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In a uncanny sort of way the slow motion failure of the US war effort in Afghanistan is a testament to the fiercely stubborn nature of our species. The US has total control of the air, real-time satellite imagery, and soldiers equipped with the best (and most expensive) military equipment known to our species. And yet, they continue to fail. The war in Afghanistan is almost two decades old now, and an favourable end for the West is unlikely.

The US, despite its world leadership, seems to learn little from it mistakes.  Vietnam remains a powerful lesson and reminder that ‘big guns, best tech’ military option is not a guarantee of victory.  The cost of resisting the US war machine is appalling, some two million(plus) dead, but Vietnam illustrated it is possible to resist.  Afghanistan is on a similar course.

This is what happens when a country decides to wage an unpopular war.  A disconnect grows between the citizens of the country and the political class that is waging the war.  A professional military bears the causalities with little coverage at home, so the war in question can fade out of the public consciousness.  Coupled with a lapdog media that should be exposing the tragedy of errors that is the Afghan war, little is said, and the boondoggle can continue.

Alfred McCoy reviews a small slice of the American failure in Afghanistan, focusing on the drug trade, that happens to fuel the Taliban and provide roughly 85% of the world’s heroin.  You’d think the biggest guns and the brightest minds could plot victory over a dirt poor nation and peasant farmers…


“Not only did this problematic drug war fail to curtail the traffic, but it also alienated the rural residents the government so desperately needed to win over. Worse yet, in the end it actually encouraged illicit opium production — a frequent outcome in Washington’s worldwide drug war that I once called “the stimulus of prohibition.”

Using sophisticated satellite imagery, Sopko’s team, for example, found a troubling disconnect between areas that received development aid from Washington or its allies and those that were subjected to opium eradication programs. In strategic Helmand and Nangarhar provinces, for instance, satellite photographs clearly reveal that the various drug eradication projects ripped through remote areas where “the population was highly dependent on opium poppy for its livelihoods,” rendering poor farmers destitute. The development aid was, however, lavished on more accessible, largely drug-free districts near major cities elsewhere in Afghanistan, leaving countless thousands of farmers in critical rural areas angry at the government and susceptible to Taliban recruitment.

Even liberal development alternatives to those rip-up-the-poppies programs, claims Sopko, only served to stimulate opium production in surprising ways. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), for instance, spent $36 million on irrigation for a showcase Food Zone project, meant to promote the growing of legal crops in southern Kandahar Province. As it happened, though, this important infrastructure program actually turned out to contribute “to rising levels of opium poppy cultivation” — an unintended outcome that could be seen in similar “irrigation projects in provinces like Nangarhar, Badakhshan, and Kunar.”

Next door to Kandahar in central Helmand Province, another Food Zone program initially helped reduce the opium crop by 60%. But as British agronomist David Mansfield reports, by the spring of 2017 an “unprecedented” proliferation of poppies covered up to 40% of the farmland targeted by that project; guerrillas were back in force; and farmers felt, as one put it, that “the Taliban is better than the government; they don’t ban poppy, they just ask for tax.” By now, of course, given all the years of bungled anti-drug programs, Mansfield concludes that the Kabul government has little hope of wresting “back control of central Helmand.”

USAID programs that emphasized increased wheat production proved similarly counterproductive. “With higher-yielding varieties and improved agricultural technologies,” writes Sopko, “households in the well-irrigated central valleys of rural Afghanistan would be able to meet their family wheat requirements with a smaller part of their land,” allowing “a larger area… to be allocated to [the] high-value… opium poppy.”

An Uncertain Future

Corroborating Sopko’s pessimism, a recent report by Mujib Mashal of the New York Times depicted the worsening Afghan drug situation as the product, in part, of Washington’s failed policies. Fueled by a booming opium harvest, the Taliban has recently expanded from poppy growing into large-scale heroin production with an estimated 500 labs refining the drug inside Afghanistan — part of a strategy aimed at capturing a greater share of the $60 billion generated globally by the country’s drug exports.

Out of the whole opium eradication project, the National Interdiction Unit, an Afghan outfit trained by U.S. Special Forces, is more or less what’s left when it comes to hopes for reducing the traffic in drugs. Yet their nighttime helicopter interdiction raids on mobile, readily reconstructed heroin labs are proving futile and their chief, reports Mashal, was recently sacked for “probably leaking information to hostile forces.” U.S. military commanders now realize that local Taliban bosses, enriched by the heroin boom, have nothing to gain from further peace negotiations, which remain the only way of ending this endless war.

Meanwhile, the whole question of opium eradication has, according to Mashal, gotten surprisingly “little attention in the Trump administration’s new strategy for the Afghan war.” It seems that U.S. counter-narcotics officials have come to accept a new reality “with a sense of helplessness” — that the country now supplies 85% of the world’s heroin and there’s no end to this in sight.

So why has America’s ambitious $9 billion counter-narcotics program fallen into failure again and again? When such illegality corrupts a society as thoroughly as opium has Afghanistan, then drug trafficking comes to distort everything — giving even good programs bad outcomes and undoubtedly twisting Trump’s headstrong plans for victory into certain defeat.

Think of the never-ending war in Afghanistan as Washington’s drug of choice of these last 16 years.”

Ubiquity seems to be the qualifying factor.

When I was quite young and much more naive than I am today, I was talking to my dad about drugs. We were talking about all the negative health effects of smoking in school, so I told my dad that I thought that it would be a wonderful idea if smoking was made illegal. Within a generation lung, throat, and mouth cancer would be decimated, people all over the planet would be happy, healthy, and less prone to violence. This could save the world!

My dad was quick to point out how I was in error. Drug lords, he said, would love nothing more than to have smoking become illegal. Making things illegal, without affecting the costs of production, would dramatically increase the retail price. The mark-up would be astronomical, making selling cigarettes very profitable indeed. He then pointed out that my grandfather,  a dear and marvellous man, is addicted to smoking. Making it illegal would not magically make his addiction go away. The only thing it would do is make him a “criminal” and put him and his habit in jail.

Later on in my schooling, we learned about the prohibition era and how the criminalization of alcohol provided the financial backbone for a rampant expansion in organized crime. Another solid examples showing that making a substance illegal in no way reduces it’s use in a society, but rather just strengthens the criminal element and lowers public safety. Experiment failed, prohibition doesn’t work.

Now we have “The War on Drugs”. It seems obvious to me, from these earlier lessons, that having any drug be illegal is a dumb idea. Really dumb. It doesn’t matter what your intentions are, nor does it matter how bad a particular drug is for human consumption. All that matters is that prohibition doesn’t work. I point this out to people and in response I get a torrent of reasons why drugs are bad and how they destroy lives. To me this just begs the question ‘If this is so important, why are you employing such a demonstrably poor way of dealing with it?’

Then I get the speculations. ‘If drugs were legal, they would run rampant. Six year olds would be doing heroine, and society would be saying its ok’. This reminds me of theists who claim that, without god, people would go around raping people and burning school buses filled with children for fun. There is no reason to believe that these horror stories would actualize if drugs were legal, just as there is no reason to believe people without religion are all psycho killer arsonists.

But while there has always been evidence that prohibition was ineffective, there hasn’t been much to show that de-criminalization wouldn’t lead to the other ‘greater’ evils proposed by Drug War Mongers. The most I’ve gotten from an advocate of current drug laws was that, while the laws aren’t a perfect solution, they are the best solution we have. Enter Portugal. AIDS was rampant due to drug needle sharing, drug use was high, things were quite bad. Then in 2001, Portugal went rogue. The decriminalized drugs. All of them.

Nations on board with the War on Drugs were quick to predict catastrophic results for this radical move. Portugal was on the path of self-destruction. Soon the entire country would be populated by stoned-out-of-their-mind-gang-bangers, slitting each other’s throats to get their next fix for their un-controlled drug overdose orgy!

But then…somehow… armageddon did NOT decimate Portugal. Nothing close to what was predicted came to be. What did happen? Drug use fell. A lot. Portugal now has about a third the drug use of the average European nation. What about that AIDS problem? Down by almost a fifth!

Of course, it’s not as simple as ‘Make things legal then-POOF- everything’s better”. Treatment and rehab programs were made available. With the extra resources due to abandoning the War on Drugs, these programs were actually good. Plus, addicts, no longer fearful of persecution, actually used them. They actually committed themselves to helping people in a meaningful way. And it worked. Imagine that!

I’ve always been a huge fan of empirical evidence. There have been countless ideas about how the world could/ought to be. Admittedly some of them were absolute genius in there intricacy, detail, and internal coherency. I’ve come up with a few myself. But ultimately, that doesn’t actually matter. What really makes an idea worthy of pursuit is if the damn thing works.

The results are in. Societies always lose the War on Drugs. What happens if we abandon the war and decriminalize? Portugal has shown us the immense progress that is attainable in just one short decade. So far, most of the western world has not learned from the failure of prohibition, but perhaps it can learn from the success of Portugal.

Brief articles:1 and 2
Extensive article with data here
And for those who favour video:

Destroy enough of the domestic economy, deny the people access to basic welfare and state services and you get the drug fuelled cartel driven country wide chaos that is engulfing Mexico.  People in Mexico are dying in violent drug related deaths every day but the Mexican media is not covering these stories.  The coverage is not there because they tend to start loosing reporters when they focus too much on the drug cartels dangerous activities.

“Violence linked to Mexico’s drug war has claimed more than 36,000 lives since President Felipe Calderon declared all-out war on cartels in December 2006.”

The War on Cartels smacks of the same bankrupts ideas that the War on Drugs featured.   Going after supply rather than demand for narcotics is a recipe for disaster.  The disaster is largely unreported except for in blogs that have sprung up to fill some of the gaps in the Mexican mainstream media’s coverage.

“The images are gruesome and unedited: a dead man in a sports jersey with his face covered in dried red blood and grey sand; a woman hanging from a rope above a busy urban over-pass and naked bodies lined up on the ground displaying clear, uncensored, signs of torture.

You have reached Mexico’s narco blog: Click to continue.

“The narco blog uses much of the information citizens upload to other social networking sites,” says Pedro Perez, president of the democratic union of journalists in Tamaulipas, one of the states on the US-Mexico border hit hardest by drug violence. “Organised crime gangs don’t use it [social media] to inform, they use it for issuing threats.”

Anonymous blogging seems to be the only way that the chaos in Mexico is being covered.

“While much of Mexico’s mainstream media, especially television stations and local newspapers, has shied away from covering killings and naming the cartels involved, the narco blog and its anonymous curator, publish graphic details of spiraling violence.”

“Individuals journalists are doing the best they can, but in general I don’t think the media has done a fair job in covering drug violence,” says Lucila Vargas, a professor of journalism at the University of North Carolina who studies Mexico’s media landscape. “The media in Mexico are commercial enterprises and their first concern is with the bottom line,” she told Al Jazeera.

Like most large scale industries in Mexico, the media – particularly television stations – are highly concentrated in a few hands. Mexicans are more likely to own a television set than to have access to running water but two TV stations – Televisa and TV Azteca – control 94 per cent of television entertainment content, according to the Mexican Right to Information Association.”

Ah, the wonders of corporate media concentration.  None of the news, none of the time.

“Mexico has become one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists: Between 2005 and 2010 at least 66 reporters were killed, with 12 more disappeared, according to a report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). There have only been convictions in 10 per cent of the cases.

Violence, fear and impunity don’t just hurt reporters and their families, they decimates the quality of coverage.

“Local journalists have made a pact to just cover official acts like government activities, local policemen and local activities, things that are not dangerous,” says Perez, who has been threatened by cartels while working with journalists in one of the most violent border-states. “We would like to be heroes, but we are being shot at by criminals.” 

A 2010 analysis of drug war coverage from the Fundacion MEPI, and investigate journalism center, found that regional newspapers in Mexico are failing to report most execution style killings linked to cartels. Journalists interviewed for the study said threats, bribes and other forms of pressure influenced their decisions not to cover killings or name the suspected cartels involved.

“Organised crime members have tried to bribe or influence traditional media [and] that is the importance of social media,” says Raul Trejo Delabre, an independent media analyst in Mexico City.”

With large scale media rendered ineffective the small scale citizen level journalism is doing what it can to pick up the slack and report the horror that is going on Mexico.

Mexico provides a grim case study of what can happen when the state has been rendered deficient almost to the point or being irrelevant in carrying out the basic functions necessary for its citizenry.

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