Muslim attitudes toward extremist groups

The Menso Guide to War may appear as a vehicle for teaching the world about its author’s perspective. However, as much as anything, it is about his own learning. It is a chance to study an issue sufficiently to write about it, and to put information out for others to evaluate (and argue with) for themselves. I assume nothing about the veracity of factual statements I say beyond well-established facts and my personal experience, not because I lack any conviction, but because I know I could always be proven wrong. Others have their own perspectives, and on most issues, I am more interested in hearing what others say than I am in hearing the truth. The truth is usually very difficult to ascertain when studying such issues as history, politics and conflict, given that some aspects of the truth vary by individual account. Those accounts may be biased by fault of memory, affiliation or ignorance. For example, we can know who won the Battle of Agincourt (the English) because the chroniclers agree on that fact; however, they give different accounts of the details. Indeed, so they should. If all records of Agincourt were the same, we would have more reason to be suspicious than if they differed, as they do, as it would imply some conspiracy or hoax. Moreover, if a new record of the battle came to light, after authenticating it, historians would need to incorporate it into their body of knowledge and assume that, all other things being equal, it is as valid as the others. Certainty, on the other hand, closes the mind to new accounts and potentially-valid perspectives.

That is why I want to know how others perceive the issues discussed on this blog. Polls are a reasonably reliable source of such insight. It is important not to extrapolate beyond the face of the question or assume that all of those polled who said “approve” have identical feelings. Nonetheless, within the limit of the question one can learn much about how millions of people think. The Pew Research Center released a poll of Muslim attitudes in Jordan, Lebanon, Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt and Turkey toward “extremist” groups Hezbollah, Hamas and al Qaeda. Some interesting results:

-Hezbollah was most popular in Jordan, with 55% of those surveyed expressing favourable views of the group. Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based, is deeply divided over it: 94% of Lebanese Shiis support Hezbollah; 84% of Sunnis do not. This result may reflect Hezbollah’s polarising effect on Lebanon; it undoubtedly reflects Lebanon’s older sectarian divisions.

-Hamas, too, received highest approval in Jordan–60%–with Lebanon, Egypt and Nigeria offering a half-hearted 49% approval each. Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt are home to many Palestinians, and to anti-Israeli sentiment, having decades-long histories of conflict with Israel, and these figures might indicate lingering bitterness toward Israel rather than a love of Hamas’ actions and ideology. If that is true, however, a different explanation is needed for why Egyptians polled clearly preferred Hamas to Hezbollah (30%); my guess is, Hamas in Gaza is closer and more familiar (since it came from the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood), and thus more sympathetic, than Hezbollah.

-Opinions on al Qaeda are less divided: with the exception of Nigeria (49%), support for al Qaeda is weak, ranging from 34% in Jordan to 3 and 4% in Lebanon and Turkey respectively.

-Turks, on the whole, had little sympathy for any of these groups, and have more mixed feelings than others about the role of Islam in politics.

-Finally, large majorities of Muslims in the countries surveyed said suicide bombings against civilian targets are never justified. These figures were higher at beginning of the War on Terror, and have since experienced double-digit drops.

These results matter. If vast majorities of Muslims viewed violent extremist groups favourably, the latter would have freer rein to cause problems. More people would shelter, feed and fund them. If almost no one liked them, they would be more easily dealt with, much in the same way as American authorities deal with weapon-stockpiling cults. The effects of ambivalent attitudes such as are expressed in this survey are harder to pin down. The future of this approval will depend on how governments of the US, Israel, and others to a lesser extent, are seen to treat Muslims around the world. A simple rule seems to be that bombs beget bombs, and peace begets peace.

Whether one considers these survey results discouraging or promising, according the Who Speaks for Islam? project conducted by Gallup and compiled by John L. Esposito and Dalia Mogahed, Muslims show themselves as not significantly different from others in the world. They are as likely as others to aspire to peace, to condone terrorism, and to want democracy. They certainly do not “hate us for our freedom”.

Why aren’t there more terrorist attacks?

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the book Counterterrorism. In his book, Dr Ron Crelinsten describes one challenge would-be terrorists face. A reasonable question to ask is, why have there been no successful terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11? Well, he explains, terrorists need money, food, shelter, training, weapons, explosives, safe houses, communications and travel documents to carry out their missions. The reason there have been no attacks on, say, malls all over the US is that the terrorist needs to be a resident in the community, to know the ins and outs of the mall, and plan everything accordingly. They cannot simply plan the attack from New York, fly to a mall in Kansas City, and blow it up. Furthermore, despite some well-publicised discrimination, American Muslims are generally well integrated into their communities. They do not suffer the de facto segregation of many of their counterparts in Europe that could be the foundation of the desire to do harm.

Another answer to this question comes from Loretta Napoleoni. Since 9/11, we are seeing a concentration of terrorism in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, when there were no terrorists before. The supposedly globalist terrorist organisation of today, however, is like a virtual organisation. They often recruit through the internet, and they do not engage in selection or training, like the Western European leftist terrorist groups of the Cold War did. They can be recruited partly because they are not very smart, and thus “the reason why they are not doing so much [in the US] is that they’re not very good at it.” Anyone who thinks he might bring down the US or the UK by blowing himself up in a subway is stupid. The leaders are clever, but the fanatics on the bottom are not.

Bruce Schneier has a third perspective: three reasons that probably run counter to the conventional wisdom. First, it’s not easy. “Putting together the people, the plot and the materials is hard. It’s hard to sneak terrorists into the U.S. It’s hard to grow your own inside the U.S. It’s hard to operate; the general population, even the Muslim population, is against you.”

Second, there are simply not that many terrorists in the US. Contrary to post-September 11th FBI scaremongering, there are no terrorist cells in the US. Al Qaeda is not Cobra or the Decepticons or the Joker and his gang. It is more like an affiliation whose members know each other only by a secret handshake or hidden tattoo. After all, most of the terrorist acts, successful and foiled, in the US since 9/11 have been by lone wolves and nutcases.

Third, because terrorism is communication, small attacks may not serve terrorists’ needs. Terrorists want to scare millions by killing a few. An imperfect attack might not scare enough people, which in turn may be counterproductive because their ineptitude is laid bare before their audience.

Finally, as an aside, Mr Schneier reminds us that most of the terrorist bombings we hear about are in places where terrorists believe they are fighting occupation: Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, Russia, China, Iraq and Israel. But no one is occupying the US.

The al-Qaeda label

What labels do you use to introduce yourself? Do any of them accurately describe you? Do any of them account for the nuances in your thinking or identity that make you unique?

Do you consider yourself a liberal? A conservative? Do others label you as such? If your answer to any of these last three questions is yes, you are playing a game that cannot be won. Such labels are useful to simplify our thinking and polarise disputes, erasing nuances and the colours in between. The more people call themselves liberals and conservatives, the more people we have on our team. There is no room for diversity of thought or deviation from orthodoxy: you are either with us or against us.

The same liberal-conservative false dichotomy is reflected in the terrorist-freedom fighter example (or perhaps today terrorist-martyr more accurately describes this inaccuracy). People cling to their labels as symbols of their identity, which is why simplistic labels are pernicious. Of many significant examples, this post will look at “Al-Qaeda” as one such label.

Al-Qaeda is not really one organisation like the Tamil Tigers or the PKK. It is a very loose network of people who violently oppose American occupation of traditional Muslim land. Al-Qaeda members in different regions have little or no contact. However, to read US government communications, it is a well-organised group inches away from taking over the world. (The US is not alone.) The label “al-Qaeda” is extremely useful for the US government to legitimise its actions. Whenever someone declares himself a member anywhere in the world, the US government feels justified in violating sovereignty, detaining anyone who might be “al-Qaeda” and engaging in so-called targeted killings (assassination). There is no legal basis for such action simply because someone says he is al-Qaeda: he needs to participate in hostilities to be targetable. But to the American people, al-Qaeda is evil and must be stopped at any cost.

The US government is currently targeting Anwar al-Awlaki for assassination. It says such a policy is justified because he is leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which is associated with al-Qaeda, an organisation with which the US is at war. Awlaki is located in Yemen, and while he presumably poses some degree of threat to US interests in the Middle East, it is unlikely he can conduct any major terrorist attack on American soil. Dangerous, probably; worth invading Yemen and keeping Guantanamo open for, international law would say no.

Of course, the other side of the coin is just as important. People have rushed to form organisations named al-Qaeda in order to bait the US into a war, for the purpose of draining its military power, depleting its treasury and frustrating its people. The naming of al-Qaeda in Iraq (or Mesopotamia) illustrates this point. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi formed his organisation in 2003 to oppose American occupation, but it was not for another year that he renamed it al-Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi knew that by declaring his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and renaming his organisation al-Qaeda, he would be perceived as defender of Sunni Islam from the crusaders and get all the press he could want.

But the question was not, was he al-Qaeda, but rather, was al-Qaeda in Iraq deadlier than any of the other insurgent groups there? The Bush administration immediately assumed so in its external communication. George mentioned al-Qaeda 27 times in a speech in 2007, even though about 30 groups had claimed responsibility for attacks on American targets in Iraq and many experts at the time did not believe al-Qaeda in Iraq was a real threat. But it did not matter to Americans: al-Qaeda did 9/11; al-Qaeda might take over Iraq; give us more support for the mission and the recent surge. Al-Qaeda is there, and we must remain until it is defeated.

Wise people eschew collectivist labels that are designed to divide. Belligerents revel in them.

How to destroy the PKK

The Kurdish Workers’ Party, or PKK, has just extended a ceasefire it declared in August. The Turkish government seems in a conciliatory mood, at least toward the PKK (though not toward Israel). We could be at a peaceful crossroads. But there are signs that might not be so.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has usually adopted a tough stance toward the PKK, perhaps most starkly in 2008 with his willingness to break international law and intervene in Iraqi Kurdistan to avenge the deaths of Turkish soldiers. He has been courting Syria, presumably with a view to isolating the PKK diplomatically. (The PKK received ideological support, training and arms from Syria during the Cold War.) The ceasefire might not hold, and might not be worth the breath that produced it: clashes between the PKK and the Turkish military have not ended. Commentator Ali Bulaç considers all this activity a sign that Erdoğan is trying to vanquish the PKK, whether militarily, diplomatically or legally, but that doing so is impossible without addressing “the major sources of the Kurdish issue”.

It is likely the PKK is no longer fighting to secede from Turkey. There is already a nearly-independent Kurdish state in northern Iraq. Furthermore, the PKK seem to be holding out for amnesty, rather than independence. In fact, if one is to believe Erdoğan and Syria’s President Bashar al-Asad, amnesty is on the table. But, beholden to an angry Turkish public weighing its options for the next election (scheduled for July 2011), Turkey’s ruling AKP may still have no appetite for measures of rapprochement. Moreover, the AKP recently achieved constitutional amendments limiting the power of the military in Turkish politics. The military is not averse to seizing power again, however (it was only earlier this year 20 senior officers were charged with plotting a coup), and in all likelihood the generals will want Erdoğan to stay truculent. If it is unwilling to compromise, the Turkish state might instead push to continue the war.

The war option

One lesson that could be drawn from last year’s utter defeat of the Tamil Tigers is that separatist-terrorist groups can be defeated if they are corralled and crushed militarily. But the Sri Lankan army cornered the Tigers by pushing them onto a beach at the north of the island. The PKK, by contrast, live somewhere in the formidable mountains in southeast Turkey and northwest Iraq. Without, say, extensive helicopter warfare, locating and beating the PKK is next to impossible.

Before the unilateral ceasefire, the PKK successfully committed raids in Turkish territory, killing more than 80 Turkish soldiers this year and blowing up the Kirkuk-Ceyhan oil pipeline, Iraq’s largest crude oil export lines. Can they be trusted never to attack again? And barely a month before the ceasefire, Erdoğan had declared “they will drown in their own blood.” Is there any reason to think he has softened since then?

Turkey wants to be accepted by Western Europe, and it wants to destroy the PKK. Though the politics of the recognition of the PKK mean that many EU states and possibly the EU institutions themselves would not look kindly on destroying the group, that could change. Politics tends to have a short memory: destroy the PKK now, turn the attention of the state’s security policy to other things and within a few years, the only criticism will continue to get will be from powerless European Kurds who cling to faith in an independent Kurdistan. Considering that it customarily gets criticised for taking action against the PKK, the Turkish state might do well to end the conflict now, by fair means or foul, and restart reconciliation with estranged Turkish Kurds.

Ahmet Türk, a politician of Kurdish origin, warns against continuing the war. “If the army operations continue and the ceasefire is ignored,” he says, “it will not only cause grave harm to Kurds but to the whole Turkish public.” We have seen how angry the conflict makes Turkish nationalists and how Kurds have suffered from the PKK. This ceasefire, if that is what it is, is an opportunity to stop the pointless killing.

Counterterrorism: the fundamentals

This post is a review of the book Counterterrorism by Ron Crelinsten. Any quotes should be attributed to him unless otherwise stated.

Terrorism is communication. The selection of victims, the actions and their spectacular nature all have communicative functions. It uses violence against one group (the victims) to coerce another group (the audience). Terrorism is the weapon of the weak, either non-state actors who cannot put a guerrilla movement together, or a state that cannot spread the rule of law where it likes. It is singularly economical: “kill one, frighten 10,000”. To truly understand terrorist acts, we must view them in the context in which they occurred and listen to what message they send.

The 1990s brought terrorism into the world’s living room in a process that culminated on 9/11. Since 9/11, two basic schools have thought have emerged among the public, known pejoratively by the supposedly different eras they reflect. “September 10th thinking” holds that terrorism should be about domestic law enforcement. The right laws and the right policing can prevent and punish terrorism just as they do with other crimes. “September 12th thinking” defines counterterrorism purely in military terms, believing we are at war with an implacable foe that cannot be reasoned with or deterred, wants to kill us all and might take generations to defeat. If we have to suspend human rights to achieve victory, such thinkers maintain, it is worth it.

Both of these lines of argument are based on straw men, or painting one’s opponent’s argument as simplistic and then defeating it. More importantly, like the “liberal”-“conservative” divide, they limit how we perceive the problems in question and narrow our options in addressing them. Discourse following 9/11 was often polarised into such ideological camps without recognising the complexity of terrorism.

More robust and useful extensions of these patterns of thought are the criminal justice and war models of coercive counterterrorism, Prof. Crelinsten’s second chapter. In the criminal justice model, terrorism is a crime. It is punished without special anti-terror legislation that suspends suspects’ rights. This model has similar benefits to regular law enforcement: deterrence, incapacitation, stigmatising the criminal, and so on. On the other hand, if there is no law (nulla crimen, nulla poena sine lege), insufficient evidence, a compromised trial or unwillingness to extradite (for instance, EU members are not allowed to extradite criminals to countries where they might be tortured), the suspect goes free. It also does not address the root causes of the crime.

When the criminal justice system is badly used, in an unfair or unjust manner, or when criminal justice procedures become politicized, such as in political prosecutions or show trials, or are compromised, such as when amnesties and early release are given to people convicted of murder, then it can inflame grievances, trigger counter-grievances, or create the impression that violence is the only way to achieve anything. In such cases, a criminal justice approach to counterterrorism can prove counterproductive. In short, other approaches are necessary to address the grievances that charismatic leaders and ideologues use to mobilize recruits, supporters and sympathizers.

Proactive counterterrorism means preventing terrorists from acting. The norm in the criminal justice paradigm is reactive policing, solving crimes and arresting people after they are suspected of one. The proactive approach deals with detection, intelligence gathering and blocking terrorist financing. In this chapter, as in later ones, Dr Crelinsten warns of the dangers of intrusive measures that violate norms of privacy, racial profiling, incarceration without charge and torture.

Moreover, the either-or mentality–either you preemptively tap phones, incarcerate suspects without trial and invade rogue states or you get attacked–limits discourse and the imagination of alternatives. To September 10th thinkers, who hold the law paramount and who fear too much government, Dr Crelinsten says enhanced powers should be tried if they are considered essential. Nonetheless, they need to be accompanied by oversight of counterterrorist agencies and sunset clauses for laws that are only for emergencies. To September 12th thinkers, who advocate preemption at the cost of liberty, he urges the sensible use of intelligence that must be reliable and made available to oversight committees, not cherry-picked and politicised as it was in the lead up to Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Persuasive counterterrorism, like terrorism itself, is communicative. Its function is to dissuade potential or actual terrorists from carrying out their missions. Propaganda, appealing to hearts and minds, incentives to abandon violence and disincentives to engage in it are in this category. One form of preventive communication was nuclear deterrence and mutually assured destruction, or MAD. The message was, our retaliation will be so massive that both of us will be destroyed.

Persuasive counterterrorism can take four basic forms. The first is offensive external psychological operations (psyops). The terrorist organisation and its supporters are targeted (external), as counterterrorists assure the terrorists that their actions are pointless. Public demonstrations, media coverage that ignores the terrorist message and widely-viewed successful conviction and punishment of terrorists are examples. In 1998, the Real IRA killed 29 people in a bomb attack. The result was that leaders worked even harder to achieve peace at the negotiating table. It could also mean penetrating terrorist organisations and spreading disinformation.

The second form of persuasive counterterrorism is defensive external psyops, or preventing undesired perceptions among terrorists’ constituencies. Promising terrorist recruits that they can return to their group, or rehabilitation and reintegration, can prevent them from acquiring a fixation on violence or martyrdom and help them throw it off. The US State Department openly engages in dialogue on Arabic online forums, frequently to receptive audiences. Too often, people who are “radicalised” are exposed to very few perspectives on what they are angry about. Cross-cultural exchanges can thus soften attitudes on all sides.

Offensive internal psyops aims at preventing excessive fear or other behaviours among the counterterrorists’ public. The US government and media are guilty of fomenting fear through their words and confusion through the disconnect between the values they claim to espouse and their actions. What they could be doing is downplaying the real impact of terrorism (after all, even in the 9/11 attacks, only 0.001% of Americans were killed) and simultaneously condemning terrorism. I believe successfully breaking up terrorist plots and punishing conspirators through effective legal means would also constitute offensive internal psyops, as people would see that the justice system is effective, and that circumvention of rights and wild eyed wars on terror are not necessary.

Finally, you guessed it, defensive internal psyops are defensive measures that prevent undesired behaviours among the public. A terrorist attack is a symbol of the terrorists’ ability to strike anywhere, at any time, in spite of the security forces. Dr Crelinsten says governments need to establish trusting relationships with the public through sharing information that is not politicised. Officials must speak realistically about what they know. The media should provide coverage of terrorist groups’ perspectives without accusing them of being in bed with terrorists.

Defensive counterterrorism assumes that a terrorist attack will happen, so we must minimise the risk and the damage of such an attack. Target hardening means making potential targets harder to attack, say by surrounding VIPs or major sports events with armed guards, or by reinforcing cockpit doors on airplanes. Of course, target hardening is not perfect. Terrorists, like counterterrorists, learn and innovate. Moreover, it is subject to politicisation and the taint of inefficient government that claims that any price is worth saving just one life, when there could be much cheaper ways of saving it.

Critical infrastructure protection (CIP), attempting to secure energy, water, oil supplies (especially in Nigeria and Iraq), urban transport (especially since the Madrid and London bombings), is part of defensive counterterrorism. As the list grows (add to the above banks, electric plants, nuclear facilities (even hospitals have nuclear material), government buildings, computer systems and national monuments), so do the questions. How can we possibly protect all these potential targets at the same time? Who will pay for it? Is it worth it? In the US, funds for CIP were handed out by region, which meant that cities like New York and Washington received similar levels of funding as rural regions terrorists have no interest in (which to me is evidence that anything the government touches becomes a pork barrel slush fund). An integrated approach would mean prevention, preparedness, quick and effective response, and mitigation of adverse effects. Such methods would, of course, be part of a long-term solution.

While claiming their detractors need to think outside of the proverbial box, September 12 thinkers have created a new box in which they have trapped themselves: the “new terrorism”. There are many kinds of terrorism and many different contexts in which they occur. Lumping them all in together has given governments round the world the green light to go Colin Powell on groups as diverse as Chechen rebels and the Tamil Tigers while claiming they were all part of a global conspiracy.

If we want to end terrorism in the long term, we need to understand the causes. A 2003 conference of leading terrorism experts in Oslo came to a consensus, summed up in the book Root Causes of Terrorism: myths, reality and ways forward and available in concise form in this PPT. Poverty, religion and insanity are not root causes of terrorism, whereas repression, foreign occupation, racial or religious discrimination, charismatic demagogues and rapid leaps into modernity are major causes. Moreover, far from one or two of those preconditions leading inevitably to radicalisation, the panel concluded, “terrorism is better understood as emerging from a process of interaction between different parties”.

Despite our inability to find clear causes of terrorism, it is probably inadvisable to continue to spend billions of dollars attempting to pound terrorism into the ground as a long-term tactic. Pakistan has received US$10b in aid since 2002, and less than 10% of it has gone toward education, health and democratic reform. Most of the rest has gone to the military. Surely, the Pakistani military is not naive enough to think it can buy its citizens’ loyalty this way. Not only is attacking villages that may contain terrorists not likely to reduce the number and determination of terrorists, but the corruption that helps radicalise people can be seen as a form of western imperialism through corrupt local officials. As a result, Pakistan has seen hundreds of terrorist incidents since 9/11 and the number is rising

The long-term counterterrorist solution Dr Crelinsten discusses that I agree most with is building cross-cultural relations. Many of the worst problems in the world are due to a failure to respect and understand people outside our own exclusive groups, and exchange across groups (particularly at the grassroots, rather than the elite level, to my way of thinking) reverses this situation. One weakness of the thrust of such talks is that “the current fashion of focusing on Islamist terrorism and Salafist-jihadist extremism” has led to the privileging of religious leaders over secular ones. For instance, 80% of Muslims in Melbourne do not attend mosques. When religious leaders are called upon to speak on behalf of Muslims, the majority feel excluded. Moreover, sources of identity beside religious ones are marginalised when they should be emphasised. When people’s religion, nation or race is their single source of identity, or even just the dominant one, they are likely to respond violently to any slight against it. Appealing to other sides of a personality waters down the danger of one aspect’s dominating.

Education is also a major battleground in the fight against extremism. Education should teach respect and understanding of our differences, the ability to communicate across cultures and deal with misunderstandings, the ability to understand culture (I am convinced Sayyid Qutb became a radical because of his superficial understanding of American culture) and critical thinking in the face of propaganda and prejudice. Schools should also teach history in balanced ways that do not obscure a country or other group’s crimes or highlight those of others. All these measures can be more effective than a military approach to terrorism.

I found Ron Crelinsten’s Counterterrorism an excellent, comprehensive book on the theory of its subject. Its analysis is calm and clear and should be required reading for policymakers in the field.

An assessment of US drug war policy: no victories, only failure

What is the purpose of law? To promote justice and eliminate injustice, or to promote violence and corruption? US federal drug laws do the latter, domestically and around the world. This post is an assessment of the effects of the War on Drugs on the world. If you cannot stand the sight of blood, look away.

American demand

The criminalisation of drugs began with alcohol prohibition in the US. Dr Hamilton Wright was named a delegate to the US-initiated International Opium Commission of 1909 and soon started pushing for the prohibition of all drugs. To do so, he sought out evidence of enormous numbers of drug addicts in the US, which there were not, and made up figures where the real ones were unconvincing. At the time, narcotics were dealt by doctors. After a few maneuvers around the constitution (that annoying thing again), Wright had the federal government terrorise physicians into compliance with his ideals.

Meanwhile, Wright pronounced liberally on the “drug-crazed Nigger”, fanning the flames of racism with lies we would scoff at today. “Cocaine,” said Dr Wright, “is often the direct incentive to the crime of rape by the Negroes”. Because of the sea of propaganda, a country that in 1900 looked at drug addicts as unfortunate medical cases saw in 1920 a horde of “drug fiends”, twisted, immoral vampires.

The Anti-Saloon League lobbied for 30 years for prohibition. When they finally succeeded, they issued a statement saying that “an era of clean thinking and clean living” had begun. Unfortunately, the reverse was true. Crime rose 24% in US cities in the first year of Prohibition, and the courts were soon overwhelmed. (Sound familiar?) Historian Andrew Sinclair says “National prohibition transferred $2b a year from the hands of brewers, distillers and shareholders to the hands of murderers, crooks and illiterates.” Police killed gangsters, but they could not get them arrested, because witnesses were afraid to testify against them. Because criminalisation did not affect demand, prices did not change and more people entered the black market to replace those who were shot. Moreover, because the restrictions on, say, selling alcohol to minors, were removed, underage boys and girls could get liquor without being carded. The moral and logical arguments for criminalisation of hooch had already fallen on their faces.

After Prohibition ended, the people needed a new enemy, and in the 1930s, the lies began flooding the press about marijuana. For instance, marijuana was said to induce murder (perhaps the best known example being “Reefer Madness“), and children were said to be buying it in droves. The racism had not abated, of course, and charismatic spokespeople without consciences were now accusing Mexicans of bringing in marijuana and driving everyone crazy (though the N-s weren’t spared the groundless accusations either). Legislation got harsher. Jail times rose, police powers expanded and nothing changed on the street.

The War on Drugs is based on lies. If Reefer Madness were not enough, here are two more examples. Take Richard Nixon. When Nixon came into office, his opponents–in short, hippies–were of the cannabis culture, and Nixon’s reputation for petty vindictiveness can be seen in his approach to marijuana. In order to scare everyone, Nixon’s government fabricated numbers. According to their data, the number of drug addicts rose from some 70,000 in 1969 to 500,000 in 1971. Upon completing a survey, the Bureau of Narcotics thought the latter figure was off by about 800%. Second, remember “crack babies”, the 375,000 misshapen, ineducable freaks that were going to populate the US? They turned out to be as real as Negro Cocaine Rape. But they scared people into supporting the drug war, so the idea alone served its purpose. On the other hand, the lies have been counterproductive in other ways. By the 1990s, kids in the US were so used to grown-up scaremongering that they assumed all the tales about how bad heroin was for you were lies too. Next thing you knew, the rate of heroin addiction had jumped 20%, and the number of heroin-related emergencies doubled between 1990 and 1995.

The War on Drugs has been called racist, a claim that could easily be brushed aside if not for evidence. Today in the US, most drug users in all categories are white, yet blacks run a 500 percent greater risk of being arrested for drug offenses. By 1990, black men and women were 10 times more likely than their white counterparts to be referred to the authorities for drug charges.

The War on Drugs brings the US in constant conflict with the constitution meant to contain it. The US Constitution starting eroding long before the Patriot Act. Police seeing black teenagers walking on the street might throw them up against the wall and search their pockets without justification, which breaks the Fourth Amendment against arbitrary search and seizure. Even if they find drugs, the police cannot simply take it to a judge, tell the judge “this kid looked suspicious so I searched him” and expect a conviction. As a result, there are innumerable cases in which police claim that the suspect dropped a suspicious-looking bag on the pavement, which is perjury. (For more on police corruption, see here.)

The figures speak for themselves. The US murder rate peaked at the end of alcohol prohibition, shot up again at the end of the 1960s and has barely moved since then. The US federal drug war budget steadily increased by billions of dollars annually and has shown no results. The national prison population doubled between 1976 and 1986, and nearly quadrupled in the following decade. The numbers have not decreased since then. The facts are unequivocal: prohibition does not work.

Latin supply

What is the US government trying to achieve with its policy of tackling drugs at their source? It seems to be trying to eradicate the supply of drugs, but that is futile while demand is still high. Efforts must then be put into disrupting the supply of illicit drugs, driving up the retail price and reducing demand, right? But after three decades, billions of dollars of effort and many dead drug warriors, prices are down. The 2001 price of heroin is 20% of that of two decades earlier; the price of cocaine barely a third of its former price; and the price of marijuana way off its 1991 peak. Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, says “[u]ltimately, the prohibitionist approach is an attempt to repeal the economic law of supply and demand, and therefore it is doomed to fail.” The illegal drug trade, also despite all the effort expended (or perhaps even because of it), has gone global.

In 1969, Nixon commissioned a task force to recommend eradicating Mexico’s drug crops. The Mexican government said no, and Nixon took revenge. He deployed two thousand customs and border patrol agents along the US-Mexico border to conduct an enormous search-and-seizure operation. The desired effect–chaos–was reached.

Jimmy Carter’s presidency softened on drugs, and since then drug warriors have been seething, attempting to establish cause and effect relationships between Jimmy Carter’s supposedly lax drug policies and the rise in drug use during his presidency. Eleven states decriminalised private marijuana use without the federal government breathing down their necks. Nonetheless, during that time, the US government continued to put pressure on Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia to end drug cultivation, a baton that Ronald Reagan could pick up when he assumed power. Reagan made it clear that the War on Drugs would be a big priority of both his domestic and foreign policy.

Conservatives held up drug use as the reason for the upsurge in crime in the US (though the real culprit was obviously drug law enforcement). Senator Paula Hawkins (R-FL), for example, said drugs were “the single most threatening menace to civilization today.” But despite such alarmist rhetoric and poor sentence structure, drug consumption did not decrease. They decided instead to try to shut off the supply. Representative Charles Rangel (D-NY) blamed the administration for not waging a sufficiently serious War on Drugs. His criticism evinced the increasingly militant attitude of Democrats and Republicans alike toward drug-source countries in the mid-1980s. Drug laws got harsher, including instating the death penalty for major traffickers and life in prison for repeat offenders. Between fiscal years 1980 and 1987, US spending on countering the international narcotics trade tripled. Yet by 1989, the DEA earned more revenue from seizures than from its congressionally-allotted budget.

The government’s National Security Decision Directive (NSDD) on the drug trade said that, not only were drugs corrupting governments, insurgent and terrorist groups were cultivating them to finance their operations. Revelations that the Taliban, NATO’s latest insurgent enemy, have done the same should have come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the drug war. The same directive insisted on an escalation and further militarisation of the drug war. A CBS-New York Times poll of April 1988 found that half of respondents believed drug trafficking was the number one problem in the world. Washington had both the will and the popular mandate to ramp up the War on Drugs. Government spending on drug law enforcement went from $1.2b in 1981 to more than $5.7b in 1989 (the days of Reagan’s small government promises). Ironically, though not surprisingly, both usage rates of and violence connected to drugs rose during the same time.

The implementation of the directive effectively securitised drugs, which means that drugs officially became a threat to national security, and had to be dealt with accordingly. The military was enlisted to help even in domestic drug law enforcement. For instance, one law asked the navy to secure borders against all vessels containing narcotics. Such a suggestion was ludicrous, of course, as even attempting to do so would have destroyed trade and diverted drug smuggling to other routes. A lot of the billions of dollars sent to Latin America went to militaries, which Galen Carpenter calls “an extremely dubious strategy given the long history of military coups throughout the region.”

Much of Reagan and Bush’s efforts had centered on Peru. Peru is a natural haven for coca plants: they grow like grass in the vast jungles and even on the sides of cliffs. American officials encouraged Peruvian farmers to grow rice, tomatoes and beans. But such crops require time and money to cultivate, whereas the coca plant just needs air. Coca plants last forty years and are harvested every ninety days. Farmers in Bolivia planted various crops for cash incentives from the US, but by the end of the season they returned to coca because supply of fruit, nuts and ginger had far outstripped demand. Who needs tomatoes? Moreover, the buyer comes to you and does not bother with taxes, customs or paperwork. Smuggling is so easy because, according to a former assistant secretary of state for international narcotics, “[f]our Boeing 747 cargo planes or thirteen trailer trucks can supply American cocaine consumption for a year.”

As US officials put pressure on their Latin American counterparts, the latter tended to blame the US and suggest that the problem was on the demand side, rather than their side. They saw the US sense of urgency as self-serving, aiming to put Latin Americans in harm’s way to stop Americans from doing drugs. Moreover, many Latin American cultures differed from that of the US in terms of its taboo on the use of narcotics. Peasants in the Andes have been chewing and brewing tea from coca leaves for centuries. Jamaicans and various Latin American countries accept casual marijuana use as part of the culture. Why would they forcibly change their culture for a bunch of self-righteous Yanks?

Many officials were also colluding with drug cartels. Manuel Noriega is the obvious case; but before he was even indicted (and thousands of Panamanians killed), many high-level members of Panama’s government and Panamanian bankers were making money off drugs. The invasion of Panama in December of 1989 was portrayed as an anti-drug effort, to take out Manuel Noriega. Noriega’s friends in the State Department had looked the other way on his drug trafficking, but by 1989, because of the administration’s anti-drug rhetoric and the mounting evidence against Noriega, doing so had become politically untenable.

Ronald Reagan and the law-and-order promises he made were no better than Nixon, imposing yet stronger drug laws, killing and arresting people all over the place and taking the War on Drugs worldwide. George H.W. Bush had been Reagan’s point man for the anti-drug campaign, and after eight years of nothing to show for it, he told the American people, “Take my word, this scourge will stop.” Yet, how did Bush have the power or even the moral authority to stop it? Bush’s government had known for some time about contra drug smuggling and Noriega.

In November of 1989, the US Justice Department issued the alarming legal opinion that the US military had the authority to pursue and arrest drug traffickers overseas, even without the host government’s consent. Soon after its invasion of Panama, which the Bush administration touted as a victory over the drug scourge, the US stationed a fleet of aircraft carriers off the coast of Colombia, without the Colombian government’s permission, in order to apprehend Pablo Escobar.

Pablo Escobar is perhaps the most notorious of the billionaire kingpins who have made their fortune from drugs. Violence in Colombia exploded as Escobar mounted a campaign of horrific terrorist violence to avoid extradition to the US. After a huge effort, Escobar was shot dead, and the flow of drugs did not change. He left behind a Colombia of crooked public officials and fearful citizens.

Where the US government considered the host government’s permission important (Article 173 of Colombia’s constitution states that foreign troops are not allowed to operate on Colombian soil), it applied pressure to obtain it. It became easy for left-wing guerrillas like the Sendero Luminoso to paint governments as American puppets. The FARC and ELN started because Colombian peasants were angered by their government. These are people whose legitimate trades were driven bankrupt by US taxpayer-subsidised agribusiness. Ted Galen Carpenter suggests that, given that the FARC and ELN do not have wide support, their base might have dried up if not for the violence and crop destruction of the War on Drugs. In spite of concerted crop spraying, coca continues to flourish in Colombia, just as it did in Peru in the 1980s. What have been the effects of spraying crops? Toxins emptying into the Amazon basin and increased cancer rates among the farmers. (Learn more here.)

Gustavo de Greiff, Colombia’s prosecutor general in the 1990s, was not afraid of US pressure. The War on Drugs

does not have victories, only failure. Despite spraying and manual eradication, the areas of cultivation have not diminished, only increased. Drug interdiction doesn’t even reach 10 percent of the drugs that reach international markets. We kill the big capos, we put them in jail, we extradite them to the US–and yet prices don’t even move…. We have to study legalisation…. Change frightens people. There are a lot of vested interests in the drug war. There are a lot of people who would lose their jobs with legalisation…. Legalisation is the worst thing that could happen to drug traffickers.

But Ernesto Samper, Colombia’s president at the time, was eager to continue to placate the Clinton administration and not budge on drugs. Outrage at his crop fumigation policies spilled into the streets when 50,000 peasants protested.

Samper was one of countless Colombian politicians who may have attained power partly through drug money. DEA agents in Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia witnessed a large percentage of police and military personnel making money off the drug trade, either by turning a blind eye or even directly aiding it. Prohibition and pressure were making some groups rich. As Americans pressured Latin American leaders to clamp down on drugs, those who did often ended up threatened by the now very powerful cartels.

Despite all efforts to eliminate the drug traffickers themselves, they tend to follow the “push down, pop up” effect: attack them in one place and they will leave for another. Eradication efforts have been useless for the same reason, as any success in destroying crops has simply pushed them to another part of the vast hinterland of the Andes. Interdiction of drugs en route, once again, does nothing, because as the authorities push down on one spot, say on what they believe is the traffickers’ current favourite spot on the US-Mexico border, the next traffickers move somewhere else.

The War on Drugs fills the cold void

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the slipping away of an enemy meant certain US government bureaus, such as State and Defense, would face major reductions in budgets. They needed a new enemy, and a new war. They had the creeping War on Drugs, and seized upon it. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, one Dick Cheney, was one of the high ups who seized on the NSDD’s securitisation of drug trafficking and set about reordering his department to tackle it. During the latter stages of the Cold War, the US’s strategy had been to engage in small wars that were easier to win to contain communism. As the threat from communism receded, the War on Drugs filled the void.

The public generally swallowed the tripe about drugs’ being the US’s biggest threat, and the need for increased military spending to stop it. Drug cartels were seen as evil in the same way as communists had been (and terrorists are today). The ideological elements of the Cold War provided a pretext for US military intervention anywhere there was a perceived communist threat. The equivalent today is, of course, the War on Terror. Also like the other two wars, drug warmongers framed their war as one that could last generations. Between the Cold War and War on Terror, the War on Drugs fit like a glove. It was the ideal justification for intervention.

Huge amounts of aid were handed out to the governments of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru for signing on to the Andean Initiative and pledging to reduce drug traffic. Of course, US government drug war plans did not stretch very far into crop substitution (to the objection of governments on the ground that knew better) or other options beside violence. Since governments obtain their resources by force (taxation), it is natural that they might have a blind spot regarding alternatives to it.

Under Bill Clinton, the War on Drugs led to more Americans in jail on drug offenses, more military assistance to Latin American governments and more military interdiction on the US-Mexico border. Clinton demanded that assistance to Colombia be spent fighting narcotrafficking, as this was the US government’s big concern. However, Colombia has two major anti-government guerrilla groups, the FARC and the ELN, and they are partly financed by the drug trade. (The other part is kidnapping.) These groups frequently work with whichever narcotraffickers are in the region they control. Supplying the Colombian military with hardware and telling it not to use it against groups it is at war with is futile. And after 9/11 of course, the distinction between narcotraffickers and “narcoterrorists” was erased.

Millions of Colombians have been displaced by the fighting, and middle and upper class Colombians have left Colombia in droves. A reporter described lines that “snake around the block near foreign consulates where people stand in line all night seeking visas.” Colombia has received $5b in aid since 2000. The “left-wing” FARC guerrillas have grown weaker but the military-linked paramilitaries have not. 35,000 civilians died during the 1990s, and though 2.5m Colombians have been forced from their homes in the past decade, only a couple of thousand have been killed. As anyone with a newspaper can tell us, the killing has moved to Mexico. Even before the recent escalation under Felipe Calderon, Mexico had had its share of rich drug barons, corrupt policemen and dead victims in the crossfire. Some 23,000 have died in the US government’s proxy drug war in Mexico. (See more here.)

Galen Carpenter explains the conservative attitude in Washington to bad policy. “The attitude of US officials about the progress of the international phase of the drug war has a dreary consistency. Setbacks are ignored or explained away; every sign of success is touted, often to the point of absurdity; and victory is said to be just around the corner–if the current policies continue awhile longer.” What Richard Cowan calls the iron law of prohibition is that, “the more intense the law enforcement, the more potent the drugs will become.” Marijuana has become more potent (and crack was invented) because traffickers want to reduce the bulk of their cargo. The situation was no different during alcohol prohibition, when bootleggers developed white lightning, the 190-proof crack of the 1920s. Even worse, industrial alcohol, of the sort used to make paint and plastic, was usually added to what was drunk. One can only imagine what today’s street drugs have in them.

The solution

At present, illegal drugs are taxed. However, instead of democratic governments collecting the tax, it is the drug traffickers who collect it. Gustavo de Greiff explains. “As long as the trade is illicit, the narcotraficantes will continue to receive these immense profits that allow them to corrupt everyone…. In 10, 15, 20 years, we will finally arrive at controlled legalization,” he predicts. “What makes me sad is that when this measure is finally adopted we will look back at all the deaths, all the corruption, and everything evil that drug trafficking brought us in the intervening 20 years.”

All kinds of people support legalisation: police, doctors, and if they are not convincing enough, celebrities. Former Uruguayan President Jorge Batlle said “During the past 30 years [the War on Drugs] has grown, grown, grown, every day more problems, every day more violence, every day more militarisation. This has not gotten people off drugs. And what’s more, if you remove the economic incentive…it loses strength, it loses size, it loses people who participate.” The presidents of both Mexico and Colombia–the countries hardest hit by the consequences of drug criminalisation–have called at least for debate on the issue. Some Americans are listening, hence the California legislature’s recent decriminalisation of marijuana. If more Americans begin to realise the trouble their government’s policies are causing, they will vote to change them. The legalisation of drugs will not make them disappear, as the millions of people hooked on prescription drugs attest to.

Britain and the Netherlands both experimented with decriminalisation. Like in the US in the 1920s, British physicians were allowed to prescribe heroin and the government could do nothing about it. What were the results? When Dr John Marks made a survey of Liverpool in 1982, he expected to find AIDS rates of 15 to 20% among heroin users. Instead, he did not find a single case. Another surprise came from local police in Cheshire, who had tracked 100 users and found that after entering clinics, their tendency to crime fell by 94%. Fewer overdoses were reported, and fewer people were trying heroin. One would be correct to guess that all the same harm reduction was reported from the Netherlands. Portugal has had even more success. Can we learn nothing from them?

Winston Churchill once said that “without victory, there is no survival.” A century of failure with one obvious source can be reversed, and victory attained, but not before the end of the War on Drugs.

Galen Carpenter, Ted: Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s futile war on drugs in Latin America
Gray, Mike: Drug Crazy: how we got into this mess and how we can get out

Stop trying to combat terrorism

It has been nine years since the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in the US, and we are still talking about fighting terrorism and killing terrorists. However, if we really want to end terrorism, we should start not by combating it, but by understanding it.

Misguided policies are usually at the root of terrorism. Governments in Central Asia, for example, are still pouring money into anti-terrorist campaigns putatively aiming to end terrorism. Instead, they strengthen the state vis-a-vis the people who hate it, and strengthen calls for terrorism by giving the people ever-better reasons to engage in it. Miroslav Jenca, head of the UN Regional Centre for Preventive Diplomacy for Central Asia, told Xinhua that the instability in Central Asia was a breeding ground for terrorist activity. “[T]he wider region is fast becoming the main front on the global war against terror.” But tactics so far have done nothing. Is it because they are insufficiently integrated into a region-wide or global campaign? No, it is because they ignore the reasons people are so discontented. People in Central Asia, from western China to eastern Uzbekistan, are repressed and harassed by their governments and treated like scum. Separatism, Islamic militancy and other hostile outbursts against the state are almost inevitable in such conditions. Do governments not know that, or do they simply want to fight a war with no end in order to extend their governments into more people’s affairs and take away more people’s freedoms? As we ponder that question, Uzbekistan holds 14 human rights activists in jail and 25 men under arrest for terrorism in Tajikistan have escaped from prison.

Uzbekistan and Tajikistan are just two examples of state failure accelerated by overzealous anti-terrorist campaigns. The US government has helped fund counter-terrorism efforts in Central Asia in return for bases by which to attack terrorist targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The US Department of Defense says the International Security Assistance Force or ISAF has helped “set the economic, political and security conditions for the growth of an effective, democratic national government in Afghanistan.” But merely to look at the headlines, we see huge corruption and ineffective governance in Hamid Karzai’s government; violence against foreign soldiers and locals by Taliban, whose membership does not seem to be waning despite the pressure on them; and a battle for hearts and minds that is tumbling down the sinkhole of counter-insurgency. Perhaps I am being unfair, assuming that nine years is long enough to bring about results. But while the public in countries contributing troops to the ISAF grows restive, the Taliban and other so-called “terrorist” groups are not shrinking. Is this War on Terror showing any meaningful reduction in terrorism?

Muslims in Canada have been arrested under terrorist charges, including recently. Many of the “Toronto 18” accused of a terrorist plot in 2006 have been charged. It is likely that their desire for violence came from their seeing Muslims around the world suffer. One notoriously talked about beheading Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Terrorism in Canada, including attempting to kill a pro-war prime minister, suggests to me the Toronto 18 plot was an expression of rage against Canada’s involvement in the war in Afghanistan. History lends itself to this analysis. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely to end the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq.

Muslims are accused of becoming radicalised in madrassas, some of which are funded by the Saudi royal family to spread its brand of Islam around, and perhaps to spread Islamic extremism. I am no fan of religion of any kind, least of all the Saudi Wahhabist variety. But similar schools with similar messages have existed for centuries. The influence of Saudi-funded mosques and missions is a shadow compared to what Muslim terrorists actually rebel against: repression, murder, injustice and occupation. (Incidentally, the Arabic word “madrassa” does not mean “place where people go to get transformed into jihadist suicide bombers” but “school”.) The US has always been nominally against those things, but its foreign policy says otherwise.

Terrorism is a weapon of the weak. It is usually an expression of anger and frustration at a state (unless it is performed by a state) by people who believe they have no better option. The enormous overreactions to terrorism are evidence that it works. We need to stop throwing money and lives into the bottomless pit of killing terrorists and begin listening to them and their supporters and changing foreign policy behaviour accordingly.

Perhaps we could take all the money we are spending on guns, drones and bombs to kill terrorists and put them toward public health in that part of the world. We could spend it building friendly relations among people of our countries, rather than just the elites getting together to carve them up. How about the ISAF and NATO and the Coalition of the Willing leave Iraq, Afghanistan and those other countries altogether, at least until the people welcome them back? Watch the terrorists’ grievances and claims to legitimacy wash away.