Your troops are not helping Afghanistan

The trend in warfare for the past hundred years or more has been to involve civilians gradually more in every conflict. Many of today’s wars, such as those in Iraq, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Sri Lanka and Chechnya, pit a government against one or more terrorist organisations who consider their territory occupied by the government. The government, usually a democracy, is attempting to project its power over a wider territory than the people of that territory consider legitimate, with the added bonus of providing the government’s constituents with an enemy around which they can rally, distracting them from the government’s other crimes. They spend millions of dollars buying PR in order to paint themselves as the moral side in the conflict. (Indeed, the Israeli government and its supporters never tire of repeating that it has “the most moral army in the world”, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.) The enemy kills babies. We build homes. Because the organisations resisting occupation are non governmental, they are not militaries and are usually called “terrorists” (or more recently “insurgents”). Particularly since 9/11, soldiers have been the good guys who fight terrorists, and terrorists have been, in George W.’s mindless phrasing, “the evildoers”. Terrorists, insurgents and so on mix with the people, their base of support, which means that when militaries go after them, civilian casualties result. The occupying troops want to convince the locals that they are there to help, and the locals do not really buy it. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan epitomises this trend.

It seems that the ideal outcome of the mission in Afghanistan is the following. First, decimate the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the other insurgent groups, or at least lop their heads off. That should lead to the outcome of ending tyranny in Afghanistan once and for all. (Officially, as of March 2009, the ISAF is there “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Voters like that mission: the bad guys are mean, sexist, Islamist dictators; and even though we messed up Iraq, maybe we have learned something from it?) Second, help the local population build up infrastructure, improve their health and education, etc., both to win hearts and minds and for the good it would do them. Third, reduce terrorist attacks on Western and other targets. Sorry if this looks like a straw man. I am under the impression it is the vision of ISAF commanders and the public.

The first point regards the difficulty the foreign militaries face in fighting their chosen enemies. First, there is al Qaeda, which is highly resistant to decapitation because it does not really have a leader or a centre. (I suggest not buying into the Zawahiri or Awlaki hype. They are not terrorist masterminds. Let them actually succeed  again before we start fearing them.) I do not know if it is possible to drop a bomb that would kill more than five of them. More centralised groups like Hamas and the PKK have survived the loss of leaders, partly because this kind of group is highly adaptive (more so than large, hierarchical militaries). Then there is the indigenous anti-occupation resistance. As far as I know there are three large groups fighting the foreign troop presence (not including a number of Afghanis recruited for government security forces who have turned on the ISAF). The Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin are (I think, though I am by no means an expert on Afghanistan) examples of organisations that it would be very hard to destroy, because they are made up of locals banded together by the cause of ejecting foreigners. They are different from Iraqi resistance organisations, because many of the latter engaged in street warfare, whereas Afghan resistance groups populate the many villages of Afghanistan. In journalist Nir Rosen’s words,

It is impossible to live among the people the way the Americans did during the surge in Iraq, because there is no population concentration, and every home in a village is so far away from another, and there are few roads. You can rumble along a road for a few hours to shake hands and drink tea with some elders only to head back to the base to get a burger and ice cream before the chow hall closes, but the Taliban own the night and can undermine any deal you will make. They are part of the community.

There are some defections from these groups to national troops, but when that happens the defectors are usually enticed by the money. We could probably get most Afghans on our side for, say, $10 trillion over 5 years, but is Afghanistan really worth it? It is even worth the $10m in aid some say is being siphoned out of the country every day (that might be going to anti-ISAF militias)?

(I will not go too far into the regional instability that governments are only exacerbating, but insurgencies in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan give support to the Afghan resistance and render all attempts to “stabilise” Afghanistan impossible. Even the best “regional strategy” imposed from the top is likely to fail.)

No less significantly, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal (and all other sources), the Taliban get a big part of their funding from the drug trade. Until the main drug consuming countries (mostly the US, but Canada too) legalise drugs and let legal competitors enter the market, the price of drugs will remain high, Afghanistan will continue to provide the vast majority (about 70%) of the world’s heroin and the Taliban will continue to make millions of dollars off it. Many supporters of the push against the Taliban and other bad guys is their claim that the Taliban are bad, therefore we must fight them. But this argument begs the question. What is missing is the major premise: if someone is bad we should fight them. However, that is not the case. Sure, another 20 years of killing and trillions more dollars and maybe the war could be won for the “good guys”. But besides being a waste of money and lives, I seriously doubt the political will exists for it. The fact is, Afghanistan will go to whomever wants it more, and the indigenous resistance have already shown who that is.

Second, helping the locals. Gordon Brown mapped his vision in 2009: “build basic services — clean water, electricity, roads, basic justice, basic health care, and then economic development.” What a warm feeling taxpayers must get from such a selfless and charitable mission. I am sure some local Afghans have benefited from what the ISAF governments have given them. (See some of those things here.) However, photos for Stars and Stripes tend to obscure reality. Journalist William Dalrymple describes the situation on the ground.

[T]here have been few tangible signs of improvement under the western-backed regime. Despite the US pouring approximately $80bn into Afghanistan, the roads in Kabul are still more rutted than those in the smallest provincial towns of Pakistan. There is little health care; for any severe medical condition, patients still have to fly to India. A quarter of all teachers in Afghanistan are themselves illiterate. In many areas, district governance is almost non-existent: half the governors do not have an office, more than half have no electricity, and most receive only $6 a month in expenses. Civil servants lack the most basic education and skills.

This is largely because $76.5bn of the $80bn committed to the country has been spent on military and security, and most of the remaining $3.5bn on international consultants, some of whom are paid in excess of $1,000 a day, according to an Afghan government report. This, in turn, has had other negative effects. As in 1842, the presence of large numbers of well-paid foreign troops has caused the cost of food and provisions to rise, and living standards to fall. The Afghans feel they are getting poorer, not richer.

The locals are not yet on their way to prosperity. In fact, they are suffering. (See Kate Brooks’ photo essay here.) The situation of women is not getting better, either. The cover of Time a year ago portrayed a frightening picture of an Afghan girl whose husband had cut off her nose, saying that this would happen more if “we” left Afghanistan. What it overlooked was that 9 years of occupation had still not ended the abuse of women. Neither the ISAF nor the Karzai government have brought education or rights to women, and they cannot unseat the people who are taking them away, and they have no credible plan to do so. Moreover, there is something larger that NATO is taking away from Afghans.

The very presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan results in civilian deaths, either in the crossfire of firefights, misplaced (or just really big) bombs, drone attacks that have killed a number of civilians that is still unknown, or when foreign troops go on a killing spree. For example, on May 19, 2011, the Taliban killed 35 people working on US-financed road projects which, at least according to journalist Hashim Shukoor, “the insurgents believe threaten their access to refuges in the tribal regions of Pakistan.” They would not have killed these people had the US not been in the picture. Foreign troops attempting to protect civilians from the Taliban tend to increase civilian casualties directly or indirectly. Brutal weapons are systematically destroying innocent people: they are not as discriminating as those who order their use would have us believe. A tribal elder told William Dalrymple, “How many times can they apologise for killing our innocent women and children and expect us to forgive them? They come, they bomb, they kill us and then they say, ‘Oh, sorry, we got the wrong people.’ And they keep doing that.” The recent escalation of the war is presumably why risk to minorities grew more in Afghanistan this year than in any other country (“Civilian deaths have climbed every year for the past five years, totaling nearly 3,000 in 2010 according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.”), and almost certainly why so many Afghans are angry with the foreigners and can’t wait to see the back of them. People tend not to fall for the “throw off your oppressors and we’ll stop bombing you” approach. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to blame the foreigners for their plight, turning to the devil they know to protect them from the one they don’t. As long as the madness of the occupation persists, Afghans will not be turned against the indigenous oppressors in favour of the foreign ones. How many civilians need to die before “the country” is “free”?

The intervening powers might be even less welcome in Pakistan. The ISAF has pushed some of Afghanistan’s problems into Pakistan, and as a result, Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan have become “AfPak”, a stronghold of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistani army has lost many soldiers fighting what many Pakistanis complain (ever more frequently with bombs strapped to their chests) is the US’s war. The US has been using drones, an unmanned airplane controlled from the other side of the world. In doing so, it is able to target suspected militants for assassination while exposing no Americans to danger. The number of drone attacks has increased dramatically under Barack Obama, and drones are killing civilians. How many is uncertain, but the painstaking work of Noor Behram suggests that for every 10 to 15 people killed, one militant goes down. (The Brookings Institute finds roughly the same proportion, though it encourages the strikes as a way to prevent al Qaeda terrorism.) One report identified 168 children killed in drone strikes as of August 2011. The strikes injure countless more and “radicalise” (which I believe means “infuriate to the point of violent retaliation”) the locals. There are also certain legal questions regarding drone attacks that have not been resolved, and unsurprisingly the Barack administration does not seem interested in them. As a result of all this unthinking intervention, Pakistan, a country riddled with Islamic extremism and terrorism, armed with nuclear warheads, is becoming less stable by the day. Anatol Lieven fears not so much the Islamist terrorist threat but that a portion of the Pakistani army will mutiny, and the state of Pakistan will collapse. The US destabilised Cambodia while fighting in Vietnam, and we can only hope the fate of Pakistan is less bad than that of Cambodia.

The other thing the ISAF is inflicting on the locals is the single most corrupt and ineffectual government in the world, the government of Hamid Karzai. I know a Taliban or whoever government would be bad, but I don’t really see what good the present one is doing anyone. Karzai knows his people see him as a foreign puppet, and has attempted to distance himself from his backers. He accused the US, UK and UN of orchestrating an election fraud, called NATO an “army of occupation” and threatened to join the Taliban. Attempts to strengthen the central government will not work, as, according to Professor Paul Staniland, “there is very little evidence that winning hearts and minds through legitimate state-building is a path to victory. Building a strong state is often in direct opposition to the will of the population (or at least a significant part of it).” (That should not be surprising to anyone reading this blog. Governments fail to win hearts and minds not because of lack of money or posters but because they are self-interested, violent and irretrievably rapacious.) The Afghan state is not likely to retract its hand from poppy money any time soon, however much control the ISAF governments think they have over it. (Find more on the Afghan drug business and corruption here.) Any government with any hand in Afghanistan is likely to do whatever it can to take the trillion dollars’ worth of minerals reportedly lying under the ground from the locals. Attempts to train locals in being the military or police of a central Afghan state (and the $9b spent on it in 2010) are, needless to say, not going according to plan. More and more “inside attacks” are occurring as Afghans the ISAF trusted turn on the coalition. If the foreign militaries really want to help the people, my suggestion is to help people defend themselves from oppression on the local level and don’t try to prop up or take down any kind of government.

Regarding terrorism, I do not think foreign occupation will reduce terrorism anywhere in the world. There are a few things to note here. Though terrorism itself has various motivations in various situations, a major cause is perceived foreign occupation. In Dying to Kill and Cutting the Fuse, Robert Pape explains a clear pattern in suicide bombings leading to that conclusion, among others. (I’ll let you read those books—they are excellent.) And on the whole, suicide bombings are deadlier than other forms of terrorism. There were no real terrorist attacks by foreign nationals on Western soil until 9/11. After the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, there were a bunch.

Terrorism is designed to send a message. When the recent invasion of Libya began, my parents said, “good: get the guy who orchestrated the Lockerbie bombing.” I was initially surprised that they did not realise that Lockerbie had been in retaliation for the attempt on Gaddafi’s life that killed his adopted daughter. Apparently the news, which my parents watch every night, does little to explain that terrorism has causes. In 2006, 18 young Muslims were arrested in Toronto for plotting to detonate truck bombs, storm the Canadian parliament and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and behead the PM. According to Mubin Shaikh, one of the two guys who infiltrated the group, the ringleader’s main point of contention was that “troops are in Afghanistan raping Muslim women”. 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 in protest of the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq. There is no reason to believe that foreign interventions will reduce terrorism.  In fact, as Anatol Lieven points out, “U.S. and British soldiers are in effect dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world more dangerous for American and British peoples.” One possible reason for ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on is to increase the foreign terrorist threat that elites can use to take away more of your freedom. It has worked out that way so far.

But there are other, less official but nonetheless very good reasons for being in Afghanistan.

One is that the US military and its political sponsors have come to regard failure as inconceivable, not an option. This is partly due to the fact that a superpower abhors defiance (which was one reason for Operation Iraqi Freedom), and partly because the military-civilian establishment of the US sees military power as a solution to everything from flexing muscles in order to menace rival powers to staying in power by continuing to supply Americans with cheap consumer goods so they do not have to ask them to lower their standards of living and pay off their credit cards.

Remember how Unocal was trying to build a pipeline through Afghanistan in the 90s? Did you know about that? Well anyway, a natural gas pipeline is still being built. It is a long pipeline, about 1700km long, from Turkmenistan south through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. It is not owned by Unocal but is still expected to supply gas to the US and Europe, bypassing Russia and Iran, the traditional routes. The US and its allies have an interest in protecting the pipeline.

Even bigger is Afghanistan’s $1 trillion in mineral deposits: “huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world”. Do you think ordinary Afghans will benefit from this find? Finding billions worth of diamonds in Sierra Leone didn’t help the people. Let’s ask Libyans and Nigerians how much of their countries’ oil revenue they got. I think fighting over these minerals will make things worse for them.

It almost seems futile to protest the war, because every few months politicians promise they are about to end the mission and draw down troops. Every year they say that this will be “the decisive year”. Then things get more violent, as the opponents of the occupation get more desperate and recruit more people, and the politicians say “just a little bit longer”, like children asking their parents’ permission to stay up late. But the parents are unaware how devious their kids are, and what their kids are doing when the parents’ backs are turned. There is no reason to believe the occupiers and their sneaky, underhanded attempts to hide the truth from those funding the war. The ISAF has 700 bases in Afghanistan, with a $100m expansion of Special Operations headquarters approved only last year. Do you think they are about to leave any time soon? The best we can hope for is enough reporters on the scene who exposes the abuses of all sides, as violence by any party in the name of this war is an indictment of it.

Why do you think Afghanistan is the way it is? It is because war has been imposed on it for decades. Desperate people under pressure for so long do not turn out like us rich-world people. The most competent NATO general will never understand what it is like to be an Afghani. What hearts-and-minds strategy could he possibly contrive? Now we have these self-important democracy promoters, who could do a little better than to prop up the least effective government in the world, and who seem to think we just need a little bit more war before Afghanistan will be fine again. Governments of the ISAF have given no vision—that’s something leaders do—for what Afghanistan should look like, and have no plans that have worked so far. And the heads of state shuffle their national security teams and nothing changes. Now, you can say that the troops are in Afghanistan helping people, but they are also killing people. So whom are they really helping? If foreign troops are there and Afghans who do not like them try to kill them—I know, such ingrates, right?—regular people will get caught in the crossfire. That means the presence of those troops is a cause of the violence. It does not matter who pulled that particular trigger. But these people who think democracy is so important it is worth keeping up this kind of war believe that we have to win and impose our values on these ignorant yokels, and that if some die in the meantime, well, that’s the price you pay. Little bit more war, then we’ll defeat the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and any other groups that pop up in the meantime, and Afghanistan will be on the road to democracy! Some roads are so bumpy you are better off not driving on them.

Saigon fell to bad guys and the world did not end. Stop trying to control everything. Stop chasing the illusion of stability through dictatorship or military force. It is having the opposite effect.

Why war is wrong, part 3: support the troops

“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.” – Napoleon

Soldiers  are agents of the state and agents of war. As such, they are outside of peaceful society. Soldiers are trained to follow orders unquestioningly and kill people without knowing who they are. They have their most important human qualities, such as compassion, squeezed out of them through indoctrination. They are put into uniforms to strip them of their individuality and thus their ability to act independently of orders. They are forced to conform. They are chosen when they are young: able to kill but less able to think critically about killing. After they kill, they turn into nervous wrecks. Saddest of all, they believe they are keeping us safe. Well, some of them do.

I wonder what the “Support the Troops” people think when they find out some soldiers have been killing civilians for sport. (See here and here.) And though most are isolated incidents, like collateral damage (a euphemism for killing civilians accidentally, such as these nine children killed from a helicopter in Afghanistan), friendly fire (a euphemism for soldiers’ killing their fellows) and rape (See here and here.) (sometimes a deliberate policy of intimidation or ethnic cleansing), they are inevitable in war. Do you know why? Because when people are given the kind of power over others that a big gun or an army grants you, many of them will choose to use that power however they want. We call soldiers brave, but how brave is it to beat, rape and kill unarmed men, women and children? How brave is dropping bombs on or shooting cruise missiles at people? These people are heroes?

Let us briefly examine the killing of innocents. It occurs in every war. The soldiers and civilians in the country prosecuting the war have been told that they are at war with an entire country, and as such, civilian casualties are easier to stomach. Their media report little in the way of dead innocents, and use a variety of euphemisms to soften the blow when they do. In Afghanistan, for instance, thousands of innocent people have died from air strikes (3000 in the first six months alone, though estimates vary).  (It makes one wonder if there is really such a thing as targeted, “smart” weapons; and if not, what it is we are paying billions of dollars to develop.) How many newspapers reported the figures at the time? Perhaps they were afraid of looking unpatriotic. If patriotism means dropping bombs on people, or letting it go unreported, you can have it. However, we could still kill people who are harming innocents—the only enemies we should ever have—and leave innocents alone. We do not need a state to have special ops teams that get into tight spots to cut the head off the snake. We will always have people who want to do this type of work. Large-scale wars are just not necessary. But while they continue, expect hundreds of innocent people to get caught in the crossfire every year from it.

I also wonder what “Support the Troops” really means. Which troops? All of them? What about the racist ones? What about the ones who are just mindless killers? We should support even the ones who deliberately kill innocent civilians and take trophy photos with them? Putting a sticker on your car is cute and all, but the idea “Support the Troops” lacks all nuance. (A politician’s idea of supporting the troops is to use them and get photographed next to them.) Besides, are these the same troop-supporting people who do not take their governments to task for reducing funding for body armour, pensions, medical and psychiatric treatment for veterans? Did you know that 17.4% of soldiers in Afghanistan report acute stress? Did you know that some 20% of suicides in the US are veterans, even though they make up less than 1% of the population? Between 100,000 and 200,000 Vietnam vets have killed themselves. Plenty of suicides take place among current soldiers as well. Posttraumatic stress disorder is believed to afflict up to 30 percent of close to 2 million active-duty soldiers and veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Unemployment among young male veterans is now more than 22 percent, and hundreds of thousands of US military vets are homeless or at risk of homelessness. I don’t think we should have any troops, but while we have them, how about they get what they were promised and what they need? Is that what it means to support the troops? Because that is not what is happening. Don’t expect government to make it happen, either. Government is bankrupt, morally and now economically. Finally, if you really want to support the troops, take away the government’s ability to send them to their deaths in pointless imperial wars.

What is the difference between soldiers and terrorists? Or insurgents or enemy combatants or whatever word the propaganda machines are using this week. Well, let’s see. First, soldiers are employed by a state and terrorists are not. That means soldiers are pursuing the state’s interests and terrorists are pursuing private interests. Most wars are concocted by elites and wrapped in flags and slogans. Flags lend wars and the actions of soldiers legitimacy in the eyes of nationalists. They get it: soldiers=good, terrorists=bad. Terrorism, on the other hand, is usually born of desperation. Therefore, in general, terrorists have real grievances and soldiers take for granted that their commanding officers have the best interests of the country at heart. To argue that terrorists are less moral than soldiers because they target civilians is wrong because soldiers sometimes target civilians, sometimes as an aim of war and sometimes for fun; and those branded as terrorists sometimes target agents of the state (as when al Qaeda attacked the USS Cole, and Bill Clinton declared it “an act of terrorism”).

And when there are such abuses, we rightly call for the guilty soldiers to be prosecuted. What tends to happen, though, is that the military will throw the book at a few soldiers whose abuses have been made public, and it will attempt to cover up any more so the military’s image remains professional and just (much like they try to cover up images of coffins with flags draped over them). (The Iraq War Logs have revealed plenty of examples.) One point of the book The Lucifer Effect by Philip Zimbardo is that individual responsibility, asking who did the crime, should not be the only consideration when apportioning blame. An additional question is, who created the conditions where all this was allowed to happen? Donald Rumsfeld’s deliberate sidestepping of international law and basic human morality trickled down to his army in Iraq, which is how we got Abu Ghraib.

Soldiers are lied to. They are told that their actions, whether occupying a foreign country, shaking down a village, killing whomever they are told to kill without question, are all in the service of a good cause. Soldiers are not only taught to kill, and that killing is right, but to believe in the utmost honourability of their organisation and their superiors, and thus the uncritical, unquestioning acceptance of their orders. That’s called indoctrination. But I guess since we are mostly taught not to question through government-run schools, what would we expect? Besides, many people who go into the military want to follow authority and want to kill. But why should we pay for their training, their guns, tanks and bombs?

But not all soldiers want to kill. Most are persuaded, much like the public is, that, in extreme circumstances, it is noble to kill. I am not a big fan of killing anyone, but of course I can understand that killing can be the right thing to do: if you are defending your own life or the life of an innocent, it may be necessary to kill someone. But states do not fight defensive wars very often anymore. The US has not fought a defensive war for 200 years. (Contrast that with the evil Iran, which has not fought an aggressive war in 200 years.) Wars against terrorism are usually results of state, not terrorist, aggression. Every war for humanitarian ideals (if there has ever truly been one) has just set the intervening powers further down the road to the next imperial war by enlarging the state, legitimising aggression and spreading the lie that war is not so bad on the people. Soldiers need to begin to think very critically about their role as agents of the lies, the plunder and the killing.

One problem is that the US, British, Canadian and other public constituencies do not care enough about the turmoil abroad caused by their governments’ policies. Most of them will never fight in a war, nor will they see the war brought home to them (until the next terrorist attack, at any rate; and then they will not realise the war was the cause of it). Many of them do not care what happens abroad, as long as they can keep the car full of gas. Many others support these wars, believing they are self-sacrificial and good for everyone. When the public is not exposed to the bloodshed and the costs of war, it can give its seal of approval willingly.

Why war is wrong, part 2: counting the costs

When, after many battles past,
Both, tired with blows, make peace at last,
What is it, after all, the people get?
Why! Taxes, widows, wooden legs and debt. — Samuel B. Pettengill

Your money is going toward killing people you do not know. The War on Terror, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the War on Drugs, the drone wars… Can we awaken from this nightmare yet? Can we at least stop paying for wars that are bankrupting us? Unfortunately, as with everything governments do, we do not have a choice.

The full costs are hard to count. Modern governments finance wars with debt, which means we will be paying for many years to come. When we are shown the costs of wars, we usually only see the direct budgetary costs. As such, it is widely reported that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost about $1 trillion. Though a truly enormous figure in itself, the one trillion statistic obscures the money the warmakers cannot account for, the costs of treatment and pensions for soldiers, compensation to the families of the over 6000 US troops killed (not much compensation for Iraqi or Afghani families, though) and debt financing. The war in Iraq almost definitely made oil prices rise by at least $10 a barrel. The actual figure for the costs of the war may well be over $3 trillion. Three trillion dollars. Barack’s first defense budget came to $685.1b, which means it grew, and hit $708.3b for 2011, which means it is growing. Oh, and $20b has been spent just on air conditioning, but wars in the desert will require that. It is also going toward military bands, but only to the tune of a billion dollars a year.

A keynesian might say that this money has been well spent because it has stimulated the economy. No, it hasn’t. It can’t. It has dragged down the economy with higher debt, higher oil prices, higher costs to veterans, fewer jobs, higher interest rates and trillions of dollars diverted from the productive sector of the economy to the destructive government sector. The wars exacerbated the economic crisis in which the US is still entangled. But if even keynesianism worked, how do we account for the money that is missing?

In October 2009, the Inspector General of the US Department of Defense released a report that exposed various “significant deficiencies” in Pentagon balance sheets from fiscal years 2004 to 2008. The Department of Defense has never been audited. But by examining the various internal audits that have been carried out, along with the opaque system of contracting, the report uncovered more than $1 trillion in unsupported account entries.The Senate Finance Committee wrote a report a year later that took the Pentagon to task for its “total lack of fiscal accountability” for “leaving huge sums of the taxpayers’ money vulnerable to fraud and outright theft.” Fraud and theft are typical of all governments; but not all governments can raise and waste a trillion dollars and not have to face the guillotine. And since a democracy’s only real way to hold anyone at all to account is elections, the unelected bureaucrats at the departments have little to fear.

One example of this wastage is the $6.6b in cash the Pentagon for some reason thought it wise to fly in a plane over to Iraq. It has presumably been stolen, but who knows? How could any organisation, especially one that is barely accountable to anyone, account for all the trillions of dollars it goes through? It is too big and too opaque to audit. The role of special interests in taking your money to spread war is well documented. (Here is a primer.) If you need an example of profligate handouts to war contractors, consider this: even after the scandal of the missing trillion dollars, the Pentagon requested another trillion to operate the fleet of Lockheed F-35s. Where do they get all this money from? They steal it from the private sector through taxation. Do you know how many hospitals that money could build for war victims? How many people we could educate with that money? Can the government ever stop spending and let us try?

In War Is a Racket, Major General Smedley Butler begins “[War] is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.”

Only insiders benefit, of course, and they make big money. As such, they have a major interest in keeping wars going and lying to everyone about why they must. According to Butler, at least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the first World War.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy? How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious. They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill. And what is this bill? This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

He goes on to outline the financial interests that guided pre-WW2 Allied policy from supporting to opposing Japan, and how the costs of war and expansion are borne by taxpayers. Foreign involvement from 1898 saw the origin of the debt crisis that the US is struggling with today. Smedley details the enormous earnings of various corporations from WW1, some of whom produced things that were never used. Aside from the probable fact that today’s wars are more costly and more groups have their hands out, little has changed.

The main imperialist powers will naturally be the richest ones. States with liberalised economies have strong economies. Oppressive states do not have free economies and thus have trouble sustaining wars. Only a state with a strong economy could afford to keep a powerful military machine going indefinitely. The US went through Vietnam and survived to learn nothing from it; the USSR lost the war in Afghanistan and collapsed.

Military powers continue to spend countless sums developing new weapons that make killing easier and more efficient. The contractors make big money, with Lockheed Martin coming out on top, pocketing $36b from the US government in 2010 alone. Though the government contracting business is a somewhat opaque process, we see big corporations making tens of billions from governments who like war as a way to suck the people’s money from them and enlarge their own budgets. They ostensibly aim at eliminating civilian casualties, but in the wars they fight, insurgents, terrorists or whoever your enemy is blend with civilians, and the proportion of civilian casualties to bad guys has not gone down. Pilots still bomb or gun down people on the ground from thousands of feet in the air and get called brave heroes by the politicians benefiting from the war.

So inside the US, the current imperial power, is very liberal, and as such its economy is strong. However, because it is able to project its power, it does so, to disastrous effect for large parts of the rest of the world. The American people believe in the freedom the US has internally and want the best for others, so they are easily won over to illiberal wars by promises to free the people of their dictator. But the differences between the countries the US (and now NATO) goes to war with are not moral ones. The rich countries simply have the power to project themselves into other people’s affairs, they can get away with it because only voting keeps them in check (and foreign policy does not hold voters’ attention), and the countries they pick on are so weak—Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Yemen—they could not possibly put up a real fight.

Libya is a case in point. Barack did not ask Congress for permission to go to war, even though he is required to do so according to the Constitution. (I like the US Constitution but it does not seem to be much more than a piece of paper anymore.) Barack’s people said the war would last “days, not weeks”, and it lasted six months. The interveners’ original mandate was a no-fly zone to protect people that was soon expanded without authorisation from the Security Council to picking sides, assassination and regime change. On May 13, after nearly two months of fighting, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that the war had cost $750m. It doesn’t seem like a lot for an organisation that spent $3t on Iraq, but then that figure is an official government figure and probably includes only the costs of bullets, missiles and fuel, not the planes themselves, the salaries of the soldiers, the money for the rebels, the post-conflict reconstruction (if there is any), and whatever else we do not know about. And the interveners were quick to recognise the rebel forces as government, which means a) there was no consultation of the people (so at least the decision was democratic), b) the world will be expected to look away when the rebels, now the good guys, commit atrocities, and c) the rebels will be pliable to the demands of foreign governments (which will presumably mean no-bid contracts to their oil friends). Is this self-determination for the Libyan people?

That said, for the sake of fairness, the war is over and Qaddafi is gone, which might be the best outcome we could have expected, and some credit must go to NATO. Even though this post condemns war, it seems to me wise to judge events on their eventual outcomes. If Libya becomes much freer and more prosperous as a result of NATO intervention, it may have been worth it. If history is anything to go by, Libya will not be much better off after Qaddafi.

All these invasions send a clear message to states like North Korea that have or are developing nuclear weapons: keep them. Nuclear weapons are a highly rational statist enterprise. It is fundamentally out of the question to attack a country with a nuclear weapon because it might use it. So North Korea, Iran and whomever else the US and Israel talk tough about, hold on tight to your nukes if you want to hold on to your regime.

Only spending by an organisation with an unlimited budget could have produced the nuclear bomb. North Korea could never have built such a bomb from scratch. Only a democracy could. Only a democracy has the money and the ability for scientific openness, and yet the ability to appropriate billions of dollars (in 1940s money) for secret projects. And for the incalculable sum spent on research and development to gain an advantage in killing others, the advantage often does not even last until the end of the war, because another state can steal secrets or develop its own special killing machines.

You do not benefit from war. You only lose. Imperialists benefit, as they get to control more and more territory; military hardware firms benefit from generous contracts; civilians, soldiers and so on do not benefit. Unfortunately, those people are mostly sheep. Every society has a few “deep thinkers” and a large number of “sheep thinkers”. Sheep thinking not only limits our imagination; it could have enormous consequences. In Nuremberg Diary, Gustave Gilbert recounts a conversation he had with Hermann Goering, Hitler’s second in command, who revealed a deep understanding of the ability of the elites to control the sheeplike masses.

Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece?…But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a parliament or a communist dictatorship…. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

History shows innumerable examples of the public’s approval of or even pushing for war. So often the elites throw the war into the open because of some high political squabble and make everyone think they need to go to war. As the idea of war mixes and churns in political discourse, in the media and in the minds of the people, it soon becomes a given that we must go to war. After all, we are under attack.

Why Libya? Why now?

Many people have been asking, why intervene in Libya when there are other people who are struggling against their tyrannical governments who also need support? There is more than one answer. I do not purport to have them all–someone in my position could not, as we do not know what backroom deals have been arrived at, nor how and with whom, to approve this mission in the UN Security Council. (Where is Wikileaks when you need it?)

One reason is probably that Libya seems to be the only state whose resistance has a leadership structure states can deal with on their own terms, as distinct from an amorphous mass of protesters. France recognised the rebel group as Libya’s new government two weeks ago, and all other governments involved are under pressure to follow suit.

The idea of oil interests is of course also floated as a possibility. Libya’s daily oil production runs somewhere between that of Angola and Algeria, constituting about 2% of world supply. If the US, Canada and so on are perceived as entering Libya to steal its oil, their reputations worldwide will drop to levels of unpopularity that would impress the colonel himself. A larger share of 2% of the world’s oil is not enough to motivate the powerful states to take such a big risk. While of course Big Oil would like to get its tentacles on that oil, especially at today’s prices, I do not think oil alone would provide the political support this mission needs, nor explain why Libya is the target.

Here is why Libya is the target. What is the name of the guy killing people in Libya? Muammar Gaddafi, of course. What else do we know about him? He is a crazy dictator. What are the names of the bad guys in Bahrain, Algeria and Yemen? How many Americans, British, Canadians and French can name them? Never mind them; we have the epitome of evil to take care of. In the US and Canada in particular, people are raised on a diet of super heroes and super villains. The Joker, Cobra Commander, Megatron and Skeletor, the villains I grew up with, wanted nothing but power, and commanded bands of evil mercenaries to kill innocent people. Muammar, like Saddam, fits this image perfectly: a one-dimensional, insane and funny-dressing dictator, massacring innocent people.

Moreover, the Libyan diaspora has no love for Gaddafi, and has been demanding his downfall in all the countries in question. (See this protest in London, for instance; some 20 Libyans were even yelling anti-Gaddafi slogans on the steps of the BC parliament.) The voters generally accept or encourage the decapitation of Libya. Along with the acquiescence of the Arab League and the United Nations, these facts explain why an intervention in Libya is politically possible.

A better comparison might even be made with Slobodan Milošević, the Butcher of Belgrade, who became the target of the 1999 NATO mission to protect Kosovo from Serbia, and grant it independence. The invasion was by no means an unqualified success. Despite every measure taken to target military infrastructure and minimise civilian casualties (which, by law, is necessary in war), hundreds of non-combatants were killed. Innocent Libyans will die in this “no-fly zone”.

The violence in Libya seems to occupy far more news media space than Bahrain, Yemen and elsewhere. According to polls, Americans are watching news about Libya, approve (60-70%) of intervention and generally agree that the comic book villain Lord of Libya should be removed from power. (That said, Europeans are less enthusiastic.) Barack has stated he will not send in ground troops, which means none of the invading states will. The ideal for the intervening governments is a quick victory and end to the conflict, and quick elections to remake Libya in the image of the West. Foreign casualties will be minimal, as they were in Kosovo (after all, how are Gaddafi’s forces supposed to hit submarines launching cruise missiles?). The heads of state ordering this mission will look like heroes and their approval ratings will rise at home. (Always watch the election cycle–Canadians may soon be heading to the polls.) That is, until things go wrong.

In fact, I see little reason to expect that everything will go as planned. The governments involved in Libya have consistently shown they have no plan for the countries they send their militaries to, and that their ad hoc planning rarely results in progress. Humanitarian interventions require long-term campaigns involving nation-building at the bottom and state-building at the top. Publics in these countries, who need to approve of such controversial commitments if their states are going to see them through, have short attention spans and low tolerance of casualties. If the violence in Libya ends when Gaddafi’s regime falls, like in Kosovo, the country can begin to rebuild. If not, it will be Iraq all over again.

The power of the state of exception

It saddens me to hear Americans speak of their country as a paragon of freedom governed by the rule of law. It is possible that it once was. However, it is clear that the United States is no longer a free country. It is only free to those who put their heads down and keep quiet.

In 1922, Carl Schmitt wrote Political Theology, where he outlined his ideas on the state of exception. Schmitt advocated that the sovereign, defined as he who decides the exception, should be vested with extraordinary powers to deal decisively with an extreme emergency. If the state, and democracy, are in jeopardy, Schmitt believed, the sovereign should take control until the situation is defused. Schmitt erroneously believed, however, that the sovereign would restore democracy when conditions were reasonable to do so. It is perhaps for this reason that Schmitt enthusiastically supported Hitler during his rise through the chaos of the Weimar Republic and the totalitarianism of the Third Reich, including the political murders of the Night of the Long Knives. In a democracy, the sovereign is supposed to be the people. The people have the power to bring down governments, start wars and approve of virtually anything in their name. In the US, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, led Americans to turn their power over to their government to keep them safe.

Elites frequently try to create a state of exception in order to use emergency powers. Sometimes, of course, they do not need to. The sight of two airplanes hitting the World Trade Center was so shocking that most Americans threw their hands up and cried out for a strong government to take over. As we now know, planning for a war in Iraq had begun before 9/11, so the US government could proceed to put its plan into action.

Since 9/11, the US government has blatantly flouted its own rules. Take the abrogation of the Bill of Rights with the USA Patriot Act. The government assumed greater power to spy on and detain its own people. The Patriot Act has not yet been repealed. Though such laws should only be enacted during a state of exception, the US government has done its best to prolong the state of exception through war and the creation of enemies, and keep everyone scared. Few Americans even question the Patriot Act anymore, perhaps because doing so might land them in jail.

In the course of the war in Afghanistan, the US locked up hundreds of “unlawful combatants”, a term deliberately chosen by the Bush administration because it fell into a legal grey area. The phrase does not appear in the Third Geneva Convention, which means that, unlike, say, prisoners of war, those designated unlawful combatants have no legal recourse. The Fourth Geneva Convention requires that anyone captured in war be protected and eventually charged. These are laws that the US helped craft for its own benefit. After all, if other states follow these laws, Americans are treated better by their enemies. But in a state of exception, laws go out the window. According to journalist Andy Worthington, there are still 174 inmates at Gitmo, 90 “approved for transfer”, 33 recommended for trial, and 48 still there indefinitely.

The intervention in Afghanistan was legally permissible. The UN Security Council acknowledged the US’s right to self defense with Resolution 1368. However, international law also bars indiscriminate use of bombs that do not attempt to hit specified enemy targets. It is all right to bomb what one strongly suspects is a military or terrorist stronghold, but many of the bombs dropped on Afghanistan targeted heavily populated civilian areas. Over three thousand Afghan civilians were killed in the first six months of that war. Most American citizens did not question the bombs and the dead people, because they saw that whole part of the world, wherever it was, as deserving of retribution.

Next came Operation Iraqi Freedom. Iraqi Freedom was not approved by the Security Council and was a wholly illegal war. It was an act of aggression, which is ius cogens, universally accepted as law and permitting no derogation. In case you have forgotten Abu Ghraib and CIA waterboarding (see more here), torture is also ius cogens. Extraordinary rendition, in which the UK’s and Canada’s governments also participated, and which seems like the kind of legal term or political euphemism that makes the average person turn the page, is abducting and transferring someone without trial to somewhere they might be tortured. The practice may still be going on. Government secrecy has made it almost impossible for us to know the truth.

We are aware, nonetheless, that the wars and violence in Iraq and Afghanistan continue. Pakistan has become the new frontier in the fight against terrorism, with drone attacks increasing under Barack Obama and killing 54 this past week. The war in Pakistan is an undeclared war, making it also illegal. After seven years of violence, the president announced in March 2009 the administration’s goal in the AfPak war: “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” It is likely that special interests want a US presence to safeguard the building of oil pipelines through Afghanistan and the mining of the trillion-dollar mineral deposits under Afghan soil. So confident is he that the ongoing state of exception will vindicate him, Barack is free to continue drone strikes (which occupy something of a legal grey area; they may be legal if they can actually be shown to be used in self defense) and still not formally declare any kind of war in Pakistan (which is not grey at all) because the only ones who can truly stop him only receive a few soundbytes about it a week on TV.

Another practice that has not abated is illegal detention of Americans. Just this week, 131 peaceful antiwar protesters were arrested outside the White House, guilty of nothing more than voicing disagreement with their government. No less depressing is the state of Bradley Manning, stuck in solitary confinement for leaking documents that compromised the US’s and other governments’ ability to hide their crimes. Manning has not been charged; he has no access to the outside world; he is not let out of his cell for more than an hour a day and cannot exercise in it; nor does he have even a pillow or sheets. Psychological studies find prolonged solitary confinement highly destructive to the brain, with effects including “overwhelming anxiety, confusion and hallucination, and sudden violent and self-destructive outbursts”. The effects of such solitary confinement are not far from those of torture. According to lawyer and author Glenn Greenwald, the government is extremely concerned about leaks, and torturing those who do what concerns you is a brilliant way to prevent it. Bradley Manning, like Julian Assange, is being made an example of. Criminalising the publishing of classified information is akin to banning investigative journalism. But the US officials that ordered and approved of locking up Bradley Manning, along with the cutting up of the Bill of Rights, the illegal war, the bombing of civilians, the torture and the indefinite detentions, will never see a courtroom.

In a world where chaos is inevitable, we cannot let fear permit our worst behaviour and legitimise anything the government does. There are going to be more disasters, more terrorist attacks and more wars. We must not lose our heads and let them take our freedoms when no one has the right to take your freedom. How can we trust the government on anything? If the government does not follow its own laws, why should the rest of us? We should attempt to free ourselves from the arbitrary force of governments, and deny them the chance to take our freedom.

Taking sides in a cyberinsurgency

As a student of war, I am fascinated by the prospect of an internet-based conflict. It is being called a cyberwar, though it may more accurately be called a cyberinsurgency: Contrary to predictions of a China-US or other interstate cyberconflict, this first (with the exception, as far as I know, of the 2007 attacks on Estonia), major, online, political conflict is between a government and a loose, decentralised group of non-governmental actors.

I do not particularly like the idea of taking sides in conflict. In my estimation, most belligerents in war are guilty of enough that they are all contemptible. But sometimes, based on one’s philosophy, one side has clear moral authority over another. To those attacking Wikileaks and the act of whistleblowing, let me make clear the position you are taking. You are in favour of covering up and hiding from the public

-the repeated urging of the despotic (and with relation to the US government, influential) House of Saud and other Middle Eastern governments to start a war between the US and Iran;

-the US’s ally Saudi Arabia’s funding of violent extremist groups al Qaeda, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba;

-the extent of the corruption of the Afghan government, which US, Canadian and other foreign taxpayers are funding;

-an accurate picture of the disastrous war in Afghanistan, including the extent of civilian casualties;

-and perhaps most disturbing of all, that US government contractor DynCorp threw a party at which children were prostituted (see also here), meaning that US taxpayers paid for sex with minors.

If the public has access to these revelations, it can better hold public officials to account. If it does not, it is more likely to believe the government line that all is swell over there. As Ron Paul explains, many officials taking aim at the messenger are simply afraid that these revelations threaten their pet project, an American empire.

Furthermore, by extension, Wikileaks’ detractors support the idea that the government can look at your emails, phone and bank records, track your car by GPS and give you a complete body scan, but we, the little people, cannot do the same to the government. If the people’s security increases due to the government’s power to violate your freedom so extensively, and from its spending billions of dollars to do so, why could the intelligence services not prevent 9/11? The billions of dollars for “homeland security” are about scaring you into seeing illusions of security. Now, we are getting a glimpse, however slight, at the wizard behind the screen.

In times of war, governments often declare a state of emergency, meaning, in effect, that citizens are no longer to be trusted with their own freedom. Since World War Two, the United States has experienced a permanent state of war in the form not of a clear and present danger but as creeping threats largely manufactured by the government whose popularity rises as it makes war. This battle could become a Long War, or some kind of war of attrition. Do not be surprised if this conflict requires laws that limit and track your internet use.

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