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May 21, 2007 - Ottawa Citizen (CAN)

Column: U.S.'s Colombian Drug Experiment A Disaster

And If They Import Their Same Tactics To Afghanistan, Canadian Troops Will Be At Risk

By Dan Gardner, The Ottawa Citizen

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

If the Americans are teaching Afghans the tricks of the trade based on what has "worked" in South American drug wars, look out.

On Wednesday, a feature story in the New York Times began with an unusual scene. In a compound outside Kabul, a group of raw Afghan recruits was being instructed in the basics of enforcing drug laws. "It's Narcotics 101," one of the instructors, a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agent, told the reporter. "We are at a stage now of telling these recruits, 'this is a handgun, this is a bullet.' "

That's not the unusual part. The DEA operates all over the world. There is nothing more common than American drug cops instructing locals in the ideology and tactics that have made the American war on drugs such a smashing success.

What was unusual were the companions the DEA had brought along to help teach "Narcotics 101" to the Afghans. Holding mock AK-47s were two officers of the counter-narcotics police of Colombia. "I wanted the Colombians to come here to give the Afghans something to aspire to," the DEA man said.

"To instil the fact that they have been doing this for years, and it has worked."

I relate this anecdote not to mock the DEA's delusions -- so easy as to be unsporting -- but to warn Canadian soldiers that if the Times' report is accurate, the bad situation in which they find themselves is going to get worse.

According to the Times, the Americans have had a shift in thinking about Afghanistan. "Administration officials say they had believed they could eliminate the insurgency first, then tackle the drug trade," the Times reported. But no more. Now the Americans feel the weakening grip of the central government is largely the result of the flourishing drug trade, and so opium has to be a primary target in the fight for control of country. And that means doing in Afghanistan what is being done in Colombia.

Ask that DEA man in Kabul what's happening in Colombia and he'll rattle off the good news of the past couple of years. Leftist guerrillas have weakened, right-wing paramilitaries have decommissioned and central government control has strengthened. There have been huge seizures of drugs. The number of acres planted with coca bushes -- the source of cocaine -- has declined modestly, while there has been a major drop in the opium poppy crops that are the source of heroin.

And this, the DEA man would say, is all thanks to the tactics American officials want to take to Afghanistan.

There are basically three components: First, interdict drug shipments outside the country. Second, ramp up militarized policing within the country. Third, deploy an air force of crop dusters to spray immense quantities of herbicides on drug crops.

It takes billions and billions of dollars to pay for all this, of course, and in Colombia the Americans have covered only part of that bill. Most of the rest is shouldered by Colombians -- who are too poor to provide basic education and health care to much of the population.

Leaving aside the question of whether those billions could have done more good spent on something other than trying to stop Americans from getting high, there are more obvious reasons to question whether the Colombian war on drugs should be seen as anything but a humanitarian disaster.

There's history, for one. The tactics said to be doing such good in Colombia today weren't introduced recently. They've been standard operating procedure ever since the first President George Bush launched what was called "the Andean Initiative" almost two decades ago. That program featured gobs of money for interdiction, militarized policing and aerial eradication.

President Bill Clinton spent more money on a program with a different name and the same tactics. Then the second President George Bush launched what was imaginatively called "the Andean Counterdrug Initiative." It featured -- wait for it -- gobs of money for interdiction, militarized policing and aerial eradication.

Throughout almost this entire time, drug production and trafficking soared. Guerrillas and paramilitaries flourished. Colombia's refugee camps swelled. Only in the past couple of years have there been some very modest reversals of these trends.

Does this prove the American tactics work? Imagine a doctor who gives a sick patient untested medicine and the patient got sicker. So he gives the patient a bigger dose of the same medicine and the patient gets sicker. And the doctor keeps this up for years until, one day, the patient got marginally less sick and the doctor exults that he's found the cure. Would this experience prove the medicine works? Or that the doctor is an irresponsible quack?

America's drug warriors have remarkably poor memories, so I will note for their benefit that we have been here before. In the early 1980s, Colombia wasn't a major producer of cocaine, and opium poppy was scarcely grown. Bolivia and Peru were the big source countries. So the Americans squeezed using the usual tactics. Production plummeted. And the gringos declared it a resounding success.

It wasn't a success of any kind. It was, in fact, a tragedy. Production rose even more rapidly in Colombia than it fell in Peru and Bolivia. As any economist could have predicted -- and some did -- the American-led effort only succeeded in pushing the plague over the border into a country too weak to defend itself.

It is really quite dazzling to now hear American officials boasting about modest improvements in Colombia's hellish conditions when those conditions are largely the product of American policies.

Efforts to cut smuggling routes have been even more inconsequential. As quickly as routes are severed, new routes are created. All this succeeds in doing is spreading corruption and violence around whole regions.

Thus, the recent "successes" in Colombia have turned Venezuela into a major new trans-shipment point. Lucky Venezuela. Guatemala and Haiti are also increasingly popular stepping stones for smugglers. And pressure in the Caribbean has prompted Colombian traffickers to construct a pipeline to Europe through Ghana, Africa's fragile success story.

And then there's the biggest trans-shipment country, Mexico. A major crackdown a couple of years ago left all the major drug lords dead or in prison. The DEA called that a great victory, too. But that victory unleashed virtual civil war as traffickers battled for control.

This week, Mexico's chief drug intelligence officer was shot dead; he had been on the job for one month.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai knows that if the tactics used in Colombia were deployed in Afghanistan, small farmers who rely on opium poppy to feed their children would throw their support to the Taliban and his government would be in grave danger. This is why he has resisted "Colombianization" from the moment he entered office.

But if the Americans were to insist, Afghanistan's government would have no more choice in the matter than Colombia's.

And Canadian soldiers would discover that tough as things are now, they can get a hell of a lot worse.

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