Shortsighted strategy comes back to haunt

Counterinsurgency requires a holistic approach. The insurgent operates holistically, we must counter them holistically and yet we don’t, instead too often focusing on the traditional war fighting: if we kill enough of them they’ll go away. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

In addition to our failure to understand the information war implicitly and explicitly played by insurgents (and terrorists or any smart belligerent for that matter), the James Risen’s article in the New York Times today highlights strategic failures that undermined our efforts to stabilize the region.

Poppy growing is endemic in the countryside, and Afghanistan now produces 92 percent of the world’s opium. But until recently, American officials acknowledge, fighting drugs was considered a distraction from fighting terrorists.

By ignoring the drug problem, we ignored a fundamental sector in the Afghani economy that not only bankrolls the enemy, it supports belligerent warlords resisting full participation in rebuilding the entire state, it also prevents rebuilding the socio-political structures necessary to rebuild the state.

Administration officials say they had believed they could eliminate the insurgency first, then tackle the drug trade. “Now people recognize that it’s all related, and it’s one issue,” said Thomas Schweich, the State Department’s coordinator for counternarcotics in Afghanistan. “It’s no longer just a drug problem. It is an economic problem, a political problem and a security problem.”

Our efforts to curb the problem, largely ignored until early 2007 (!!), still apparently focuses on law enforcement. LE is important, but as in Iraq, if people have little options in the way of money, what are they to do? If “public” officials such as the local police lack the ability or desire to remove power from the warlords and drug dealers, what are they to do?

The Pentagon also argued that countering drugs had always been a law enforcement mission, not a military one.

The distinction between civil and military operations in both state-building and modern conflict is a line simply rubbed away. It doesn’t exist.

“The commanders said we don’t do drugs, we’re just killing terrorists,” Mr. Hollis recalled. “That showed a lack of understanding of the threat. I cared about going after the drug routes. If you could smuggle drugs, you could smuggle weapons and terrorists. It concerned me that if we didn’t go after the drug trade then, we would lose a golden opportunity.”

The focus on eradication has second order effects while ignoring the importance of the central players, ostensibly our local “allies”.

“To Afghans, our counternarcotics policy looks like a policy of rewarding rich traffickers and punishing poor farmers,” Barnett R. Rubin, a New York University professor and an expert on Afghanistan, told a Senate panel in March.

Many Afghans are hostile to opium eradication, saying it deprives farmers of their livelihoods. Mr. Rubin and others say that destroying crops drives villagers into the arms of the Taliban. But the United States has not embraced large-scale aid and employment programs that might deter farmers from planting poppies. Instead, the antidrug teams venture out into the countryside, where some have been killed by suicide bombers and Taliban forces allied with drug lords.

So why did we permit the resurgence in a drug crop the Taliban themselves had largely eradicated? Because, like decisions to support corrupt regimes and provide arms to questionable groups during the Cold War, it seemed like a good idea in the sliver of time the decision maker considered the options. Failure to understand the ripple effects of such decisions, in this case the socio-political-economic impact of the resumption of opium farming has meant the deaths of our soldiers in 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007 in Afghanistan were for naught. We have simply been feeding the enemy, allowing them to build their base, rearm, and resupply.

We have certainly not done our best to make the Taliban irrelevant, nor are we doing our best to make any insurgent irrelevant.

2 thoughts on “Shortsighted strategy comes back to haunt

  1. One thing Robb gets right in his new book, I think, is noting that the Taliban’s attack on opium production sped up their fall, because they alienated the Afghan people.Repeating the Taliban’s mistakes would be disasterous.

  2. I agree to all of the above, except I would add a qualification to the quick note on the warlords: “the drug problem […] supports belligerent warlords resisting full participation in rebuilding the entire state.”Those people generally referred to as “warlords” seem to be under enough scrutiny to keep them from engaging to a great degree in the drug trade. I believe (though I can’t support this assertion at the moment) that this exclusion from a very profitable venture is leading to their degraded political significance in Afghanistan.
    I would venture that, aside from the “Taliban,” a new group of drug mafia types are gaining enormous influence and power under the radar. Perhaps a Columbian or Mexican type cartel situation is in Afghanistan’s future?
    note: I’m only referring to the “named” warlords here.

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