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The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure: From the Vietnam to the Afghan Quagmire

In a recent interview, Richard Holbrooke, White House Special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan and a key architect of President Obama’s “surge” strategy, declared the War on Drugs in Afghanistan to be a failure. After spending millions upon millions of taxpayer dollars, he said, aerial eradication campaigns have not cut supply rates and contributed to the displacement of farmers and loss of their livelihood, causing many to gravitate to the insurgent camp. He might have added that many of these farmers have been poisoned by chemical sprays resulting in the spread of diseases like cancer, and that the U.S. supports some of the major opium warlords in the Karzai government responsible for turning the country into what even Fox News has characterized as a “narco-state.” Drug money has corrupted all facets of society, crippled the legal economy and made it nearly impossible to carry out the simplest development projects. Positions for police chief in many provinces are auctioned off to the highest bidder due to their enormous graft value. The cost for a job as chief of police anywhere on the border is rumored to be upwards of $150,000.

As Holbrooke is well aware, the failure of the war on drugs in Afghanistan fits a long historical precedent. Holbrooke started his career as an employee with USAID, which was involved in pioneering drug interdiction campaigns during another ill-fated occupation where they proved to be an important recruiting tool for the ‘Vietcong.’ American intervention in Vietnam was a watershed in the growth of the global war on drugs, stemming largely from the crisis of addiction in the American armed forces and revelations of CIA support for opium growing warlords in the Golden Triangle.

By the early 1970s, as I chronicle in my book, The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs, the media was filled with sensational depictions which grossly inflated the scope of drug abuse among American GI’s and obscured the context in which they got stoned. The Nixon administration was placed on the defensive because of the corruption of U.S. governmental allies, who were supplying the troops with drugs, including heroin. In response, Nixon ordered the training of local South Vietnamese police units in counter-narcotics, threatened to cut off aid to South Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Van Thieu if he did not cut down on corruption, and initiated extensive aerial eradication and spraying programs across Southeast Asia. In Laos, the U.S. went so far as to order the bombing of heroin refineries once owned by a CIA asset in the Lao Air Force, Ouane Rattikone, and also initiated crop substitution programs which led to the uprooting of Hmong tribesmen whose principal cash crop was opium.

Nixon’s War on Drugs in Southeast Asia proved to be a disaster on all fronts. Governmental corruption remained endemic across the region, owing largely to the social displacements bred by the war and influx of foreign capital on a hollow economic base. A June 1972 army criminal investigations division staff report concluded that the flow of drugs was “so abundant and the distribution through local nationals so pervasive, that efforts to cut off the supply, even within the military compounds, are like trying to imprison the morning mist.” In South Vietnam, American narcotic agents continued to suspect that high-ranking military personnel and police were skimming the profits of all drug seizures, which one adviser evidently concluded “presents a major problem in narcotics investigations.” Crop-substitution and destruction programs caused the displacement of farmers, many of whom resisted US policy by shooting at overhead planes. Some later testified about children dying from poisoned food crops.

Eventually the military command sought to limit the scope of the drug war. In May 1971, Director of Pacification John Paul Vann sent a memo to senior advisers warning them not to spray marijuana growing fields in the Chau Doc, An Giang, and Se Dec provinces controlled by the Hoa-Hao sect. He feared alienating them and driving them into the hands of the National Liberation Front (the southern based resistance movement). Vann viewed the marijuana program as a bane to broader pacification efforts designed to win over the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese people. The programs nevertheless continued, in part as a covert means of funneling weapons to state security forces bent on stamping out the political opposition. In this respect, the War on Drugs proved to be something of a success, especially as Congress began lobbying for cutting off aid to regimes implicated in systematic human rights violations.

In spite of the overriding failure to curb supply rates, Nixon’s drug-control formula was adopted by successive administrations, which institutionalized the War on Drugs as a crucial dimension of American national security policy. The Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations were fixated on international interdiction in Latin America, where chemical spraying campaigns directed against predominantly poor farmers and the use of private mercenary firms like Dyncorps bred a sustained political backlash, culminating in the election of Evo Morales to the presidency and expulsion of the Drug Enforcement Administration from Bolivia. Afghanistan became the focal point under Bush II, with similar deleterious effects. Most disturbingly, the U.S. funded Afghan police have been implicated in major human rights violations, including the brutalization and torture of prisoners and terrorization of whole communities suspected of supporting the Taliban. All the while, Hamid Karzai’s own brother, Walid, is reputed to be the biggest heroin exporter in the country along with CIA backed warlords.

While acknowledging that there is no magic solution, Holbrooke has recently talked about switching to a strategy of alternative crop development. In the past, however, this approach has predominantly failed, largely because of an inability to create a viable livelihood for farmers and because the programs have often been implemented in an environmentally unsustainable and coercive way by USAID in collaboration with corrupt officials, resulting in displacement and the destruction of the rural social fabric. The U.S. should proceed with caution, and also think about finding a diplomatic settlement capable of bringing peace to a land ravaged by successive imperial interventions. This is the first and only precondition capable of curtailing the growth of the drug trade and fostering a climate in which genuine social and economic development can take root.