueta and Putumayo in the southwest saw dramatic increases in coca. Those areas had been considered FARC territory for decades and the guerrillas found the surge in coca greatly increased revenues. FARC came to an understanding with coca growers in its areas, protecting them from Colombia’s police while collecting a tax on their crops. As Colombia’s drug exports grew the US concluded it needed to act to curb the trade. In January 2000, President Bill Clinton announced a massive US$1.6 billion aid package called “Plan Colombia” to help Bogota fight the drug trade, making Colombia the third largest recipient of US aid at the time, after Israel and Egypt. Unlike earlier counter drug assistance to Colombia, which was overwhelmingly directed at the country’s law enforcement agencies, the new package also directed aid to the military, so that over 80 per cent of all aid went to police and the military. Much of that was spent on aircraft and fumigation. Critics of the aid package claimed it helped fund Colombia’s corrupt law enforcement agencies, and did little to reduce coca production. Many traditional counter narcotics tactics continued, such as aerial eradication of crops. But after 2000, Colombian military units were also being equipped and trained to drive guerrillas from their strongholds. That aspect of the anti-drug package was controversial, as some worried it could derail Bogota’s peace negotiations with the rebels and the US would find itself bogged down in a prolonged counterinsurgency effort as the drug war and guerrilla wars collided. In order to prevent US forces from becoming bogged down in Colombia’s conflicts, the number of US military personnel in Colombia was strictly limited - never amounting to much more than 350 - and their roles were restricted to instructors, trainers and advisors. Although Congress allowed the troop cap to be raised to 800 and 600 civilian contractors in 2004, their roles remain limited to support and advisory duties.

Assessing plan Colombia
Initially, Plan Colombia was not seen as a success. Despite spending over US$2 billion between 2000 and 2003, the Senate Appropriations Committee on foreign aid found the results of Plan Colombia disappointing. In its 2003 report, the committee wrote: “Neither the Colombian government nor other international donors have lived up to their financial commitments, and the amount of coca and poppy under cultivation has increased. In addition, peace negotiations have collapsed, the armed conflict has intensified, and the country is preparing for a wider war which few observers believe can be won on the battlefield.” While coca cultivation is difficult to estimate, CIA figures and the UN Drug Control Program both indicate that the overall amount of coca grown in Colombia is somewhere near 150’000 hectares, or three times as much as it was when the US began large-scale spraying in 1996. Following the election of Alvaro Uribe in May 2002, the Colombian government began cracking down on the drug trade more forcefully. That is partly due to Uribe’s desire to break FARC, which he claims killed his father. His predecessor, Andres Pastrana, had hoped to reach a negotiated peace settlement with the guerrillas and had refrained from attacking their territories. With a military better equipped and trained since Plan Colombia was initiated, Uribe felt better placed to challenge FARC and the ELN than Pastrana. In addition, since 9/11, changes in US law on lethal assistance, broadening its scope from counter-narcotics to counter-terrorism, now allows the weapons provided to Colombian military units to be used directly in engaging FARC and ELN, as well as the right wing paramilitary AUC (United Self Defense Forces of Colombia). The implications have worried a number of regional analysts. One report pointed out that the problem of labeling Colombia’s conflict as counter-terrorism is that US policy makers may soon find that unlike other peripheral countries involved in the war on terrorism - like the Philippines, Georgia or Yemen, where the terrorist enemy is a shadowy group of a few dozen or a few hundred - Colombia’s three State Department designated "terrorist" groups are real armies. They have tens of thousands of members in control of large tracts of territory, and have long histories. While Bush promised to extend Plan Colombia in November 2004 when he visited the country, the results from the program remain mixed. According the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, coca production in Colombia did decrease from 163’300 hectares in 2000 to 86’000 in 2003. In a reversal of the cultivation trend in the late 1990s, however, coca production increased in Bolivia and Peru over that time, going from 14’600 hectares in 2000 in Bolivia to 23’600 in 2003, and from 38’700 to 44’200 hectares in Peru over the same time period. A report issued by the Washington Office on Latin America called the US war on drugs in the southern hemisphere a failure. It criticized the US policy of focusing on reducing the supply of illegal drugs rather than on the demand for them, and noted that the price of two grams of cocaine went down from US$545 in 1981 to just US$107 in 2003 and that the supply has remained stable. Colombian Interior and Justice Minister Sabas Pretelt dismissed that report, saying that Plan Colombia was a “resounding success”.

The 1990s saw a situation in Afghanistan that mirrored a number of key characteristics of Colombia in the late 1990s. When the US and Soviet Union broke off funding to their respective factions after Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev pulled Soviet troops out of the country, commanders turned to opium production to fund their armies. Large areas were not under central government control and a number of commanders soon came to understandings with the residents in their areas, allowing them to grow opium poppies and collecting taxes on the crop. By the late 1990s, just as Colombia became the world’s largest supplier of cocaine, Afghanistan had the distinction of being the world’s largest producer of heroin. Under pressure from the international community, the Taliban succeeded in almost eradicating opium production on the eve of 9/11. Once the US-led coalition forces went to war against the Taliban, however, the country went back to planting opium, as it is the most profitable cash crop that grows in the region. By 2002, the reappearance of large opium fields were noted and by 2004 Afghanistan once again accounted for 75-80 per cent of global heroin. Initially, the US and its allies were more concerned about defeating the Taliban and uncovering any al-Qaida networks in the area than counter-narcotics operations. As crop substitution programs did not bring in the same revenues as opium, farmers were disinclined to grow wheat or other food crops. Under the very eyes of the international community, within two years Afghanistan was again awash with poppies. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime kept a watchful eye on developments and warned that there was a real risk Afghanistan would once again become the world’s largest heroin producer. Yet, apart from unattractive crop substitution incentives, nothing was done to prevent the country from once again growing opium. In 2004, the UN reported that opium cultivation in Afghanistan had increased by 64 per cent compared to 2003. Valued at US$2.8 billion, the opium economy was equivalent to over 60 per cent of Afghanistan’s 2003 gross domestic product (GDP). In 2004, it was estimated that the trade amounted to over US$4 billion. The effects of Afghanistan’s opium should not be underestimated in the region. While officials in Washington, DC worry that drug money may be used to fund terrorism, the regional affects have been devastating. When Afghanistan was the world’s premier opium producer in the late 1990s, its neighbors found themselves with the highest per capita number of heroin addicts in the world. In Pakistan, almost one in 42 were addicted, in Iran one in 47, and in Tajikistan one in 50. Figures were not available for Taliban Afghanistan itself. Having 2 per cent of a country’s population addicted to heroin is a huge social problem. Iran had been most active in fighting drug trafficking with over 2’000 border patrol officers killed in the 1990s and regular hangings of drug traffickers. In addition, HIV began appearing in the region and spreading quickly through the former Soviet republics, primarily in the drug using community as a result of needle sharing. The death toll from AIDS and drug overdoses will ultimately far exceed deaths from terrorist acts. While the US had been a contributor to the anti-drug efforts in Central Asia, it did not have the same vested interest in the region as it did in Colombia. Less than 10 per cent of narcotics arriving in the US come from Afghanistan. For Europe, Eurasia, and Central and Southwest Asia the matter was different, since most of their heroin came from Afghanistan. Thus, despite warning from the UN and analysts working on the region that Afghanistan was in danger of becoming a narco-state, it was only after the fact that the US made the war on drugs a larger priority. As the US$780 million package to fight drugs was announced after opium cultivation was already entrenched, the counter-narcotics strategy will now be difficult to implement. Given that a massive aid package had little impact on stopping the Colombian drug trade the prospects for Afghanistan are not good.

Mindful of their experience in Colombia where crop fumigation damaged food crops as well as opium and coca leaving many villages hungry, as well as leaving many households angry over the loss of their cash crops, the US has been treading more carefully in Afghanistan. The Pentagon itself has traditionally been opposed to having the military take on any policing roles, including drug enforcement, as this would distract them from their primary mission. Those are also roles that do not have a temporary or one-time nature, but require a permanent commitment – and, as such, are better left to full-time professional law enforcement agencies. That said, the urgency of the drug problem in Afghanistan is forcing the US military to become involved to some extent since the drug money allows local commanders to pay their private militias and prevents the central government from effectively ruling the country. It also buys the commanders/drug lords enormous influence and power as they finance their public works projects from drug profits and pay their soldiers salaries and wages of other workers in their fiefdoms. As long as opium and heroin continue to bring in over US$4 billion in revenues a year, Afghan President Hamid Karzai will have difficulty competing with regional leaders in running the country, as the international aid on which he relies for his public works projects and everything else in the country does not reach those levels. Drug eradication is not easy but it has been done. As noted, Peru and Bolivia made significant inroads in curbing coca cultivation, although they are experiencing a resurgence of coca since its cultivation was curbed in Colombia. Kyrgyzstan stopped producing licit opium in the early 1970s, although under the Soviet regime there was no imbedded drug economy but a purely state-run system, and it is unlikely that drug lords existed who had a vested interest in the legal opium trade. Pakistan also was an opium producer that succeeded in eradicating that crop, although the governments’ hardline methods would be controversial to duplicate. Even more controversial are the Taliban’s methods, which relied heavily on corporal and capitol punishment. Those methods were effective, as Taliban Afghanistan is the only case where an essentially opium dependent economy stopped all production in the space of 12 months, but they are not acceptable from a humanitarian perspective. As over 30 per cent of Afghan households are believed to rely on opium cultivation for their income, there has been much more caution in employing large-scale fumigation than in Colombia. Instead, the US has urged that the country focus more on apprehending the country’s top drug barons and eliminating heroin processing labs rather than targeting the farmers who grow opium. Although President Karzai vowed not to allow traffickers into his cabinet, some of his appointments are believed to be involved in the drug trade. In a country where most field commanders and power brokers are involved in the business it is probably impossible to govern without having some of those individuals in the administration. However, that only indicates that the problem is deeply ingrained and will demand a long-term commitment to resolve. Ultimately, it will be an effort that will require a comprehensive economic recovery program for the country since opium cultivation will only stop once there are alternative sources of income.

Ustina Markus is a Washington, DC-based international affairs analyst specializing in security issues. She covered the elections for ISN Security Watch in Ukraine from Kiev and other parts of the country.

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