Last week in Budapest, NATO defense ministers declared war against the $4 billion illegal opium industry in Afghanistan. In a U.S.-driven move, ISAF troops will target the high end of the drugs industry—the heroin laboratories and the traffickers—in an effort to cut off the cash flowing to the Taliban insurgency.
Advocates presented this decision as a “tactical adjustment.” But in fact it marks an attempt to militarize our way out of the narcotics problem in Afghanistan. At a time when troops on the ground are stretched thin and the coalition is losing the battle for Afghan hearts and minds, such a radical shift in policy could prove to be NATO's mission-too-far.
No foreign army has ever succeeded in a counternarcotics effort of this kind. Drugs are fundamentally economic and law enforcement issues. At best, military force has made only a marginal impact, and in most cases, it has been counterproductive. Thailand, Burma and, to a lesser extent, Colombia succeeded in eliminating or gaining partial control of their drug trades only after decades of sustained political and economic development efforts. But Thailand, for one, had to offer its farmers a five-year amnesty to switch from illegal to legitimate crops.
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