Commentary

Drug Prohibition Is a Terrorist’s Best Friend

A version of this article appeared in the National Post, January 4, 2005.

Under pressure from Washington, Afghan President Hamid Karzai is urging his people to fight narcotics as ferociously as they fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Such a struggle seems destined to undermine the campaign against al Qaeda and the Taliban. Karzai and his American patrons can prevail against the country’s opium growers or its terrorists, but not both.

Afghanistan has been one of the leading sources of opium poppies, and therefore heroin, since the 1970s. Today, the country accounts for more than 75 percent of the world’s opium supply. It is clear that some of the revenues from the drug trade — at least 10 percent to 20 percent — flow into the coffers of al Qaeda and the Taliban.

That is obviously a worrisome development. But it is hardly unprecedented. For years, leftist insurgent groups in Colombia, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and right-wing paramilitaries have been financed largely by that country’s cocaine trade. Conservative estimates place the annual revenue stream to the FARC alone at between $515 million and $600 million per year. (In 2002, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia put the figure at “several billion” dollars.)

The harsh reality is that terrorist groups around the world have been enriched by prohibitionist drug policies that drive up drug costs, and which deliver enormous profits to the outlaw organizations willing to accept the risks that go with the trade.

Targeting the Afghanistan drug trade would create a variety of problems. Most of the regional warlords who abandoned the Taliban and currently support the U.S. anti-terror campaign (and in many cases politically undergird the Karzai government) are deeply involved in the drug trade, in part to pay the militias that give them political clout. A crusade against drug trafficking could easily alienate those regional power brokers and cause them to switch allegiances yet again.

Unfortunately, Washington is now increasing its pressure on the Karzai government to crack down on opium cultivation, offering more than a billion dollars in aid to fund anti-drug efforts. In addition, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced in August that U.S. military forces in Afghanistan would make drug eradication a high priority — a mission that the military properly continues to resist.

U.S. officials need to keep their goals straight. Recognizing that security considerations sometimes trump other objectives would not be an unprecedented move by Washington. U.S. agencies quietly ignored the drug-trafficking activities of anti-communist factions in Central America during the 1980s when the primary goal was to keep those countries out of the Soviet orbit. In the early 1990s, the United States also eased its pressure on Peru’s government to eradicate drugs when President Alberto Fujimori concluded that a higher priority had to be given to winning coca farmers away from Shining Path guerrillas. U.S. leaders should refrain from trying to make U.S. soldiers into anti-drug crusaders: Even those policymakers who support the war on drugs as an overall policy ought to recognize that American troops in Central Asia have a difficult enough job fighting terrorists.

There is little doubt that terrorist groups around the world profit from the drug trade. What anti-drug crusaders refuse to acknowledge, however, is that the connection between drug trafficking and terrorism is the direct result of making drugs illegal. The prohibitionist policy that the United States and other drug-consuming countries continue to pursue guarantees a huge black market premium for all illegal drugs. The retail value of drugs coming into the United States (to say nothing of Europe and other markets) is estimated at $50 billion to $100 billion a year. Fully 90 percent of that sum is attributable to the prohibition premium.

Absent a world-wide prohibitionist policy, this fat profit margin would evaporate, and terrorist organizations would be forced to seek other sources of revenue.

Drug prohibition is terrorism’s best friend. That symbiotic relationship will continue until the United States and its allies have the wisdom to dramatically change their drug policies.

Ted Galen Carpenter, the Cato Institute’s vice president for defense and foreign policy studies, is the author of six books and editor of 10 books on international affairs, including Bad Neighbor Policy: Washington’s Futile War on Drugs in Latin America (2003).