Leadership: April 20, 2005

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Until recently, the Department of Defense tried to ignore the growing drug trade in Afghanistan. The idea was that the Afghan government would be given resources to take care of the problem, as the government was the one most directly threatened by the drug gangs. Currently, the growing of poppies, and rendering them into heroin, and other drugs, generates nearly $3 billion a year in Afghanistan. The pro-Taliban tribes have been particularly keen to get in on this, not just as a source of easy money, but also as a way to eventually regain control of the country. For the Pushtun tribes around Kandahar, where the Taliban movement had its strongest support, the few years the Taliban ruled the country were the Good Old Days. Guns and money have always been the tools for gaining power in Afghanistan. 

So far, the problem has been attacked at the source, by trying to stop the farmers from growing the poppies. But now the American troops are getting involved with a different tactic; defeating the drug lords. This is a different approach that will involve taking out the middle men, the drug gangs themselves. This is more difficult, for while the farmers are armed, the gangs are heavily armed, and always ready to shoot first and talk about it, maybe, later. But the gangs control the money, some of which they advance to the farmers to get the crops going, and the inventory. The gangs also take care of smuggling the drugs out of the country. And while destroying one gang will create a vacuum that allows another ambitious entrepreneur to take its place, this takes time. The new gangs have to learn the ropes, and during that time they are more vulnerable. Moreover, each time you take a gang out, you destroy a lot of inventory, and seize a lot of money and other goodies. On the positive side, you are not making a far larger number of people, the farmers, angry, by coming after them. 

The government likes the idea of going after the gangs directly, as these groups are a most direct threat to the government. Some drug gangs are strong enough to take on the army (in small doses) and win. But as long as the Americans are in the country, the government has access to the U.S. Army Special Forces, and their FACs (Forward Air Controllers), who can bring down the smart bombs on drug gangs that have been cornered and want to fight. Guns and money are powerful, but not as mighty as a few smart bombs. 

This new approach will also be entwined in Afghan politics, as every drug gang tries to buy as many government officials as they can. These provincial and national level officials will try to earn their pay. It will get ugly, and the ugliest phase of the campaign will be collecting information about exactly who the drug gangs are and where their assets are located. This is a more complex and dangerous process than going after poppy growing farmers. But its the kind of process that is similar to hunting down and destroying terrorist groups. Heroin is just another form of terrorism.

 


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