Guest Book Review: Drugs and Contemporary Warfare

By Chris Albon

drugsandcontemporarywarfare In his latest book, Drugs and Contemporary Warfare, Paul Rexton Kan attempts to understand the relationship between drugs and armed conflict. Kan is not the first to connect the two topics, such as Gretchen Peters’ book on poppies in Afghanistan. However, Kan’s book is exceptional for developing an overarching theory on drugs and armed conflict in modern history. Kan knows what he is talking about. An associate professor at the U.S. Army War College, Kan’s previous monograph explores the implications of drug intoxicated irregular soldiers on the battlefield (available for download free).

Drugs and Contemporary Warfare is organized into six chapters: Hazy Shades of War, Drugging the Battlefield, High at War, Narcotics and Nation-Building, Sober Lessons for the Future, and Shaky Paths Forward. Kan’s first chapter summarizes the history of the drug trade’s influence on warfare, with emphasis on conflicts after the Cold War. With insightful anecdotes, Kan both introduces readers to the topic and lays the groundwork for concepts presented later.

Chapter Two asks why drugs have become so common in modern conflict. Kan argues drugs provided armed groups with an alternative source of funding after the demise of their superpower patrons. The drying up of international financial support drove armed groups to develop complex, interdependent relationships with drug traffickers. In exchange for protection and military muscle, drug traffickers provided armed groups with income to support their operations. Kan’s interdisciplinary expertise shines in this chapter. His analysis goes beyond discussing drugs in aggregate, instead examining how the individual characters (growing, production, transportation, consumption) of each type of drug affects the behavior and strategy of armed groups.

Kan’s third chapter discusses the use of traditional, transshipped, looted, and synthetically produced drugs by combatants. Kan analyzes when regular and irregular forces promote or restrict drugs use amongst themselves and their enemies.

In Chapter Four, Kan argues drugs decrease the probability that armed groups will make and hold peace agreements. Specifically, the drug trade provides a means for group leaders to employ their constituents in post-conflict environments. Kan expands this discussion in Chapter Five, warning that forces in charge of enforcing peace agreement must take into account the interdependent relationship between armed groups and drug traffickers. You cannot attack one without damaging the other. When armed groups party of a peace agreement are heavily connected to drug traffickers, operations against the latter are a threat to the former.

Kan’s final chapter presents a series of strategies to address drugs in armed conflict. First, following political realism, the resources of major powers and military might could be brought to bear against the drug trade directly. Second, following liberalism, international regimes and norms could be established to erode the connection between narcotics and warfare. Third, the international society could concede that large scale international projects will have little effect and leave the problem to lower levels of governance. The final strategy, and the one Kan is most in favor of, would:

… seek to develop a network of actors at various levels who would challenge he networks employed by warring groups that are involved in drug fueled conflicts. This approach requires a high degree of multilayered cooperation among nation-states, international organizations, NGOs, and local communities to cope with the dynamics of the intersection between the drug trade and warfare, combat the strategic use of drugs, and assist in moving ongoing drug-fueled conflicts to abeyant conflicts, to settled. (Kan 2009, 137)

Kan’s book has much to offer. Readers are presented with a coherent and well cited exploration of the relationship between drugs and armed conflict. However, the book stumbles in two aspects. First, Kan ties together the strategic implications of narco-conflicts and the effect of drug use on the combatants themselves. Transitions between the two are often awkward. At times it feels akin to a book on superpower nuclear strategy including a chapter on the dangers of radiation exposure on the human body.

Second, the strategy Kan proposes is detached from political realities. His multilayered approach requires a network and infrastructure even the global health community can only dream about. It is unclear if he posits this strategy as a realistic option, or an ideal to which the international community should strive towards.

The weaknesses of the book are easily forgiven, for it succeeds in so many more areas than it fails. Drugs and Contemporary Warfare offers one of the first systematic attempts to incorporate drugs into the theory of armed conflict. It offers a new perspective on wartime and post-war behavior, based on a solid theoretical foundation. Kan’s book would be a welcome addition to the bookshelves of any student of modern conflict.

Christopher Albon is a Ph.D. candidate specializing in armed conflict, public health, human security, and health diplomacy. He lives in San Francisco. Chris blogs at War & Health.

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