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Afghanistan Today: Drugs, Detention, and Counterinsurgency

Hosted by The Center on Law and Security at NYU School of Law, co-sponsored by The New America Foundation KEYNOTE ADDRESS BY AMBASSADOR RICHARD C. HOLBROOKE As the U.S. engages in a simmering war as well as in continued attempts at building infrastructure, the conference will consider a wide-ranging set of questions in order to clarify policy choices regarding both military and civilian investment in the country. What is the current state of the Taliban? What might the reversion of Afghanistan into failed-state status mean? How prevalent – and how effective – has counterinsurgency been in the country? What are the possibilities for increasing the size of the Afghan army and for embedding U.S. advisors and troops? What role does NATO play? What are the realistic scenarios for stemming the drug trade, and for mounting reconstruction? As a result, the day promises to provide a comprehensive picture of the challenges that face America’s foreign policy establishment as one administration transitions power to the next. Featuring speakers: Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, Steve Coll, Peter Bergen, Barnett Rubin, Scott Horton, Steve Simon, David Kilcullen, Joanne Mariner, Imtiaz Ali, Lt. Gen., David Barno, Shuja Nawaz, Lawrence Wright, Elizabeth Rubin, Nir Rosen, Sean Langan, Doug Wankel, Andrew Wilder, Stephen Holmes, Karen Greenberg, Ambassador Omar Samad, and others. This event is free and open to the public -- for more information, see http://www.lawandsecurity.org/events/AfghanistanToday.cfm.
Date: 
Fri, 10/17/2008 - 9:00am - 4:30pm
Location: 
108 W. 3rd Street Lipton Hall
New York, NY
United States

Feature: US Lists "Major" Drug Producing and Trafficking Countries, Names Only Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela as Not Complying

In their annual exercise in congressionally-mandated diplomatic hubris, the Bush administration and the US State Department Tuesday released its FY 2009 List of Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries, but only placed three countries -- Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela -- on their list of countries that had "failed demonstrably" to adhere to the US interpretation of the international anti-drug conventions and to the mandates of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act.

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Bolivian coca (source: US State Dept.)
President Bush named 20 countries as major drug producers or transit countries: Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. But while Afghanistan dominates global opium production, Colombia is the world's leading cocaine exporter, and Mexico is the primary conduit for drugs entering the US, Bush and his spokespersons aimed most of their criticism at Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela.

Bolivia is the third largest coca producer, behind Colombia and Peru, and the US has been critical of President Evo Morales' "zero cocaine, not zero coca" policies that have allowed a gradual expansion of the coca crop while at the same time working to interdict cocaine produced from coca diverted to the black market. Burma is a distant second to Afghanistan in opium production, but also a leading source of methamphetamine for Asian black markets. Venezuela does not produce drug crops, but is accused by US officials of not adequately fighting the flow of Colombian cocaine through its territory on the way to European markets.

More importantly, all three countries are current political foes of the Bush administration. The Burmese military junta has been criticized for years by Washington on numerous grounds, while Bolivia's Morales and Venezuela's Chávez are at the core of a Latin American leftist bloc that is challenging US domination in the region and is now in the midst of a diplomatic showdown with Washington. Both Venezuela and Bolivia threw out US ambassadors last week in the midst of a still-unresolved dispute between Morales and conservative opposition governors in Bolivia's resource-rich eastern provinces.

"The Venezuelan government's continued inaction against a growing drug trafficking problem within and through its borders is a matter of increasing concern to the United States," said Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs David Johnson at a Tuesday afternoon briefing on the determination. "Despite Venezuelan assurances that seizures have increased, the amount of drugs bound for the United States and Europe continues to grow," he said. Perhaps as importantly: "Venezuela has refused to renew its counternarcotics cooperation agreements with the United States, including refusing to sign letters of agreement to make funds available for cooperative programs to fight the trafficking of drugs from and through Venezuela to the United States," Johnson said.

And although Johnson conceded that Bolivia "does have a number of effective, US-supported coca eradication and cocaine interdiction programs," he warned that "its official policies and actions have caused a significant deterioration in its cooperation with the United States. President Morales continues to support the expansion of licit coca leaf production, despite the fact that current legal cultivation far exceeds the demand for legal traditional consumption and exceeds the area permitted under Bolivian law."

The expansion of cultivation had resulted in an increase of 14% in coca cultivation and an increase of potential cocaine production from 115 to 120 metric tons, Johnson claimed. He also cited the recent departure of US AID workers and DEA agents from Bolivia's Chapare coca-producing region at the firm request of the coca growers' unions backed by the Bolivian government.

"The US government's determination that Bolivia 'failed demonstrably' to adhere to counternarcotics obligations seems to demonstrate the political nature of this process," said Kathryn Ledebur of the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network. "It is worth noting that in his press statement, Assistant Secretary Johnson felt the need to highlight that the determination was not 'a hasty decision,' because it was just that -- a hasty response to the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg," she said.

"Word from several Capitol Hill sources just days before Goldberg's expulsion was that while there were concerns, there was no way to justify saying Bolivia had 'failed demonstrably' in its obligations," Ledebur continued. "This is the third determination since Morales was elected and the fourth since the adoption of the cato system [allowing selected farmers to grow small coca crops], yet this is the first time they chose to decertify Bolivia."

Ledebur also pointed out that while the US criticized Bolivia for growing coca in excess of legal traditional consumption and above the 12,000 hectare ceiling established by Law 1008, that ceiling had never been honored. "At the peak of US-funded forced eradication and other repressive eradication policies, coca production was never reduced to the ceiling," she noted.

"I'm not at all surprised because the drug certification process has been so tainted and archly politicized," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "So you can predict that if the US has taken a certain line toward Bolivia and Venezuela, there will be a negative drug certification. The US always has a hidden test, and that's the nature of Washington's relationship with the country in question."

Birns pointed to the Clinton administration's refusal to decertify Mexico in the wake of the 1993 NAFTA agreements, although Washington had ample evidence of significant drug corruption in the Mexican government. At the same time, it refused to certify Colombia as cooperating in the drug war despite its real efforts because it accused then President Ernesto Samper of having received funding from drug traffickers during his presidential campaign. There are also non-drug examples of the politicization of certification exercises, according to Birns, who cited Reagan administration claims that El Salvador was improving its human rights situation during their civil war in the 1980s, and the Bush administration's use of the terrorism designation in order to pressure North Korea on its nuclear ambitions.

The Bolivian government was quick to challenge US figures and the whole certification process. In a Wednesday speech in La Paz, Morales countered with a UN report from earlier this summer that saw only a 5% increase in cultivation, then went on the offensive. "There should be a certification process for those who are fighting drug trafficking by eliminating the consumer market,'' Morales said. "Drug trafficking responds to the market." Morales also attacked the entire notion of US certification: "These are political decisions,'' Morales said. "We're not afraid of these campaigns against the government using black lists."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was similarly -- if predictably -- scathing Wednesday in remarks reported by Agence France-Presse "The United States can say whatever it likes," Chávez said. "That is pure garbage. It is not true. They can release whatever list they like. What do we care about this list? They can shove it in their pocket, they are no moral authority to make any lists."

At the Tuesday State Department press briefing, an anonymous reporter used the last question to ask about the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Referring to the criteria for a country's inclusion on the "majors list," he asked: "If the Majors was applied to the United States, it would be on the list, too, correct? 5,000 hectares of cannabis and a major -- and a place through which drugs flow?"

"I don't know," Assistant Secretary Johnson evaded. "I don't want to tell you something I don't know. And I'll look into that for you. I'm not trying to dodge your question. I just don't -- I don't know."

Latin America: Embattled Mexican President Seeks More Money to Fight Crime, Drug Gangs

Mexican President Felipe Calderón came into office nearly two years ago vowing to destroy the country's powerful drug trafficking organizations and the violent crime associated with them. But now, roughly 5,000 prohibition-related deaths later and with violent common crime also on the rise, Calderón finds himself increasingly under fire for his failure to live up to his promises.

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Shrine to San Malverde, patron saint of the narcos (and others), Culiacán -- plaque thanking God, the Virgin of Guadalupe, and San Malverde for keeping the roads cleans -- from ''the indigenous people from Angostura to Arizona'' (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
On Monday, Calderon sought to give himself some political breathing room by asking for a whopping 39% increase in crime-fighting and anti-drug funding in his proposed 2009 budget. But while he was quick to publicize the funding request, he was short on details on how the extra money would be spent.

“I have asked for this increase of nearly 40% because we know that today security, justice and order are the principal challenge facing Mexico,” Calderón said.

Indeed, since Calderón took office and called out around 30,000 soldiers to join state, local, and federal police in taking on the cartels, matters have only deteriorated. Not only is prohibition-related violence escalating -- nearly 3,000 have been killed in the drug wars so far this year -- but common crime has grown to such proportions that just two weeks ago tens of thousands of Mexicans took to the streets of Mexico City and other cities demanding that Calderón do something.

Calderón responded to the protests first by meeting with march leaders, then by announcing a series of anti-crime measures, and now, by seeking a large increase in crime-fighting funds. But so far, nothing has worked. In just one week at the end of August, 130 people died in prohibition-related violence in Mexico.

While Calderón can probably count on winning approval of his increased anti-drug and crime funding request, he can also count on the arrival in coming months of the first tranche of a $1.4 billion US anti-drug assistance package consisting largely of helicopters, surveillance gear, and training. Then we will see if more of the same produces different results.

Feature: Afghan Opium Production Declines Slightly From Record Levels

With the West's occupation of Afghanistan now nearing the seven-year mark and plagued by an increasingly powerful and deadly insurgency revitalized by massive profits from the opium trade, Western officials gained some small solace this week when the United Nations announced that opium production there had declined slightly from last year's record level. But the small decline comes as the Taliban and related insurgents are strengthening their grip on precisely those areas where opium cultivation is highest, and the light at the end of the tunnel is, at best, only a distant glimmer.

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2008 Afghan opium cultivation chart from the UN report
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, released Tuesday, total Afghan opium production this year will be 7,500 metric tons, down 6% from last year's all-time record of 8,200 tons. Also, according to the survey, the amount of land devoted to opium production declined 19%. The UN said the total crop had decreased by a smaller number than the amount of land because farmers in key opium-producing provinces were producing bumper crops.

The UN attributed the decline in production to drought conditions and the efforts of a small number of Afghan governors and tribal and religious leaders to persuade farmers to give up the illicit crop. It also crowed that the number of opium-free provinces in the country had risen from 13 to 18, although it failed to mention that farmers in those provinces had, in many cases, merely switched from growing poppies to growing cannabis.

This year, almost all opium cultivation -- about 98% -- is now concentrated in seven provinces in south-west Afghanistan that house permanent Taliban settlements and are home to related trafficking groups that pay taxes to various Taliban factions on their opium transactions. The Taliban is making between $200 and $400 million a year off taxing poppy farmers and traders, Costa said earlier this year. In the report, Costa referred to Helmand province, one of the most Taliban-dominated in the country. "The most glaring example is Helmand province, where 103,000 hectares of opium were cultivated this year -- two thirds of all opium in Afghanistan," Costa wrote. "If Helmand were a country, it would once again be the world's biggest producer of illicit drugs."

The UN said that manual eradication played almost no role in the decline, affecting only about 3% of the crop. What manual eradication did accomplish was the deaths of some 77 anti-drug workers and police at the hands of insurgents and angry farmers. On Wednesday, Costa told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he should abandon manual eradication as useless and even counter-productive.

While Afghan poppy production is down slightly, it still surpasses global demand for its illicit end products. And after several years of crops greater than global demand, it is likely that Afghan traders are sitting on huge stockpiles of opium, so even if production were to be slashed substantially, it would cause no significant disruption in the global markets for opium and heroin.

Still, with the war news from Afghanistan seemingly growing worse by the day, UN and Western officials were eager to jump on any good news they could find. "The opium flood waters in Afghanistan have started to recede," Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the Vienna-based UNODC, wrote in the report. "This year, the historic high-water mark of 193,000 hectares of opium cultivated in 2007 has dropped by 19 percent to 157,000 hectares."

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith interviewed former opium-growing Afghan farmers outside Jalalabad in fall 2005
The Bush administration welcomed the report, saying it provided vindication for its much-criticized anti-drug policies in the country. But a State Department spokesman told the Washington Post, "the drug threat in Afghanistan remains unacceptably high. We are particularly concerned by the deterioration in security conditions in the south, where the insurgency dominates."

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), in charge of efforts to provide alternative development for farmers as part of the broader US counter-drug and counter-insurgency strategy, also looked for the silver lining in the storm clouds over Afghanistan. Its efforts are "paying off for Afghanistan in the war against poppy production," it said in a press release Tuesday.

The British foreign office also joined the chorus, with FCO Minister Lord Malloch-Brown releasing a statement welcoming the report's findings. "This shows that the Afghan government's Drug Control Strategy is starting to pay dividends," he said.

Still, Malloch-Brown warned there is a long way to go. "However, there is no room for complacency," he said. "Afghanistan is still the world's biggest supplier of heroin. High cultivation levels are concentrated in the unstable south, where we are working with the government of Afghanistan, local governors, and international partners to build security and governance."

Other, non-governmental observers were much less sanguine about what the slight decline in opium production signified. "I don't think there has been any real progress made at all," said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies. "But there has been so much money and pressure invested that they feel they have to justify their efforts. It's true that cultivation has ended in some provinces, but other areas are compensating for that."

A large part of the problem is that too many important players are involved and profiting from the trade, said Yaseer. "There are lots of strong, powerful people involved -- influential people in the Afghan government, governors, parliamentarians, provincial police commanders -- and unless they are suppressed, nothing will change. There is lots of concern expressed, but the business is hot and everyone is making money," he said.

Yaseer also pointed to the increasing ability of insurgents to wreak havoc. "Security is horrible, it's getting worse and worse precisely in those growing areas, and where the security gets worse, there are more opportunities for the drug business," he said. "Everyone takes advantage of the lack of security and the chaos."

The UNODC reports provides only "false hope," said the Senlis Council, the Paris-based drugs and security nonprofit that has long proposed buying up illicit poppy crops and diverting them into the licit medicinal market as a means of getting a handle on illicit production and the support for political violence it provides.

"Opium is the cancer destroying the south of Afghanistan," said Emmanuel Reinert, the group's executive director in a Wednesday statement. "Current counter-narcotics policies are failing to address the loss of the southern provinces to the dual scourges of poppy production and terrorism."

The decrease in poppy cultivation will have a minimal effect on the drugs trade, given the exponential growth in opium production since 2002. "This decrease is no more than a ripple in the ocean," Reinert added. "Without an urgent change of direction in the country's counter-narcotics policies, the international community will be unable to prevent the consolidation of opium production in the south of the country, and the consolidation of the Taliban which is financed by the illegal drugs trade."

Instead of pushing farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban and related insurgent groups by pursuing crop eradication, the West and the Afghan government should revisit the Senlis proposal, which was rejected out of hand when introduced in 2005, said Senlis policy analyst Gabrielle Archer. "It is clear that a long-term, sustainable solution is required to solve Afghanistan's opium crisis -- and prevent the insurgency's funding by illegal cultivation," she said. "Poppy for Medicine would allow farmers to diversify their crops, and give Afghanistan an opportunity to be part of a legal pharmaceutical industry. We need the Afghan people on our side if we are to be successful there, and this initiative could go a long way to winning back much-needed hearts and minds, which would be highly beneficial for our troops fighting there."

The hearts and minds of the Afghan population are turning increasingly against the West and the country's occupation by foreign troops, warned Yaseer, ticking off a seemingly endless series of incidents where Afghan civilians have been killed by coalition forces, the most recent being the reported deaths of 90 civilians -- 60 of them children -- in a NATO bombing raid last week. That raid prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call this week for a reevaluation of the foreign military presence in his country.

"Everyday there are new uproars in parliament and local councils," said Yaseer. "They say there is no difference between the Soviets and the coalition forces. They bombard whole villages in the middle of the night because they hear four or five Taliban are there. These killings keep happening all the time, and people are fed up with it. This is all developing very rapidly now. 'Why did you bring this war to Afghanistan?' the people ask. The gap between the people and the government is growing larger every day," Yaseer said.

With coalition military casualties on the rise, the Taliban grown fat off opium profits and ever more aggressive, and growing hostility to the West in the Afghan population, a minor down-turn in opium production doesn't look so impressive.

Editorial: The Coca Wars are Futile, Whereas Drug Legalization is a Win-Win

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
An August 5 article in Time Magazine, "Bolivia's Surprising Anti-Drug Success," observed that legal coca cultivation and the illicit cocaine trade are not the same thing. Despite increased tolerance for coca growing by the Bolivian government under President Evo Morales -- who came up through the ranks of the coca grower community himself to become Bolivia's first indigenous chief executive -- reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky notes that interceptions of illicitly grown coca destined for cocaine labs are up by 30% from 2007, and 11 tons of coca paste have been intercepted this first part of the year alone, more than in all of 2005 (the year before Morales took office), according to the country's Anti-Narcotics Special Forces (FELCN).

The point is an important one. Coca is a crop grown for generations in Bolivia and other Andean nations, and it is one that is economically needed. Cocalero leaders from Bolivia and Peru spoke eloquently to their situation, their needs -- and their rights -- at our Latin America conference convened in Mexico in 2003. Coca-based tea and candies and even soap given out by conference attendees made the point directly -- coca is not cocaine, cocaine's origin in the coca leaf notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, the article stopped there, and didn't ask the logical next question: Will Bolivia's increased drug control achievements actually reduce the global supply of cocaine?

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare region of Bolivia (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2007)
If history and economics are guides, the answer is "no." From 1995 to 2000, for example, Bolivian coca cultivation declined from 51,000 hectares to only 8,000, according to State Dept. estimates. Growing went from 117,000 to 41,000 in neighboring Peru at the same time. But Colombian coca growing rose from 54,000 to 139,000 hectares -- not completely erasing the Bolivian and Peruvian reductions, but mostly erasing them. Meanwhile, US retail cocaine prices, adjusted for purity and inflation, are just a fifth of what they were in 1981, the year the DEA's price-tracking program started.

For the shift in coca growing from country to country to be so much greater than the overall change can only mean that demand is the dominant factor at work, not enforcement. For cocaine prices to drop so incredibly too, shows that eradication, interdiction and domestic policing all combined aren't even making a dent -- suppliers simply anticipate the losses by sending more, and they can afford it.

Bolivian farmers deserve better than harassment over a traditional crop they economically need, making the Morales administration's tolerance of coca growing just. But supply-side anti-drug efforts are futile in term of the ultimate goal, and people around the world affected by cocaine and the illegal trade deserve better too. Only global legalization can stop the violence and corruption that characterize the illegal drug trade. Addicted users will also feel freer to seek help when they are not considered criminals, and will be less likely to do harm to themselves or others in the meanwhile. Ending drug prohibition is a win-win proposition.

Latin America: Peru Constitutional Court Overturns State Law Okaying Coca Crops

The Peruvian Constitutional Tribunal, the Andean country's highest court dealing with constitutional issues, announced Wednesday that it had overturned a law approved by the Department of Puno that legalized the production of coca leaves, the key ingredient in cocaine. Puno had passed the law in February.

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stunted coca plant in garden at Machu Picchu
After Colombia, Peru is the world's second largest producer of coca. Some of the coca is legal, the farmers licensed by the government to produce it for sale to ENACO, the Peruvian state coca monopoly. But tens of thousands of other farmers grow coca without official permission, some of it undoubtedly destined to be turned into cocaine.

For the past two decades, successive governments backed by assistance from the United States, have endeavored to eradicate illicit coca crops, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Those efforts have roiled Peruvian coca production areas, with unionized coca farmers facing off against police and the armed forces.

While the Department of Puno, in far southern Peru, had sought to regularize the situation by okaying coca production, the high court held that the department was trying to set national drug policy. That is the province of the national government alone, the court held.

Latin America: In Bid to Reduce US Influence, Bolivia to Fund Own Anti-Drug Unit

The Bolivian government will fund an anti-drug unit for the first time next year in a bid to reduce foreign involvement in its fight against the cocaine trade. The primary foreign country involved in Bolivian anti-drug matters is the United States, although it currently gets some added from the European Union, too.

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare region of Bolivia
Bolivia is the world's number three coca and cocaine producer, behind Colombia and Peru, and has a government sympathetic to coca growers. But it has insisted it is combating the diversion of coca into the illicit cocaine market under the slogan "zero cocaine, not zero coca."

That stance is a direct rebuke to the US, which seeks to eradicate all coca as an illicit drug crop. It also flies in the face of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, which classifies the coca plant as a narcotic.

The US has pledged about $25 million in anti-drug aid to Bolivia this year, but next year Bolivia will do it on its own, funding the anti-drug unit at $16 million.

"One of Bolivia's responsibilities is to tackle drug trafficking, with our own... resources, with our vision, with our hard work," Ilder Cejas, an anti-narcotics adviser working for the Interior Ministry, told Reuters. The US will be allowed to collaborate with funds and advisors, but only within programs designed by the government, he added.

While the US government has been critical of Bolivia's coca production policy, the US ambassador said the US would continue to support anti-trafficking efforts. "We value the work of the (anti-narcotics unit) and the national police against drug trafficking... We want to continue collaborating," Ambassador Philip Goldberg was quoted as saying by the La Paz daily La Razón last Friday.

Southwest Asia: Former US Anti-Drug Official Accuses Afghan Government of Complicity in Drug Trade -- US and NATO Not Doing Much Either, He Complains

Former State Department official Thomas Schweich, who was the US government's point man in the effort to wipe out the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan until last month, has accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai of protecting drug traffickers and obstructing anti-drug efforts in an article to be published in the New York Times magazine on Sunday, but which appeared on the newspaper's web site Wednesday night.

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opium poppies
"While it is true that Karzai's Taliban enemies finance themselves from the drug trade, so do many of his supporters," Schweich wrote. "Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government," he wrote, adding that drug traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials. Schweich accused Karzai of resisting heightened anti-drug efforts and opposing the eradication of opium poppy fields, long a dream of US drug warriors.

"Karzai was playing us like a fiddle," Schweich wrote. "The US and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai's friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term."

The Karzai government wasn't the only problem, Schweich wrote. He criticized both the US military and NATO forces for indifference, if not outright hostility, toward the anti-drug battle and argued that failing to cut Taliban profits from the drug trade means fighting could continue indefinitely.

"The trouble is that the fighting is unlikely to end as long as the Taliban can finance themselves through drugs -- and as long as the Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power," he said.

Almost everyone is to blame for the Afghan drug mess, the now-retired drug warrior fumed. "An odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats and the Taliban were preventing the implementation of an effective counter-drug program," he said.

In a Thursday press conference in Kabul, Karzai rejected Schweich's charges."As I had said two years ago, Afghanistan never takes the blame (for the drugs threat). The Afghan nation due to desperation, war... has been forced to resort to this issue," Karzai replied when asked to respond to Schweich's comments. "Without doubt, some Afghans are drugs smugglers, but majority of them are the international mafia who do not live in Afghanistan," he said.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium. Production has expanded dramatically since the US invaded and overthrew the Taliban in late 2001.

Editorial: It's Everybody Else Who's Crazy

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
There's an article appearing in the upcoming New York Times Magazine this weekend, pre-released online, that would be funny -- if it weren't appearing in one of the world's most influential publications, that is, and if it hadn't been written by someone who until recently had great influence in an area of policy that he so woefully misinterprets. In "Is Afghanistan A Narco-State?," former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Thomas Schweich blasts Afghans, Europeans, Democrats, the media -- even the Pentagon -- for "preventing the implementation of an effective counterdrug program."

As Jacob Sullum points out in Reason, the answer to the question of whether Afghanistan is a narco-state is "yes." But what Schweich doesn't ask is, why does opium have this power to corrupt governments, empower extremists, warp the economy of an entire nation? After all, there is plenty of legal opium growing around the world, for medical uses, that doesn't have this effect. The answer is: Afghanistan's opium crop is illegal. But because lots of people still want opium and its derivative products like heroin, for their illegal uses, and are willing to pay lots of money for them, there are others who are willing to take the risk that engaging in illegal activity entails, in order to earn the heightened profit that the illegality and risk makes available. In other words, it is drug prohibition that has turned Afghanistan into a narco-state.

Schweich points out that there are places where the opium crop got pushed out before -- Guatemala, nearby Southeast Asia, Pakistan -- and that's what he wants to see in Afghanistan. But another obvious question that he fails to ask is, did this actually reduce the supply of opium and opiates? Or did it simply move the growing to other countries? (Hint: It moved to Afghanistan -- the country we're talking about -- right next to Pakistan.)

The other obvious question is, why did all those different people -- all those different kinds of people -- fail to support Schweich's agenda? After all, there couldn't be any good reason not to support releasing large quantities of poisonous chemicals into the air (for eradication); or not to try to wipe out an enormous fraction of Afghanistan's economy and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, at the very time when the Taliban wants to win their loyalty, could there?

Maybe it's because these Afghans and Europeans and US military officials aren't crazy. Maybe it's because they've actually listened to what scholars have to say about this: eradication doesn't work, it drives farmers into the hands of the Taliban, security has to come first, you can't just tell a hundred thousand people in the world's fifth poorest nation to give up their primary income source with no viable replacement. Could they have taken the positions they've taken, made the decisions they've made, because they are intelligent and informed and logical and practical?

To the Schweichs of the world, it's everybody else who's crazy -- or wrong, or corrupted -- anyone but him. And no matter how many times his policies fail to produce the desired result when measured meaningfully, it's okay. Because that's a detail that doesn't merit asking a question about -- certainly not in an article written for the New York Times -- and he's busy fighting drugs. Which obviously we have to continue to do, in the way we have done before -- because -- because we just do. Evidently no matter what, as far as the Schweichs of the world are concerned.

Latin America: Ecuador Assembly Pardons Hundreds of Drug Mules

Ecuador's constitutional assembly last Friday pardoned hundreds of small-time drug couriers currently sitting in Ecuadorian prisons. Last year, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa proposed the pardons and other drug sentencing reforms, saying it was absurd to sentence low-level couriers to more than a decade in prison for as little as 3.5 ounces of cocaine.

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Rafael Correa
The constitutional assembly took over legislative power in the country after suspending the nation's Congress last year. Under the assembly's action, prisoners who had been convicted of carrying 4.4 pounds (2 kilograms) of drugs or less, had served at least 10% of their sentences or one year in prison, and were not repeat offenders were pardoned.

Ernesto Pazmino, director of Ecuador's public defender's office, told the Associated Press the application process was to begin this week, and the government has 30 days to release eligible prisoners.

"The president has come through with his promise, and we appreciate him and the assembly members," Carlo Aragundi, head of a prisoners' organization at a jail in Quito, told the AP. Aragundi estimated that as many as 1,200 prisoners may be eligible.

Although Ecuador produces almost no coca, it is sandwiched between Colombia and Peru, the world's number one and two coca and cocaine producers, and is frequently used as a transit country for cocaine headed to North America. President Correa acknowledged last year that his own father had spent three years in a US prison on drug charges.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School