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Announcing the arrest last Wednesday of suspects in two drugs-for-weapons deals, Attorney General John Ashcroft declared, “The war on terrorism has been joined with the war on illegal drug use.” One could almost hear him lick his lips, savoring the thought of it. Since the September 11 attacks last year, the drug war has ceded […]

Ashcroft’s Narco-Terror War

by JOANNE MARINER

Announcing the arrest last Wednesday of suspects in two drugs-for-weapons deals, Attorney General John Ashcroft declared, “The war on terrorism has been joined with the war on illegal drug use.” One could almost hear him lick his lips, savoring the thought of it.

Since the September 11 attacks last year, the drug war has ceded priority to the war on terrorism. Government funding that previously went toward counter-narcotics efforts has been reallocated to fighting terror; manpower has been reassigned, including several hundred FBI agents; and public attention has shifted.

Never notable for its success, the drug war, juxtaposed against the more menacing threat of terrorism, has began to seem like a dispensable extravagance.

Ashcroft would no doubt be the last person to acknowledge this. When he was appointed Attorney General, he vowed to reinvigorate the country’s counter-drug efforts. “I want to escalate the war on drugs. I want to renew it. I want to refresh it, relaunch it, if you will,” said Ashcroft, in his first interview upon taking office. His words were buttressed by his record in the U.S. Senate, where he was a drearily reliable proponent of tough anti-drug policies and long prison sentences for drug offenders.

It must have been straight away obvious, in the wake of September 11, that the best way to revive the drug war would be to piggyback it on the war against terrorism. That Ashcroft would seek to join the two was probably a given.

For now, the pressing question is this: What does the proclaimed merger entail? With drugs and terror conjoined, can we expect Bolivian coca growers to swell the ever-growing crowd of “enemy combatants” on Guantanamo? Will drug couriers face “targeted killing,” like the missile strike carried out last week in Yemen? Or is Ashcroft’s latest gambit just a way to update the same old formula for filling up prisons, discouraging effective drug treatment, and ruining lives?

War as War, or as Metaphor

Given the circumstances of Ashcroft’s announcement–involving arrests, criminal charges, and indictments–it would be premature to predict an end to the traditional law enforcement approach to the drug “war.” (Yes, the mocking quotes are still appropriate.) But the possibility of using more war-like tactics in confronting drugs and terror is worth examining.

Before September 11, loose references to “war” made by people like our Attorney General could be safely understood, and decoded, as a sort of linguistic convention. War, as declared by such generals, was simply a shorthand way of saying: we’re really serious, we’re going to put a lot of resources into this, and we’re going to succeed. Indeed, in more optimistic times, the United States even declared war on poverty–and no one really thought we would kill the poor.

Even though the war on terrorism was declared long before 2001, the United States continued to prosecute terrorists as criminals, fill Guantanamo with Haitians instead of Arabs, and focus defense thinking on missile shields rather than on airport security. War was a metaphor in those days, not a literal fact.

That era has passed. The war on terrorism may still be a metaphor, but it is now a metaphor with an army behind it. Putting aside, for the moment, the question of whether the government is correct to characterize the anti-terrorism effort as a war that justifies a military approach, it is indisputable that the tactics have changed.

There is, to begin with, the armed conflict in Afghanistan, although that seems to be winding down dramatically. But Bush Administration officials insist, at any rate, that the relevant war is not the Afghan war, which they see as just a battlefield, but rather the much larger–indeed, global–war on terrorism. It is for that reason that even if Afghanistan quiets down and ultimately evolves into a Central Asian Switzerland, the 625 detainees held on Guantanamo as “enemy combatants” cannot expect to claim their freedom.

But at least they’re still alive, the detainees might tell themselves, were they to know about the Bush Administration’s missile strike against six alleged terrorists in Yemen last week. (The detainees have probably not thought to celebrate their good fortune, however, because they have absolutely no access to news.)

The Yemen group of “enemy combatants,” caught driving across the desert in a car, even included a U.S. citizen: a dead version of Jose Padilla and Yaser Hamdi. (Like the latter two “enemy combatants,” he paid a price for his alleged Al Qaeda links without ever having been put on trial.) According to news accounts, moreover, the Yemen air strike will almost certainly be followed by others.

Fighting the Drug War with Arrests or with Missiles?

Whether the drug war will ever be fought using such overtly military methods remains to be seen. Despite Ashcroft’s martial rhetoric, I do not really expect to see a fundamental change in the existing approach. His words are part of a strategy for preserving the status quo, not for transforming it.

And even in the past, of course, the drug “war” has occasionally lived up to its moniker. Just over a decade ago, the U.S. invaded Panama in order to bring back military strongman Manuel Noriega, now a drug war prisoner in Florida.

In Peru, another drug war battleground, the U.S. has sponsored air interdiction operations by which planes suspected of drug smuggling are shot down if the pilots do not respond to calls to land. An American missionary and her seven-month-old daughter were killed last year–becoming real civilian casualties of a metaphorical war–in one such operation. The small Cessna that transported them, flown by the woman’s husband, who survived the crash, was mistakenly downed after a CIA surveillance plane called in a Peruvian jet to intercept it.

A Losing War

But let’s stick with the assumption that Ashcroft’s repackaging of the drug war is more about preserving counter-narcotics funding, and gaining public support, than it is about adopting military tactics. What is objectionable about that?

Without attempting a comprehensive list of the drug war’s failures, suffice to say that its impact in reducing the flow of drugs has been negligible. By Ashcroft’s own estimation, Americans spend about $64 billion annually on illegal drugs. Overall drug use has hardly changed since the mid-1980s, and the price of most drugs has fallen. Billions of dollars spent, millions of people incarcerated, and no results–it’s a dismal picture.

The drug-trafficking-and-terrorism angle, moreover, has its own complications. Ashcroft may be factually correct in spotting a link between the two activities, but he should think about why this is so. By making the drug trade illegal, the government ensures that only criminal organizations profit from it. If drugs were decriminalized, then traffickers would have to fall back on other criminal enterprises–immigrant-smuggling, for example, or the illegal arms trade.

Oh yes, the arms trade. That reminds me of one final reason to doubt the sincerity of Ashcroft’s drug-terror reasoning. Recall that the case in which Ashcroft made his announcement about drugs and terror actually involved a drugs-for-weapons scheme, with the weapons meant for two groups on the official U.S. list of foreign terrorist organizations.

Here is an inventory of the weaponry that the defendants were hoping to buy: 9,000 assault rifles, including AK-47 submachine guns and sniper rifles; 300 pistols; approximately 53 million rounds of various types of ammunition; rocket-propelled grenade launchers and almost 300,000 grenades; and several shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles. In short, a very scary bag of loot – scarier, to me, than the hashish and opium that was going to be exchanged for it.

So can somebody please explain why Ashcroft isn’t trumpeting his office’s efforts to stem the flow of illegal arms?

End the Drug War

The drug war and the war on terrorism do resemble each other in important ways, although not those that Ashcroft emphasizes. Both efforts are open-ended, or maybe never-ending. Both lend themselves to broad extensions of government power, and thus, if not carefully controlled, both can lead to violations of fundamental rights. But in trying to combat terrorism the government has at least chosen a worthwhile opponent.

The drug war is not just a conspicuously unsuccessful war, it is a misguided one. Reviving it under the guise of fighting terrorism–and possibly making it more war-like in the process–will only make matters worse.

JOANNE MARINER is a human rights attorney in New York.