At first glance it might look like these troops are in the poppy fields of Colombia or possibly Mexico, “fighting” the so-called “war on drugs.” After all, the U.S. government has dedicated five billion dollars to Plan Colombia since 2000 and more recently another 1.4 billion dollars to the Meridia Project, all with the goal of defeating the illicit traffic in opium and heroin. And according to the DEA it has been effective, forcing a 44% increase in the street price of a gram of cocaine, as well as a 15% reduction in its purity. Indeed, it almost seems like it is worth the effort … almost, but not quite, since there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of a reduction in demand, which means the drug dealers are just getting richer. But in any case, I digress, for the photograph is not of a battle field in the war on drugs, but actually a battle field in the war on terror!
The picture is a taken of a poppy field in the Khost Province where the U.S. military—now 32,000 strong in Afghanistan vs. 160,000 strong in Iraq—has effected a “basic strategy shift” in its war on terror. No, those troops aren’t looking for Osama bin Laden (remember him? the one apparently responsible for 9/11, the one President Bush said was our “number one priority, we will not rest until we find him”) hiding among the plants. Rather, they are “destroy[ing] opium poppies while on patrol.”
There might actually be some sense to focusing on the drug trade in Afghanistan given the evidence that there is a connection between the illicit traffic in opium and various insurgent groups, including both the Taliban and Al Qaeda. But, of course, the approach is all wrong. For one thing, the U.S. government has dedicated the majority of its resources to eradication, interdiction, and the prosecution of high-level drug traffickers, strategies which, as we’ve seen in virtually every instance that it has been employed, only makes the drug more valuable. And for another thing, it is stretching an already thin military cohort even thinner as, in the picture above, its efforts are being devoted to an odd form of “search and destroy” fixated on poppies and not the real enemy.
But there is a bigger point to be made. As I thought we learned in Vietnam, winning a war such as this requires capturing the “hearts and minds” of local populations, and here those populations—altogether absent from the photograph as if to mark their irrelevance to the basic “shift in strategy”—are the peasant farmers who subsist on their illicit poppy crops. When our policy is to target poor farmers through strategies of eradication and interdiction we not only alienate those who should (or at least could) be our allies in the war on terror, but we push them closer to the enemy with its grassroot ties and increase the likelihood of civil unrest if not actually civil war. And what is sad is that there are more effective approaches, such as those used to undermine the international drug traffic coming out of India and Turkey, including licensing farmers to produce crops to be used for legal pain medications and/or buying crops from the farmers and then destroying them.
But apparently John Walters, America’s drug czar, and the Department of State will hear none of it. After all, this is a war on terror. Either you are with us or you are against us. Why use the carrot when you can use a stick—even if it doesn’t work!
Photo Credit: Rafiq Maqbool/AP