Here's A Winning Solution: Combine the War on Drugs with the War On Terror


Image by Army.milvia Flickr

Dexter Filkins has a nice on-scener from Afghanistan in the NYT today, complete with the prerequisite bang-bang.  What’s interesting are the number of obvious contradictions/problems in the strategy that we need to overcome to pull off this war against the poppies. Here’s a few of them:

#1: Ingratiating ourselves with the locals while simultaneously taking away their most profitable cash crop. 

#2: Even if we do cut down on the supply, the shortage of opium will drive the price up, so it won’t hurt the Taliban’s bottomline. 

#3: The huge difficulty of getting the locals on your side during periods of “heavy fighting” in their backyard(ie, blowing shit up, shooting Taliban neighbors and local teens caught up in the action, etc.) And Filkins says that, with great understatement, the population isn’t very supportive right now: “The locals, caught between the foes, seem, at best, to be waiting to see who prevails.”

Another highlight of the piece that jumped out: the bizarro NATO restrictions.  

Under NATO rules of engagement, American or other forces are prohibited from attacking targets or people related only to narcotics production. Those people are not considered combatants…But American and other forces are allowed to attack drug smugglers or facilities that are assisting the Taliban.

That sounds fairly, uh, impossible to figure out. You’re a good drug factory ’cause you only sell poppies to non-Taliban affiliated warlords? You’re a bad drug factory because you sell dope to Mullah Omar? (The military official quoted in the piece says that they can tell because bad drug factories have “IED” making materials and weapons. Hmmm.  If I ran a drug smuggling operation in Afghanistan, no matter what “side” I was on, I’d make sure to have plenty of weapons, explosives, nearby. I’m just saying.)

I would bet that the American soldiers and Marines think that restriction is a total joke. The general opinion of NATO–almost unanimous from the troops on the ground to the highest American ranks–is that many of the NATO restrictions are silly, stupid, and unhelpful. The NATO forces there fight under the acrynom ISAF, International Security Assistance Force. The nickname for ISAF among U.S. troops is: “I Suck At Fighting.” Or, sometimes: “In Sandals and Flipflops.” Even General David McKiernan, who took over ISAF about nine months ago, said that he thought some of our NATO allies treated the war like “summer camp.” 

Overall, does this strategy seem like it has a reasonable chance for success? Differing opinions welcome.  



About michaelhastings

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6 Responses to Here's A Winning Solution: Combine the War on Drugs with the War On Terror

  1. Marc Herman says:

    Mike, do you have any sense of how European attitudes toward narcotics (broadly: it’s demand problem, not a supply problem) would play in any hypothetical broadening of the NATO engagement rules or mission? Offhand, I see a lot of enthusiasm for the Afghanistan mission in Spain, which has troops there, and “war on drugs” rhetoric is not popular at all.

  2. Marc Herman says:

    typo: that should say I DON’T see a lot of enthusiasm. I suspect most Spanish would be pleased to be out of Afghanistan tomorrow.

  3. Michael Hastings says:

    Marc, broadly, it’s safe to say the Europeans aren’t too keen on the Afghan mission, either War on Terror or drugs.

    I spoke to former Petraeus advisor David Kilcullen recently, and he put it this way: the Europeans see Afghanistan as an alliance thing, not a national security thing. In other words, they view their presence in the country primarily as a duty to just fulfill their commitment to NATO.

    As you can probably attest, European haven’t really bought into the war on terror. Thus far, Obama’s failed to convince them that they should be even more worried about terrorism from Afghanistan than we are. (Most of the European countries turned down his request for more troops a couple weeks back.)

    Re: opium eradication. Without having done the reporting(ah, blogging)I would think they wouldn’t be too excited about a heavilty militarized effort to eradicate the poppies, even though a good chunk of the heroin in Western Europe originates in Afghanistan. Eradicating poppies seems to have been folded into the larger counter-insurgency program that we’re so in love with. My sense(confirming what you say the feeling in Spain is) is that they look at the U.S. war on drugs with the same kind of disbelief/disdain as the GWOT.Certainly, Filkin’s story suggests that the Europeans aren’t very interested in getting involved in a major drug effort–the NATO restriction tries to narrow anti-poppy efforts to Taliban only. How they’ll be able to do that, I don’t know.

    But the American military is aware of Europe’s lack of enthusiasm for Operation Enduring Freedom. (How much freedom can an Afghan endure? A Spaniard? A Brit? Questions/jokes for another day..) Very senior military officials I spoke to are pretty open with the fact that European patience has either already run out, or is going to run out soon, and that the U.S. will be left in a similiar situation as Iraq, with no international cover.

  4. LauraMac09 says:

    NATO says, “We will help you. Of course we want to help you! But we will requite you to wear a blindfold on all missions, tie your hands behind your back, and take all ammo out of your guns before you go out!”.


  5. mfbrady says:


    The three contradictions/problems you cited that work against our goals to win the hearts of the locals while putting a dent in the opium trade will certainly persist as long as we persist in destroying or restricting the farming of opium. I have long believed that we should try a completely different approach that would probably not cost us any more dollars than we are spending now. If we want to win the hearts of the locals, why not purchase their opium harvests? We can buy it then destroy it, what would they care? But the fact that we would be active buyers would put us in a new, more positive light with the locals. Eventually, we could expand the relationship to make many of them active allies; and gradually turn their agricultural output to more benign crops which we could also buy or subsidize. And the Taliban would now have to compete with us on an economic basis. I don’t know- it seems better than the madness that we keep doing, hoping for a different result.


  6. jamesohearn says:

    I would bet that the American soldiers and Marines think that restriction is a total joke.

    It is a joke, but it also is not. Go hard against narcotics and you lose any chance of winning over hearts and minds, unless you can provide a permanent, viable economic alternative.

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