Blunt But Bankrupt

Suddenly American diplomats are blunt. Pray that they be bold because despite their new found and welcomed bluntness, the policies remain effectively the same old bankrupt policies of the past. Today's outbreak of blunt diplomacy concerns two of the most vexing international problems facing the United States, Mexico and Pakistan.

In Mexico City, Secretary of State Clinton finally admitted what most Latin Americans already know.

"Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade," Mrs. Clinton said, using unusually blunt language. "Our inability to prevent weapons from being illegally smuggled across the border to arm these criminals causes the deaths of police officers, soldiers and civilians."

Not to minimize the significance of these remarks, but why then does the policy solution largely remain the same? The Obama Administration is proposing more of the same failed policies that American administrations have pursued since 1970s though importantly it will seek stricter controls on the sale of assault rifles. Otherwise, the strategy remains interdiction and eradication.

Secretary Clinton noted to Mexican Foreign Secretary Patricia Espinosa that the Administration will seek $80 million from Congress to provide Mexican authorities with three Black Hawk helicopters to help the police track drug runners and would help supply Mexican law enforcement officers with night-vision goggles, body armor and other equipment to battle the cartels. More money down a sinkhole.

It's odd that the prescription remains the same despite evidence and acknowledgment that the war on drugs is a colossal failure. "Clearly what we have been doing has not worked," she said. So let's have more of the same.

Earlier this week Jeffrey A. Miron, a senior lecturer in economics at Harvard, wrote a brilliant piece over on CNN. It echoes what Latin Americans and others have increasingly been calling for, legalization. Call it the "least worst option" if you must or call it an acceptance of a stark reality which it ultimately is.

The U.S. and Mexican responses to this violence have been predictable: more troops and police, greater border controls and expanded enforcement of every kind. Escalation is the wrong response, however; drug prohibition is the cause of the violence.

Prohibition creates violence because it drives the drug market underground. This means buyers and sellers cannot resolve their disputes with lawsuits, arbitration or advertising, so they resort to violence instead.

Violence was common in the alcohol industry when it was banned during Prohibition, but not before or after.

Violence is the norm in illicit gambling markets but not in legal ones. Violence is routine when prostitution is banned but not when it's permitted. Violence results from policies that create black markets, not from the characteristics of the good or activity in question.

The only way to reduce violence, therefore, is to legalize drugs. Fortuitously, legalization is the right policy for a slew of other reasons.

Prohibition of drugs corrupts politicians and law enforcement by putting police, prosecutors, judges and politicians in the position to threaten the profits of an illicit trade. This is why bribery, threats and kidnapping are common for prohibited industries but rare otherwise. Mexico's recent history illustrates this dramatically.

Prohibition erodes protections against unreasonable search and seizure because neither party to a drug transaction has an incentive to report the activity to the police. Thus, enforcement requires intrusive tactics such as warrantless searches or undercover buys. The victimless nature of this so-called crime also encourages police to engage in racial profiling.

Prohibition has disastrous implications for national security. By eradicating coca plants in Colombia or poppy fields in Afghanistan, prohibition breeds resentment of the United States. By enriching those who produce and supply drugs, prohibition supports terrorists who sell protection services to drug traffickers.

Prohibition harms the public health. Patients suffering from cancer, glaucoma and other conditions cannot use marijuana under the laws of most states or the federal government despite abundant evidence of its efficacy. Terminally ill patients cannot always get adequate pain medication because doctors may fear prosecution by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Drug users face restrictions on clean syringes that cause them to share contaminated needles, thereby spreading HIV, hepatitis and other blood-borne diseases.

Prohibitions breed disrespect for the law because despite draconian penalties and extensive enforcement, huge numbers of people still violate prohibition. This means those who break the law, and those who do not, learn that obeying laws is for suckers.

Prohibition is a drain on the public purse. Federal, state and local governments spend roughly $44 billion per year to enforce drug prohibition. These same governments forego roughly $33 billion per year in tax revenue they could collect from legalized drugs, assuming these were taxed at rates similar to those on alcohol and tobacco. Under prohibition, these revenues accrue to traffickers as increased profits.

The right policy, therefore, is to legalize drugs while using regulation and taxation to dampen irresponsible behavior related to drug use, such as driving under the influence. This makes more sense than prohibition because it avoids creation of a black market. This approach also allows those who believe they benefit from drug use to do so, as long as they do not harm others.

Legalization is desirable for all drugs, not just marijuana. The health risks of marijuana are lower than those of many other drugs, but that is not the crucial issue. Much of the traffic from Mexico or Colombia is for cocaine, heroin and other drugs, while marijuana production is increasingly domestic. Legalizing only marijuana would therefore fail to achieve many benefits of broader legalization.

It is impossible to reconcile respect for individual liberty with drug prohibition. The U.S. has been at the forefront of this puritanical policy for almost a century, with disastrous consequences at home and abroad.

More of the same escalation isn't going to work. It hasn't worked in Colombia nor will it work in Mexico. In Colombia, we have gone from defeating one drug cartel after another and yet others continue to rise to take the place of vanquished. In Mexico, there are now six active cartels. That they can be defeated, I do not doubt but just as certain am I that replacements will arise. Multi-billion dollar industries have a lure all their own.

As disconcerting as the news from Mexico is, it pales in comparison to the bleakness of Pakistan. Here the blunt talk came courtesy of named and unnamed American sources.

Top American officials speak bluntly about how the situation has changed little since last summer, when evidence showed that ISI operatives helped plan the bombing of the Indian Embassy in Kabul, an attack that killed 54 people.

"They have been very attached to many of these extremist organizations, and it's my belief that in the long run, they have got to completely cut ties with those in order to really move in the right direction," Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said recently on "The Charlie Rose Show" on PBS.

The Taliban has been able to finance a military campaign inside Afghanistan largely through proceeds from the illegal drug trade and wealthy individuals from the Persian Gulf. But American officials said that when fighters needed fuel or ammunition to sustain their attacks against American troops, they would often turn to the ISI.

When the groups needed to replenish their ranks, it would be operatives from the S Wing who often slipped into radical madrasas across Pakistan to drum up recruits, the officials said.

The ISI support for militants extends beyond those operating in the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan. American officials said the spy agency had also shared intelligence with Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistan-based militant group suspected in the deadly attacks in Mumbai, India, and provided protection for it.

Mr. Zardari took steps last summer to purge the ISI's top ranks after the United States confronted Pakistan with evidence about the Indian Embassy bombing. Mr. Zardari pledged that the ISI would be "handled," and that anyone working with militants would be dismissed.

Yet with the future of Mr. Zardari's government uncertain in the current political turmoil and with Obama officials seeing few immediate alternatives, American officials and outside experts said that Pakistan's military establishment appears to see little advantage in responding to the demands of civilian officials in Islamabad or Washington.

As a result, when the Haqqani fighters need to stay a step ahead of American forces stalking them on the ground and in the air, they rely on moles within the spy agency to tip them off to allied missions planned against them, American military officials said.

The Pakistani double game continues. The Taliban remains the antidote to Indian influence in Afghanistan in the view of the ISI and given this, it is highly unlikely that we can convince the nominal leadership of Pakistan to enforce greater control over rogue elements in the ISI. But's there more news. The New York Times' report is noteworthy since it sheds some new light on the structure of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Little is publicly known about the ISI's S Wing, which officials say directs intelligence operations outside of Pakistan. American officials said that the S Wing provided direct support to three major groups carrying out attacks in Afghanistan: the Taliban based in Quetta, Pakistan, commanded by Mullah Muhammad Omar; the militant network run by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; and a different group run by the guerrilla leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.

The 'S' stands for Special and the S Wing is responsible for all intelligence training in the Pakistani Armed Forces in the Defence Services Intelligence Academy and for liaison with foreign intelligence and security agencies. Beyond this, not much is known.

Many analysts have long held that the ISI has become a state within a state, answerable neither to the leadership of the army, nor to the Pakistani President or the Prime Minister. The result is there has been no real supervision of the ISI, and corruption, narcotics, and big money have all come into play, further complicating the political scenario. Drug money was used by ISI to finance not only the Afghanistan war, but also the proxy war against India in Punjab and Kashmir. It is the ultimate cartel and a sponsor of international terrorism linked to groups in Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, and Sri Lanka.

And despite our tough talk with Pakistan, the ISI continues to do what it has always done, attempt to destabilize India. In light of this, it perhaps worth paying attention to Dan Simpson, a former US Ambassador, who was especially blunt in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette today:

It is simple. It is impossible to fix Afghanistan without fixing Pakistan. It is impossible to fix Pakistan. Thus, Afghanistan is and will remain an impossible sinkhole.

It will, in fact, be the same kind of quicksand for the United States in terms of unwinnability that the Vietnam War was for more than a decade.

The further implication for the Obama administration is that, as was the case with the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson, all of its great objectives to meet the short- and long-term needs of the United States at home will go over the falls as it wrestles to find the resources and energy to contend with an expensive war that it cannot win and does not have the courage to end.

So far, Mr. Obama doesn't seem to get it. He intends to increase U.S. forces in Afghanistan by 17,000 to 53,000 by May. The end-game for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan is supposed to be spelled out and stated after the completion of what is supposed to be a comprehensive policy review in Washington, perhaps later this week. There is no reason to believe that the process or policy will come out as it should -- with a decision to walk away.

It has been clear since the first U.S. military and intelligence agency attempts to put al-Qaida and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan out of business in late 2001 and early 2002, highlighted in our unsuccessful efforts to bag al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden and Taliban leader Mullah Omar, that the 1,500-mile mountainous eastern border of Afghanistan with Pakistan, and the state of play in Pakistan itself, meant that the conflict inevitably would become a cross-border international affair.

A current parallel in North America is the fact that the Mexican drug trade depends almost entirely on the American market for drugs, and the violence under way in Mexico is waged with weapons bought by Mexicans on the American "anything goes" gun market.What goes on in South Asia is a Afghan-Pakistani affair; what goes on in North America is a Mexican-American affair.

The front end of the U.S. effort to deal with the Pakistan part of the problem in Afghanistan involved cooperation, largely military, with the government of then-Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf. It didn't work because Mr. Musharraf's government and military were not able -- or not willing -- to control Pakistan's western border. This was in spite of their receiving $10 billion in U.S. aid.

Pakistan's problem then was Pakistan's problem now. It is a very divided and diverse country. It includes big, mostly peaceful political movements, based for the most part on tribal and regional differences. They are what has the current civilian government of Pakistan, headed by President Asif Ali Zardari, a thoroughly crooked scoundrel whom the United States nonetheless prefers to the alternatives, in domestic political turmoil. Mr. Zardari's principal civilian opponent is former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, equally crooked and villainous.

The conflict between these two civilian politicians -- and others -- leaves Pakistan in such a state of civil disorder that the other political force in the country, the military, which has seized power at countless junctures since independence in 1947, always has a wet finger in the air to determine whether it is time for it to carry out another coup d'etat against another civilian government.

Then there are the divisions within the Pakistan military. There are generals and generals and generals. There is the famous, or notorious, Inter-Services Intelligence agency. America's current favorite is Gen. Ashfaq Kayani, a former ISI leader who now heads the Army. But there is no reason to believe that if Gen. Kayani or the ISI controlled the action in Pakistan that matters would improve for the United States in Afghanistan.

It was the ISI that with the United States initially supported the mujahedeen, the predecessors of the Taliban, against Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Pakistan military had and still has close ties to the Taliban. Pakistan also has a hearty number of Islamic fundamentalists among its population and in its armed forces. It is also important to remember that power is held in some of Pakistan's border areas by armed tribal groups, many of which are led by Islamists who are close to Afghan and Pakistani Taliban.

Top that with the fact that Pakistanis and their government are angered by the U.S. bombing of parts of Pakistan with remote-controlled aircraft and its sending of ground forces into Pakistan to attack the Taliban and al-Qaida.

Bottom line: The United States is not going to get matters in Pakistan under control.

Rest of the bottom line: If the United States can't get matters in Pakistan under control -- and as even Mr. Obama's own special representative to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, has said, the problems in the two countries are inextricably linked -- Mr. Obama's escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan by adding thousands more U.S. troops simply is not going to work.

There are no easy answers when it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan but more of the same clearly should not be an option. The policies that Administration is pursuing in both Mexico and Pakistan are variants of the tried and failed. It is illusory to think that by making adjustments on the margin they will succeed. Neither Mexico nor Afghanistan can be solved by escalation and Pakistan is beyond all hope until its leadership realizes that the greatest threat to its survival comes not from India but from its madrassas and a failure of the Pakistani state to provide for the general welfare of its 166 million inhabitants.

Tags: Drug Trade, ISI, Mexico, pakistan, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US Foreign Policy (all tags)



Legalize Pot Next Year!

I have never taken drugs. I don't even drink alcohol other than an occasional taste test. No cigarettes. Yet, I am outraged that pot is criminalized. I actually feel that they could solve a lot of budget problems by legalizing pot.

1) First of all, by legalizing pot, all current pot enforcement can be diverted to resources protecting kids from getting exposed to drugs, especially middle and high schoolers.

  1. Tourist revenue will increase.
  2. The tax revenue from pot sale will go to funding rehab centers for harder drugs. This will help some people be less of a burden on society.

I think once that is done, we may have to consider even more radical steps like decriminalizing cocaine. I still am conflicted on the best way to do it. Do we have coke dens like they had opium dens in the past?

I just find the west to be as hypocritical as the east when it comes to stuff like this. Our culture glorifies getting wasted, yet we put all these laws because we do not trust ourselves. I just find it reprehensible that we need laws to control what we take just because some people have no self control.

by Pravin 2009-03-26 06:15AM | 0 recs
Re: Blunt But Bankrupt
Be careful here.  Drugs may cause a lot of health problems.  Read Elliott Currie's pieces-he attacks both drugs and the war on drugs, and as well opposes the whole war on crime, not just the drug part of it.  Maybe decriminalization would be better.  I am all in favor of that.
Also be careful in accepting uncritically the Latin American position on everything.  However rotten American policy towards them has been-and most of these policies, like most of the bad policies towards the rest of the world, occured in the past 50 years-Latin Americans have a bad habit of blaming others for their own problems.  They should acknowledge their own faults, the way Americans, such as this blogger, does.  
by demjim 2009-03-26 07:03AM | 0 recs
Re: Health problems, and more.

I waver back and forth on whether we need to legalize cocaine. But if legal cocaine is available, that means, prices will be cheaper, and make the need for crack irrelevant for new users. Won't it? Wasn't the whole point of crack the relative cheapness of the drug compared to coke?

But this is why the social reforms of Obama needs to be funded and not seen as pork by our so called centrist Dems. You can have all the drug policies in the world, but change must come from the people. Let's face it. We glorify getting wasted at many levels of society. And then we act surprised when people keep falling into drug addiction.

by Pravin 2009-03-26 11:31AM | 0 recs
Re: Health problems, and more.

But the root problem is our values(I mean this in a secular sense). We are like a declining once great society where people tend to focus too much on the frivolous while up and coming societies catch up in the future.  You can make drugs as illegal as you want, people will still find a way to get high. None of the people I know have a problem getting pot. And some people I know of who like to take coke have no problem getting coke either. So drug policies are obviously not having a significant effect on demand. It just serves to constrict the legal supply.

We can use the money from drug taxes to help fund programs that may have an indirect effect of decreasing that demand.

THe money and energy spent on enforcement should be spent on rehabbing as many addicts back to normal. Families need to get help raising kids via more affordable day care programs and other productive school activities later on. That money has to come from somewhere. Legalizing drugs will give you that money to actually help improve families to reduce the tendency to get into drug addiction.

Going after the supply instead of reducing the demand merely serves to make messed up people more desperate to score a hit.

by Pravin 2009-03-26 03:03PM | 0 recs
Re: Blunt But Bankrupt

Yes it is ridiculous that drugs are illegal. There are 1,001 arguments why they should be legalized & I'd probably agree with most of them. HOWEVER, actively promoting an agenda to legalize them will only serve to hijack some of the even more critical agenda that we are dealing with. Keep in mind, I agree that there are multiple items that should be a part of the President's current agenda (which are) and that are also useful for promoting our economy.  Legalizing drugs would just blow up into a distracting issue of its own and some things no matter how correct they are do need to be scaled back in terms of priority. This is one of them.

by jrsygrl 2009-03-26 11:35AM | 0 recs
Re: Blunt But Bankrupt

No one is suggesting that this priority one except perhaps the Latin Americans who are simply tired of dealing with a failed strategy and all its repercussions.

I do understand your point and it's a fair one.

by Charles Lemos 2009-03-26 02:44PM | 0 recs
Re: Blunt But Bankrupt

That is why you focus on pot. Have town hall meetings and come up with good arguments. The job of a leader is to sell agendas that work. Not just follow focus groups. Obama doesn't have to do the selling himself(it's a moot point, as he has come out against legalization, which I assume, is because he knows as a former drug user, he has no credibility with the public to sell a legalization policy). Obama could select surrogates and stir up debates. This is part of the economic resurrection. Drug addiction has a severe toll on society's productivity and is an indicator of other dysfunction responsible for underachievement in general. Economic reform is not merely giving banks handouts.

by Pravin 2009-03-26 03:07PM | 0 recs
Re: Blunt But Bankrupt

Like I said I agree with all the reasons why drugs should be legalized. But to even dedicate surrogates to it, to waste time stirring the issue up is just not a priority considering so many other crucial & urgent issues that our Government is handling right now.  There are ALOT of issues that need to be fixed but when a country is in crisis some have to be less attended to in terms of priority.  If  things were better right now (if it was 1999 for example) it is an absolute issue that I think should be handled in the fashion you mentioned.  I don't believe it will be a real impactful answer to our economic issues either; money is misdirected enforcing these laws and there are many philosophical issues and points of principal as to why legalization is appropriate. But this cannot be a priority right now.

by jrsygrl 2009-03-27 05:36AM | 0 recs


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