Targeting Druglords in Afghanistan

The Pentagon has added 50 suspected Afghan drug traffickers with links to the Taliban to its “kill or capture” target list, according to a Congressional report soon to be released (there are 317 other names on the list, according to senior military officials).  The addition of new targets signals a shift in the American counterinsurgency, which now has a more prominent counternarcotics component.

The logic behind the move is understandable.  The drug trade is believed to be a major source of funding for Taliban insurgents.  American officials hope that killing and capturing traffickers will disrupt the illicit networks and thereby stem the flow of money to the Taliban.

However, the new strategy also presents several problems.  One is that targeting people involved in the drug trade may drive those individuals closer to the Taliban, who will likely offer protection in exchange for a larger cut of the profits.  The same phenomenon happened in Colombia when Colombian officials, with American assistance, went after coca farmers and traffickers, who in turn supported anti-government militant groups.

Another problem is that targeting the supply side of the illegal drug industry will likely be ineffective if history is any indicator.  American efforts to target Colombian druglords like Pablo Escabor, which have been successful in terms of eliminating specific individuals, have ultimately failed to put a dent in the cocaine trade because somebody will always be ready and willing to take the place of fallen gangsters.  Given the lucrative nature of the heroin trade and the dearth of economic opportunities for Afghans, neutralized drug traffickers in Afghanistan will probably be replaced before they reach their graves or their prison cells.

An additional concern is the impact the new policy will have on the military mission in Afghanistan-Pakistan.  Redirecting military personnel away from civilian protection to counternarcotics work could have an adverse effect on NATO’s attempt to protect Afghan civilians from the Taliban, which is the main purpose of the counterinsurgency effort.

A related issue for NATO, especially for European members of the alliance, is the legality of employing military forces against drug traffickers.  There is historical precedence for such a policy, at least as far as the US is concerned.  In the 1990s, President George H.W. Bush declared the drug trade to be a direct threat to America’s national security, and the American military has subsequently been involved in counternarcotics efforts, most notably in Colombia and Panama.  But European governments are wary of using their militaries for that purpose, as are some Pentagon officials, and the new counternarcotics focus could jeopardize their already wavering support NATO operations in Afghanistan.

Although the new counternarcotics approach in Afghanistan might appear to be the right course to take, it will likely be counterproductive for reasons mentioned above.  The US and NATO should focus on protecting Afghan civilians from insurgents, which most counterinsurgency experts believe to be the only effective way for Western and local forces to defeat insurgencies, and launching targeted attacks on militants while taking care to limit civilian casualties.

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