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War on Drugs:
Military Perspectives and Problems

by Joseph Miranda
special to DRCNet

for further reading: A recent tragedy in Texas demonstrates how dangerous a military buildup can be to civilians. The Drug Policy Forum of Texas provides this story on the shooting of Esequiel Hernandez by a U.S. Marine and general information on the militarization of the drug war.



Exercise in Futility

Since at least the mid 1980s, the use of the United States armed forces in the "war on drugs" has been a topic of much debate. The term 'war' is evoked and ambitious objectives declared, justifying the participation on an increasing level of armed forces in counterdrug operations both domestically and internationally.

To many Americans, frustrated by the apparent lack of progress in the control of the illegal drug trade, the use of the armed forces seems a logical step. The military, drug warriors argue, can bring additional manpower, resources and experience to the struggle against drugs. Despite the commitment of the armed forces, however, the United States is no closer to its goal of being "drug free" today than it was a decade ago. As will be seen, the stated objectives, with their contingent use of the armed forces, has had no basis in viable military strategy. The end result has been a drug war which has been not only demonstrably a failure but has proven counterproductive to the interests of America's national security and liberties.

details of the war on drugs
The U.S. government's stated objectives in the war on drugs can be summarized as follows:

  • Eradication of drug crops
  • Interdiction of drug smuggling
  • Investigation and prosecution of drug traffickers
  • Reduction of demand by increased penalization of users

In the name of these objectives, the United States has seen a gradual insertion of its armed forces into the war on drugs since the 1980s.

As an example, the National Defense Authorization Act of 1989 gives the Department of Defense responsibility for certain aspects of drug enforcement, including Detection and Monitoring (D&M)and C3I ("command-control-communications-intelligence", a military term for the integration of the various procedures for commanding operations). This Act also authorizes the use of the National Guard in drug enforcement. Title 10 US Code, chapter 18, gives guidance for the use of the armed forces in law enforcement. The armed forces are prohibited from direct search, seizure and arrest, unless authorized by law.

Joint Counterdrug Operations (Joint Publication 3-07.4, 9 August 1994, published by the Department of Defense) states that the Posse Comitatus Act, which forbids the use of the military for civilian law enforcement, does not apply to the National Guard in state service. The issue of state service is somewhat clouded by the fact that drug enforcement may be a federal mission, and that federal funds are used extensively to support the National Guard.

Authorization for use of federal military forces in drug enforcement comes from Title 32 US Code, which effectively frees the armed forces from some of the constraints of the Posse Comitatus Act. The armed forces have been made responsible for supporting law enforcement operations within the United States. This support includes virtually everything short of actual search, seizure and arrest. Missions include:

  • Intelligence support: provision of linguists for translations; conduct of intelligence analysis; analysis of data.
  • Communications: provision of equipment and support.
  • Logistics: provision of transport, helicopters and other aircraft; supply, maintenance, etc.
  • Cargo and mail inspection at points of entry into the United States (which are generally not covered by Constitutional restrictions on search and seizure).
  • Training of law enforcement personnel in military skills related to drug enforcement.
  • Reconnaissance: including aerial observation, sensors and ground surveillance.

This sort of change represent a radical break with past practice, where the military was used for law enforcement only in emergency situations. We are taking war time measures, but is it actually a war we are waging? First, a look at the objectives.

declaration vs. reality

The stated objectives are in fact totally unrealistic. It must be emphasized that the problem is not lack of effort. These objectives are flawed because they are not in accordance the nature of the drug trade in particular and war itself.

This section will concentrate on an analysis of the second objective, drug interdiction, as it is the easiest to demonstrate its total removal from any connection to real world military factors. Nowhere in prohibition advocates' literature can one find a realistic analysis of the armed forces required to successfully interdict drug trafficking. The reason such an analysis cannot be found is quite simple: the mission itself is impossible. Drug warriors do not wish to acknowledge that their "war" cannot be won. Let us look at the military factors of space, time and manpower.

The United States Department of Defense has actually performed an analysis of the military force it would take to secure U.S. borders against drug trafficking (i.e., to complete the interdiction mission). This analysis was reported to the United States Congress in the 1987 Review of International Narcotics Control Strategy Report. The actual force necessary included the following:

  • 96 infantry battalions
  • 53 helicopter companies
  • 210 patrol ships
  • 110 surveillance aircraft

An infantry battalion is equivalent to 500-1000 men (depending upon the type). In order for a battalion to function in the field, it requires several echelons of support (everyone from intelligence to logistics units), which increases the total commitment of personnel by several times. Similarly, a helicopter company might have 15-30 aircraft, and 200 or so people. But it also requires several more echelons of support personnel to conduct sustained operations. The end result is that the above listed force would require at least 500,000 or so personnel to function in the field. Anything less than the above stated force would be a waste of resources inasmuch as drug traffickers would exploit any gaps in the border "defenses".

What are the actual numbers of U.S. military personnel involved in drug interdiction? This varies depending on missions, time of year and need to impress Congressional committees. The U.S. SOUTHCOM (Southern Command), which is responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean, is considered to be manning the "front line" of the war on drugs. SOUTHCOM has a total of 6300 Army personnel, including one infantry brigade (about three battalions), plus assorted special forces, military police, military intelligence and aviation units. Within the United States itself, there were about 8000 active duty and reserve military members involved in drug enforcement missions in 1995. These totals are equal to about 6 battalions. (SOUTHCOM personnel also have military missions other than drug interdiction, so the numbers are actually somewhat less.)

The Border Patrol and Customs can contribute several thousand more personnel to the borders, as well as the 300-400 DEA agents and other Department of Justice personnel involved in drug interdiction abroad. Including both military and civilian law enforcement personnel committed to interdiction, it can be seen that the total force is equal to, at best, 12 battalions. This is a mere 1/8 of the 96 battalions called for by the Department of Defense.

This quick analysis demonstrates the following:

  1. The forces currently committed to drug interdiction are totally incapable of accomplishing the mission.
  2. Even if the United States were to double or triple its forces committed to interdiction, it would still be unable to fulfill the mission.

But could the United States actually seal its borders by redeploying more of its armed forces to interdiction missions? Actual United States active armed forces for 1996 include the following forces:

  • 15 divisional sized formations (Army + Marines) containing some 100 infantry battalions [not counting other types of battalions within the divisions]
  • 17 aviation brigades or equivalents (Army), approximately 51 helicopters companies
  • Some 120 Navy patrol ships (frigate class or smaller) + 137 Coast Guard vessels
  • 6 squadrons of E-3 surveillance aircraft (US Air force) 11 squadrons with E-2 (U.S. Navy), approximately 100 aircraft total

As can be seen, the U.S. could seal its southern borders if it were willing to pull back all of its armed forces from its global commitments and line them up along its southern border. (Incidentally, the above estimate is very loose, as it does not account for various non-divisional formations, equipment which is inoperable due to maintenance, etc.).

These numbers are, in any event, far in excess of anything that the United States government or any drug war proponents seriously advocate using. And while redeploying the entire U.S. military to drug interdiction may seal the borders, it would not even begin to fulfill other missions required in the war on drugs. For example, demand would probably shift to drugs which could be manufactured domestically. Similarly, this estimate does not account for the troops needed to occupy all drug producing regions worldwide. And a redeployment of the military for total drug interdiction does not even begin to explain what will happen to the numerous other missions that the United States is currently engaged in worldwide. The United States would have to withdraw from all of its foreign treaty obligations, would be unable to provide troops for contingencies abroad, and, for that matter, would be unable to provide for defense against non-drug threats to the continental United States.

As we see then, to simply carry out the objective of drug interdiction, the United States would have to effectively double the size of its current armed forces. This would require a massive expenditure of public funds and a massive mobilization of manpower. To finance such a campaign, the United States would have to increase taxes or engage in deficit spending, yet the leaders of both major political parties have continually stated their goals as the reduction of taxes and balancing the budget.

The United States would also have to retool its industries to provide the equipment needed for this force. And it would have to find the manpower, the latter quite probably requiring conscription. One alternative might be to mobilize the National Guard and Reserves. The National Guard and Reserves have a combined total of approximately 30 divisional sized units, but many of these are training and cadre formations which could not be deployed unless they were filled out with conscripts. So it's back to the manpower problem, again.

Even if there were a mobilization of the National Guard and Reserves, it would only shift the problem of funding and manpower around. Since the National Guard and Reserves are made up largely of part time citizen-soldiers, any mobilization would dislocate the American economy as service members were pulled out of their civilian jobs. And there also would be the economic dislocation generated by sealing the border itself, caused by the disruption of commerce and tourist traffic, as well as the fact that much of the economy of the border states depends upon cheap labor provided by undocumented immigrants.

There are also the political problems. Committing National Guard units to border defense would mean pulling them out of their own states on full time federal missions. Would citizens be willing to put up with this?

Any sealing of the borders could not be a temporary measure. It would have to be maintained in perpetuity, otherwise the moment the troops were pulled back, trafficking would resume. Indeed, trafficking would probably resume at a greater intensity inasmuch as the traffickers would have become more "combat-wise" by their experience in infiltrating a heavily defended border.

So far this analysis has presumed that the numbers presented by the Department of Defense would be adequate to close the borders. But let us do a closer analysis. Any border defense would have to be conducted on land, sea and air, since these are all used as smuggling routes. The United States southern border, from Baja California to the mouth of the Rio Grande, is approximately 2500 kilometers in length (accounting for various convolutions in the frontier). The basic combined arms maneuver unit for the armed forces is the division. A U.S. division, depending upon the type (infantry, armored, mechanized infantry, airborne, air assault [the later being helicopter mobile]), will average 15,000-20,000 personnel, plus equipment. A division is divided into 10 or so combat maneuver battalions (infantry, amour, mechanized infantry, reconnaissance), 1 or more helicopter battalions, 4 artillery battalions, plus combat support units (engineer, signal, military police, military police), and combat service support units (supply, maintenance, transportation, medical, administrative). Infantry, reconnaissance and helicopter units would be useful for border patrol duties. Many of the other units within the divisions would be unable to properly conduct border surveillance operations. Artillery and armor would be of limited utility, although, obviously, their personnel could be converted to other functions. Also useful for border control would be non-divisional military police brigades and special operations units.

A division can hold a front of up to 10 kilometers. Given that the "enemy" does not possess overwhelming firepower (at least not yet), these frontages can be extended. There is also the fact that much of the southwestern U.S. consists of "dead zones" with little population and can be thinly held. Even so, there are limits to things like the range of ground surveillance radar and patrol areas. Moreover, troops would have to be rotated out of the line for training, leave, and overhaul of equipment. Given this, perhaps the frontage of each division can be extended to 50 kilometers (which means that each maneuver battalion would have to cover about 5 kilometers). Some quick mathematics show that it would require at least 50 divisions to properly man the borders. Assuming 10 maneuver battalions per division, this comes to 500 battalions, this shows that, if anything, the 96 battalions the Department of Defense believes is the minimal requirement for interdiction is a gross underestimate. And this estimate does not take into account that the Gulf Coast would also have to be covered by a screen of troops to back up aerial and naval interdiction, although this could be held more thinly. We are left with a total armed forces in excess of six times the current size.

A critical point here is that unlike a conflict like Desert Storm, firepower cannot be substituted for manpower. Controlling borders requires large numbers of troops on the ground (i.e., infantry) which means that the current hi-tech approach of the American military would have to be abandoned.

(Often, Americans do not really understand the size of their own country. As an example, look at any world map and compare the U.S.-Mexican border with, say, the size of Vietnam. The U.S. and its allies could not prevent Communist infiltration into South Vietnam with a force of some 30 or so divisions during the late 1960s, plus the backing of the most extensive aerial interdiction and sensor campaigns to that date in history. If the point is made that this was because the Communists had sanctuaries in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, it only emphasizes the impossibility of the task. The sanctuaries for drug traffickers consist of much of the third world which is clearly far beyond the capability of the United States to occupy.)

One factor contributing to the need for more troops is that the front is not limited to a line running along the U.S.-Mexican/Caribbean border itself. There would have to be depth to the positions to deal with infiltrators who make it through the border. Usual military practice is for every two units on the front line, there must be one in reserve. This increases the number of battalions needed by 50%. So now we're up to 75 divisions. And the U.S. would inevitably have to maintain troops on the southern side of the border in Mexico, throughout the Caribbean, in Central America and in the northern littoral of South America to act as advance reconnaissance forces. So this might add another increment of divisions. Moreover, much drug trafficking takes place via smuggling in commercial airliners and shipping. Virtually every international airport and port becomes a front, which would then have to be "defended."

As this analysis demonstrates, the absurdity of using the military to seal the borders is self-evident. Sealing the border would mean, in effect, the creation of a militarized zone along the entire southern United States and with that, the acceleration of hostilities with Latin America. Do the proponents of interdiction seriously advocate the paying of these economic, political and military costs required to accomplish the interdiction mission? Or is the "war" metaphor simply a public relations trick to make the public believe that something is being done?

Of course, America's military leaders do understand how wars are fought and won. Consequently, they have refused to drag the armed forces into what will prove to be a disastrous situation. For example, a U.S. invasion of Latin America to attack the drug cartels would prove unfeasible on numerous different fronts. In the first place, the area to be occupied is equivalent to half the continental United States. The armed forces do not exist that could occupy such a region. An American military intervention would be seen as Yankee Imperialism gone mad and be met with endless guerrilla warfare. Moreover, even if somehow various resistance forces could be beaten down, the U.S. would have to continue to occupy the Andes (and other drug producing regions) forever in order to prevent a resurgence of the drug trade. An endless war in Latin America would surely cause a political collapse at home in the United States.

Now, if the proponents of a war on drugs want such a war, then they should be honest about it and go public with their demands. They can advocate the taxes and conscription to support a real war. And they can be honest with the public, as well as themselves, about the human costs this will entail. Yet they have not done so. The reason is that any politician who advocated a real war on drugs would commit political suicide. The mood of the country is such that increased taxation and a return to conscription would lead to mass protest and the electoral defeat of the politicians who started the war. And, indeed, the public might even question the entire concept of a "war" on drugs.

If any drug war advocate feels this assessment is inadequate, they are requested to provide an alternative military analysis demonstrating what forces would be required to "win" the war on drugs.

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War on Drugs -- War on Reality

Without any basis in matters of grand strategy, the war on drugs seems based on winning by tricks. The assumption is that if somehow the United States could strike a military blow somewhere, or capture one cartel chieftain, or suspend some more civil liberties, or build one more fence, or do something, it can win the war on drugs.

Instead of a war-winning plan, governments rely on publicity moves to give the appearance that something is being accomplished. For example, there have been a large number of military operations conducted within the United States against marijuana fields. One of the more notable was Operation Green Sweep in California in 1990, involving the Regular Army and National Guard. Many other states also have employed their National Guards in anti-drug missions. While these operations are conducted with much fanfare in the media, they do not accomplish anything permanent.

The experience of both modern unconventional warfare and of law enforcement demonstrates that in order for operations against the civilian populace to be successful (and counterdrug operations are such operations), they must be long term in nature. Simply destroying marijuana fields, for example, has no real effect simply because growers will move elsewhere or replant the fields when the police withdraw. As a minimum, drug enforcement personnel would have to permanently occupy all drug producing regions, not just in America but worldwide. But given the vast geographical regions these areas encompass, this mission is plainly impossible.

For example, take Operation Just Cause, the 1990 U.S. intervention in Panama. One of the ostensible goals of Just Cause was to eliminate drug trafficking centered in Panama. Among other things, Panamanian leader Manuel Noriega was arrested and convicted in an American court for complicity in drug trafficking. Despite the removal of Noriega from the scene, drug trafficking soon resumed. The obvious point was that new traffickers took over from whatever role Noriega had previously fulfilled. Indeed, by the removal of Noriega, the situation may have been made worse as he no longer was there to provide the centralized countervailing force against the various independent operators among the traffickers.

The United States government has been touting the virtues of the free market for the last several years, especially in the countries comprising the former Soviet Empire Ironically, the war on drugs has actually contributed to the flourishing of the free market in the drug trade. The drug market functions according to chaotic principles that are unplanned and respond to market demands. The reason that more military force fails in the war on drugs is that what it does is essentially remove centers of hierarchical organization, such as the cartels, from the picture. Numerous independent competing forces fill the vacuum created. And since these independent traffickers do not have a centralized hierarchy, they are that much more difficult to detect and control. The free market takes over and the force of competition drives the prices of drugs down.

the other side

One of the greatest fallacies of the war on drugs is the assumption that the drug traffickers will do nothing in defense of their own interests. But the entire drug infrastructure, from producers through traffickers to street-level dealers, have come up with effective counter-strategies. These strategies have taken a wide number of forms, including armed resistance against drug enforcement personnel, bribery, and countermeasures against surveillance.

Sealing the Borders, a 1988 RAND corporation study, found that interdiction does not lessen the availability of drugs. In order to work, interdiction would have to demonstrably limit the quantity, raise the costs of drugs, and/or make drug availability unpredictable. Yet none of this has happened. There have been marginal fluctuations in the prices and availability of drugs, yet no radical changes. Drug trafficking is not a static situation. Traffickers quickly adapt to interdiction by any and all of the following methods: increasing the amounts of drugs shipped, increasing payments devoted to bribery, and changing routes.

To give one example of trafficker adaptation, Signe Wilkinson reports in the Philadelphia Daily News of Wednesday April 10 1996 a typical account of the situation on the U.S. Mexican border. Wilkinson writes "Every stretch of fence is probed constantly. At one remote spot...traffickers bulldozed a hole in the [border] fence and sent convoys of cars through. The first cars occupied the Border Patrol, while a later one transported drugs. [Border Patrol officers] expressed various degrees of skepticism about our war on drugs. no one wanted to be quoted on the record because they knew their doubts constituted 'career-ending statements'."

What has happened is that the greater the effort put into drug enforcement, the greater the opportunity there is for these countermeasures to take effect. As an example, take bribery. Conceivably, a small number of highly motivated drug enforcement agents could be kept free from corruption. But when law enforcement involves large numbers of civil police and military forces, the opportunities for them to be corrupted increase as well. This is one of the reasons that putting the military into the drug war is not a solution. The masses of money involved, and the fact that many people see drug use as a victimless crime, would lead to many in the armed forces actively or passively refusing to cooperate with drug enforcement.

As evidence of this, there have been numerous reported incidents of Latin American armed forces personnel firing upon drug enforcement agents (and vice versa). Whether or not these incidents are due to nationalist elements who resent North American intervention in their countries, or corrupted officers acting in the cartels interests, or turf wars between competing agencies, is difficult to determine. But the fact of the matter is that the more force governments commit to the war on drugs, the greater the opportunity for that force to be turned against them.

A case in point has been the recent arrest of Mexican General Jesus Gutierrez Rebollo, director of the Institute of Combat Against Drugs, for his cooperation with Mexico's drug cartels. Nor is General Rebollo alone. Numerous other officers in his command were also implicated. When an official of this rank can be corrupted, it also has deleterious effects on the entire drug war effort inasmuch as it means that powerful forces have been turned against the drug enforcement apparatus itself.

Now at this point, a serious question may be raised. The numbers quoted above indicate that the United States cannot currently defend its borders against infiltration from abroad. This criticism is true enough, but it also misses another very serious point. Ultimately, the defense of any nation relies not in its armed forces but on its politics. The most effective way for a country to prevent an invasion of its borders is by maintaining good relations with its neighbors, thereby preventing wars from breaking out in the first place. But the war on drugs has engendered serious anti-American sentiment throughout much of the third world.

This can be seen in the acceleration of guerrilla warfare in the Andean countries in recent years. One of the primary causes of this guerrilla warfare has been peasant reaction to U.S. supported drug enforcement assaults. Anti-drug operations have involved spraying of herbicides, assaults on the rural populace, and assorted violations of basic human rights. For example, it is estimated by the Andean Commission of Jurists that some 70% of the political murders in Colombia are committed by the armed forces, police, and paramilitary forces, while only 2% are committed by the drug cartels. (The remainder are committed by various insurgent movements). In the face of this assault, the peoples of the drug producing countries have little choice but to organize guerrilla warfare for their own survival. As an example, in Bolivia the Nestor Paz Zamora insurgency movement increased the tempo of its operations in the 1980s, mainly to resist U.S. supported counterdrug operations. Peasants who have been the victims of anti-drug operations, and nationalists outraged by the assault on Bolivian sovereignty by foreign-based operations, flocked to the insurgents as recruits.

The U.S. campaigns against the coca producers and traffickers have also resulted in the cartels entering into alliances with local left wing insurgent forces. The end result has been an increased level of violence and an overall improvement in both the cartels and the insurgents' ability to resist. The insurgents gain money from the cartels and the cartels get the additional armed support from left wing guerrillas. Meanwhile, increasing sectors of the civilian populace throw their weight behind both the insurgents and the cartels in order to survive the U.S. initiated onslaught on their lands and their livelihoods.

By insisting on "certification" prior to providing economic assistance, third world countries are being treated as colonial subordinates rather than independent nations, leading to more widespread anti-American popular reaction. And the massive corruption engendered by the U.S. pushing Latin American militaries into participation in the war on drugs further undermines hemispheric security. The end result of the war on drugs is the continual social and political disruption of America's southern neighbors, a disruption which in turn creates an increasing guerrilla threat and more powerful cartels. In sum, it is the war on drugs itself that is creating the threat to American national security.

reinforcing defeat

Counterdrug missions have been recently listed as a form of low intensity conflict for United States armed forces. Low Intensity Conflict (or "LIC"), consists of unconventional operations, usually conducted during peacetime. The names for the types of LIC change, but basically they involve insurgency, counterinsurgency (sometimes known as foreign internal defense), direct action (e.g., peacetime raids), terrorism counteraction, and peacekeeping.

In most LIC campaigns, the most critical element is gaining the support of the people. It is through that support that a force gains recruits, intelligence information, supplies and, most importantly, political legitimacy. But the tactics of the war on drugs have ensured that the United States is alienating entire nations and pushing them into resistance.

That militarization of the war on drugs is not the solution is demonstrable by a quick look at the situation in the Andean countries where the United States has carried out a strategy of unrestricted military intervention. In these countries, United States supported military, paramilitary and police forces have launched attacks against civilian populaces, sprayed herbicides on civilians, assailed cultural use of drugs, kidnapped suspects without extradition, employed torture, executed opponents summarily and conducted not a few massacres. The end result has been predictable. These war crimes have pushed increasing sectors of the peoples of these reigns into supporting the alliance of drug cartels and left wing insurgents for sheer survival. The more force used, the more people alienated, and the more guerrilla warfare in resistance.

This is one of the reasons that United States military leaders want to limit the employment of its armed forces in the war on drugs. Despite the common folk wisdom, in the real world, more force is not the solution in this form of warfare. Ultimately, there must be a political solution. Yet, so far, no reasonable political solution has been attained or even stated for the war on drugs. The government's original stated goal, to make America "drug free" by 1995 (codified in the 1986 crime bill, and more recently moved back to 2002), has proven to be a failure.

Most crucially, the war on drugs has failed because it has not attained the support of the American people. This statement needs to be qualified. Polls show that many if not a majority of Americans think that drugs are a major threat. It is also a fact that millions of Americas have actively supported the war on drugs in one form or another, such as by reporting neighbors or family members to the police for using drugs. But the kind of support which is being generated for the war on drugs is essentially that of a police state, a culture of informers and witch hunts.

On the opposition side, there are several distinct groups with a moral, political, economic or personal stake in resistance to such tactics. These groups, many of which have interests which are directly contradictory to each other, nevertheless present cumulative problems to a government policy which is inherently dependent upon citizen "cooperation" in the forms of snitchery, blind obedience and willingness to forego civil liberties. These groups include the traffickers, whose fortunes depend upon both the continuation and the failure of the war on drugs, and drug users, past and present. (It is estimated that over 70 million Americans have tried marijuana. It is safe to assume that many of these, including current users, are hostile to the idea of incarceration of themselves or people like them.) They also include civil libertarians, who see the drug war as a convenient excuse to accrue power to the state at the expense of constitutionally guaranteed protections, and increasingly, a growing number of Americans who have come to believe that the war on drugs is an ineffective and injurious policy which must be reconsidered in light of the evidence against it. The significance of this has to be seen in the fact that the drug culture is flourishing despite one of the most serious and prolonged police oppressions in the history of this country.

The lesson which must be emphasized is this that ultimately victory goes to the side which has the political solution which matches the will of the people. And this is why U.S. counterdrug efforts are doomed to fail in Latin America. Since drugs are part of peoples' lives in these countries, the only way the U.S. could win would be by ending its war on drugs. But since this would contradict the every premise of the war on drugs, the conflict continues, degenerating into an increasing spiral of savagery of on both sides.

In sum, the very repressive nature of the war on drugs creates the conditions which have defeated prohibition. The drug war cannot be won because its goals and its methods are contradictory of the underlying principles of war itself.

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No More Vietnams

Vietnam proved to be a dramatic turning point in the history of American armed forces, especially in terms of their relationship with the civilian government. The after effects of Vietnam were a loss of faith in government at home, the death of 58,000 Americans (not to mention millions of Indochinese), the demoralization of the armed forces, mass civil unrest, etc. What Vietnam did was show that a war that did not have proper political support could not be fought, much less won. So the military resolved never to be involved in that kind of war again. Despite the usual allegations of Pentagon warmongering, the fact of the matter is (and this can be demonstrated by reading professional armed forces journals of the last two decades) that the American military is not eager to fight another major foreign war abroad.

Former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger listed the six criteria for future large scale military involvement in a foreign war:

  • There must be vital interests at stake.
  • There must be sufficient commitment of force to win.
  • There must be clearly defined political objectives.
  • If military conditions change in the course of a war, so must commitment of forces.
  • There must be the support of the American people.
  • The commitment of military force should be the last resort after diplomatic, political and economic measures have failed.

Consider the size of the Andean theater of operations, the nature of the terrain, the perpetual nature of the mission and the tradition of guerrilla resistance. All these would preclude a quick victory for an American intervention. While an American military intervention might gain some short term victories, the final result would only see the U.S. bogged down in an endless guerrilla war on a continent-wide scale. Simplistic military solutions, like unrestricted bombing, would prove futile, again, considering the size of the theater and the nature of the "enemy."

The cartels are essentially underground organizations, operating among the people. They do not make suitable targets for hi-tech bombing missions (unlike the Iraqi army in Desert Storm; the Iraqis were a conventional armed force in the fairly open terrain of the desert). The only way to destroy all coca (and cannabis, and opium, etc.) production would be by annihilating the peasant sectors of these countries. And, again, any attempt along these lines would only lead to massive guerrilla resistance which would stymie any American intervention force and destroy the American diplomatic position in the third world.

Moreover, the other side would strike back, utilizing whatever weapons that became available. If the United States was bombing the peoples of third world countries, then those peoples would have every right to launch military attacks against the United States itself. No doubt, there would be in an explosion of terrorism against Americans both worldwide, and within the United States.

Obviously, this is a situation which the American government wants to prevent. So instead of committing American forces in large numbers, the government has circumvented Secretary Weinberger's preconditions for war by having client state military forces conduct counterdrug operations, thereby avoiding American casualties. Since these client governments can be kept in check by the usual applications of U.S. political and economic pressures, as well as the threat of a Just Cause type of invasion, they can be forced to continue the war indefinitely, with near disregard for the damage it does to their own society.

More recently, there has been some increased Defense Department interest in increased military involvement in the war on drugs. One reason for this shift in opinion is that the United States is overcoming its "Vietnam Syndrome" and is more willing to look at militaristic responses to crises. An examination of military journals finds an increasing number of articles promoting different strategies to fight the drug war. The March 1990 issue of Military Review magazine (published by the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas) contains several articles dealing with different aspects of the war on drugs. The June 1992 issue of Military Review contains a very interesting article by Colonel Joseph Bergantz, advocating that the armed forces provide a centralized intelligence center for counterdrug operations. While supporting a greater military role in the war on drugs, Colonel Bergantz also recognizes some of the strategic problems such a war would entail and that these can only be overcome by employing a well thought out national strategy.

One obvious point is that in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the former "threat" no longer exists to justify large Defense expenditures. A new threat, this line of reasoning goes, must be invented. Lastly, and possibly least understood, is a shift in demographics in the United States. The past several years have seen a considerable backlash against anything remotely connected with that era known as the "1960s," including civil rights, sexual freedom, the welfare state and drugs. This is being increasingly reflected in military culture.

the American military's role

From the standpoint of cost-effectiveness, it would probably make more sense to cut Defense spending and shift the money to law enforcement, allowing civilian agencies to expand personnel, equipment and operations. (Actually, studies show that THE most cost effective strategy would be to shift nearly all anti-drug resources into education and treatment.) Why this is not done is not fully explained. One reason is that the Department of Defense and its related industries represent one of the major power blocs in the federal government. Attempts to cut the armed forces would be met by resistance in Congress and from various unofficial military organizations, such as the Association of the United States Army. Moreover, shifting federal funds to law enforcement would mean that Washington DC would surrender much of its control over operations and, perhaps most importantly, would also have to dispense with the "war" metaphor, something that would be politically disadvantageous for those politicians who have most exploited it.

the military versus the war on drugs

Many people in the Defense Department see the war on drugs as being absurd. Former Secretaries of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci have summarized the reasons that military involvement in the war on drugs would have negative consequences for the United States. These reasons can be summarized as follows:

  • Employing the armed forces detracts from military training. Training for war requires a constant cycle of preparation, from individual soldier training to largescale maneuvers. Diverting training time to missions other than preparation for war might mean that the armed forces would be unable to win the next conventional war. Moreover, military equipment is fundamentally different from that required by civilian law enforcement missions. Much of U.S. weaponry, for example, is designed to be used against conventional military forces on the scale of the Iraqis or North Koreans; it would have little applicability in dealing with "enemies" who operate on a low intensity level, such as drug traffickers.
  • Law enforcement missions are inherently different from military missions. In terms of scale, enemy, and support requirements, drug enforcement is not war. For law enforcement, the use of force is the last resort. Most arrests, for example, involve no resistance. The armed forces, to the contrary, use deadly force as their primary instrument. The overwhelming and undiscriminating use of force that the military frequently employs would prove to be counterproductive in a civilian environment. Such force would cause needless non-combatant casualties and collateral damage, leading to an adverse political reaction. (This is a point which is frequently lost on the public, which is accustomed to seeing fictional television and film depictions of law enforcement in which the denouement is given as a gunfight between police and criminals).
  • The United States has committed its forces to operations globally. The most prominent of these missions are the various United Nations sponsored peacekeeping missions. U.S. forces are also committed to deployment to allied nations in case a conventional war breaks out in places like Korea. Redeploying military forces to civilian law enforcement would mean an end to these missions.
  • Employing the armed forces in drug enforcement would undermine Constitutional liberties. The experience from British and American history is that standing armies in peacetime have been used to suppress dissident movements and oppress the general populace. During the 19th century, the United States government frequently utilized the armed forces in a law enforcement role. The military ended up being used to suppress labor unrest, leading to mass public protest in response. This protest eventually resulted in the passing of the Posse Comitatus Act (1878), which forbade the involvement of federal troops to enforce civilian laws unless Congress specially authorized it. Given their centralized nature, federal armed forces could become a tool of tyranny. Nor is this fear unfounded. There is the experience of the incarceration of Japanese-Americans by the armed forces during World War Two to indicate the ease which which Americans can throw away their freedoms during a period of national hysteria. Since federal forces would be above local control, abuses would be difficult to correct. And, finally, there is also the fact that if there is resistance to federal troops, this would create a state of de facto civil war.

Several major professional military journals have run articles extremely critical of the war on drugs. These include Proceedings, the journal of the U.S. Naval Institute (see its February 1993 issue) and Parameters, the Journal of the U.S. Army War College. The Winter 1992-93 issue of Parameters contained Colonel Charles Dunlap's controversial piece, The Military Coup of 2012, which warned that military involvement in civilian missions could lead to the end of democracy in America. Both Military Review and Army (the journal of the Association of the United States Army) have published a number of letters critical of the war on drugs (including several by this author).

One of the reasons, one suspects, for the military opposition to the war on drugs is that many members of the armed forces do have a commitment to the ideals of individual liberty and constitutional rights that the United States is supposed to espouse. Many people joined the military to protect freedom and it seems absurd to them to join in a conflict like the drug war which has as its stated goal the destruction of freedom in America. There has been reported some protest within the military against supporting law enforcement agencies which have a history of violating constitutional rights. While dissent is low key, there has been at least one underground newsletter published out of Fort Bragg, home of the Special Forces, objecting to the direction in which the military is headed. Many service members object to being involved in the horrendous attacks on human rights accompanying drug enforcement in the Andes, where U.S. supported governments employ death squads, paramilitary forces and the system of "faceless justice" (i.e., inquisition style trials) to fight drug cartels, insurgents and just about anyone else who is a threat to United States interests.

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Drug warriors constantly tell us that we can not afford to "lose" the war on drugs. But the absurdity of this position can be seen in the fact that America is to not really fighting the war in the first place. In many ways, the war on drugs has allowed certain sectors in American politics to have a justification for increasing repression at home and intervention abroad. Lawrence Korb, an Assistant Secretary of Defense during the Reagan administration, has stated that the open ended nature of the Defense Department's commitment to the war on drugs is a "potential hazard" (Jim McGee, Washington Post, December 8, 1996). What ought to have been a temporary expedient commitment of military personnel to law enforcement has been institutionalized. Ironically, the National Guard now has more personnel assigned to counterdrug operations than the DEA has special agents on duty. The military is functioning as an essential support function for civilian law enforcement.

Despite the demonstrated unreality of the war on drugs, it does allow the United States to fight a war on the cheap. U.S. armed forces are involved just enough to give the appearance of fighting a war but not enough to require the expenses of mobilization nor to produce the casualties that would inevitably rebound politically at home. The real fight is being conducted by the militaries of Latin America and other client nations.

The problem with this strategy is that while it provides short term gains for use in drug warrior publicity, in the long term it is proving disastrous. The popular reaction to the U.S. drug war abroad has resulted in the creation of massed based instrument movements throughout the Andes. And at home, there is a rising tide of opposition to government at all levels.

What then is the future for the war on drugs? There are several possible scenarios:

  • More of the same. This scenario would mean continuing the same strategy of limited commitment of American armed forces while using third world militaries to do the majority of fighting. The U.S. might choose to marginally increase the number of troops and police on interdiction missions. Occasionally, major operations might be staged, chiefly for their publicity value, such as temporarily sending troops to the border or making sweeps of suspected marijuana growing areas. This alternative will do nothing to materially change the situation.
  • A major short term campaign. This scenario would mean some sort of operations like Just Cause or Desert Storm, where an entire American army would be committed to some operation in Latin America to accomplish some short term operation. Some possibilities could include a massive land/air strike to destroy drug laboratories, or commitment of ground forces to prop up a friendly government under threat from an insurgent-cartel alliance. This sort of operation would, no doubt, be accompanied with full propaganda fanfare. Victory would be declared and the troops withdrawn before they took too many casualties. Once a withdrawal had taken place, the cartels and their allies in the insurgent movements would reemerge, invigorated by the fresh infusions of recruits rallying against the North American invasion of their homelands. The end result would be that the United States would find its client governments in more danger of being overthrown than before.
  • Full mobilization. The United States decides to mobilize its economy and armed forces to secure the borders and engaging a long term struggle against drug traffickers (and whatever other international "terrorists" and "criminals" Washington DC would declare to be threats to national security). Conscription would be reinstated, Defense spending would be increased dramatically. Internally, the United States would turn itself into a police state. The political repercussions would be increased resistance from various pro-freedom and anti-government groups in the United States (not necessarily the same organizations). While initially the war might receive mass popular support, as the years progressed and the casualties returned home, mass protest would grow. The United States would see a repeat of the civil unrest that accompanied the War in Vietnam. Internationally, the United States would alienate an increasing number of governments by its high handed military operations. Then end result would be defeat in the end, and with that, the discrediting of those prohibitionists who started the war in the first place.
  • Ending the war. This scenario would mean acknowledging that the "war" on drugs has been a failure. The United Sates would withdraw its military and law enforcement personnel from operations abroad, make reparations to the peoples of third world countries for the damage inflicted by the war on drugs, and begin to reexamine drug prohibition as a policy. Internally, the United States might attempt to deal with its social problems by intelligent programs instead of assaulting its own people.

Which option will be taken? The path of least resistance would be More of the Same. This scenario has many political advantages for the United States government. Among other things, the "war on drugs" justifies increased erosion of civil liberties, an erosion which is useful in keeping the population under control, especially in the face of real national problems (e.g., corporate downsizing, declining working class wages, corrupt public officials, etc.). Politicians will cynically continue to use the war on drugs as a means for gaining political advantages within the United States. The U.S. assault on the third world in the name of counterdrug operations will continue, with a corresponding increase in anti-American resistance. And so the war on drugs will become a cancer upon the nation, sapping its liberties and its integrity.

Perhaps, then, the real question is, how can the war on drugs be brought to an end?

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  • Bruce Bagley, Myths of Militarization: The Role of the Military in the War on Drugs in the America. Miami: University of Miami Press, 1991.
  • International Institute for Strategic Studies, Strategic Survey 1995/96, London: Brassey's, 1996.
  • Peter Reuter, Gordon Crawford, Jonathan Cane, Sealing the Borders, Santa Monica: RAND Corporation, 1988.
magazine articles
  • Daniel Bland "Colombia: Background to Conflict, Colombia Bulletin #1, published by Colombia Support Network, P.O. Box 1505, Madison, WI 53701 USA.
  • Lt. Colonel Charles Dunlap, "The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012," Parameters, Winter 1992-93.
  • Hance Hamilton, "The Drug War Flunks," Proceedings, U.S. Naval Institute, February 1993.
government documents
  • Department of Defense Operational Support for Drug Control Activities, Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1992.
  • National Drug Policy Board Strategy Plans, hearings Before the Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Contort,House of Representatives, April 14 1988.
  • Review of International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Mid Year Update, House of Representatives, First Session, October 7, 1987.
  • Review of International Narcotics Control Strategy Report: Mid Year Update, House of Representatives, Second Session, 1987.
internet sites

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about the author

Joseph Miranda is a former instructor at the U.S. Army JFK Special Warfare Center and the Editor of Strategy and Tactics magazine. He can be reached at


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