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Review by Hal Brands

Vanda Felbab-Brown, Shooting Up: Counter-Insurgency and the War on Drugs, Washington, DC, Brookings Institution Press. 2009, ISBN 978-0815703280, 273 pp., $28.95

As the war in Afghanistan has returned to the center of policy debate and public discourse in the United States, so have the links between the drug trade and the Taliban insurgency. As observers like Gretchen Peters and others have established, the opium trade provides al Qaeda and the Taliban with massive revenues, thereby allowing them to purchase weapons, bribe officials, expand their operations, and ingratiate themselves to the poppy growers who depend upon their protection.

This problem of a narco-insurgent nexus is not new.  Drugs have long funded insurgent groups in Peru, Colombia, Burma, India, and elsewhere, providing them with a powerful weapon in their struggles against established governments. As Vanda Felbab-Brown points out in her new volume on this subject, however, policymakers have frequently drawn precisely the wrong conclusions about combating narco-funded insurgencies. Viewing counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics as two sides of the same coin, they have ended up pursuing strategies that do little to restrain the drug trade or limit its profits, and much to alienate the population and drive them into an alliance with the insurgents.

Felbab-Brown develops this argument in a relatively slender book of six chapters—an introduction, a conclusion, a theoretical chapter, and three case studies. The theoretical chapter lays out Felbab-Brown’s “political capital model” of insurgent participation in illicit economies. This participation typically brings insurgent groups substantial material and military gains, by allowing them to purchase better weapons, pay better salaries, and conduct more ambitious operations. Even more important, illicit trade allows the insurgents to derive greater political power. Narcotics-funded insurgent groups can put poor peasants to work and distribute food and essential services in areas where there is little government presence.  “Unlike ideology, which typically promises hard-to-deliver benefits sometime in the future,” Felbab-Brown writes, “sponsorship of the illicit economy allows belligerents to deliver immediate benefits to the population.”  Moreover, where the locals are wound up in illicit economies—as in the coca fields of the Andes—the insurgents can position themselves as defenders of local customs and economies by protecting them from government eradication campaigns.

This creates a dilemma for policy-makers. Crop eradication is often unsuccessful or counterproductive, and by destroying the population’s livelihood, it can create new recruits for the guerrillas. Interdiction—disrupting illicit economies further down the distribution chain—can be more effective, but it is extremely expensive and difficult to carry out. From a pure counter-insurgency perspective, the best choice may be either to ignore the illicit economy or to attempt to license the production of the forbidden good.  These strategies have little impact on the narcotics trade, but they mitigate the harm done to civilians and thus lessen the chance the insurgents can derive political gains from their involvement in the drug trade.

Subsequent chapters develop this thesis through three case studies: Peru, Colombia, and Afghanistan. In Peru, Shining Path gradually assumed a role in the coca economy by offering to protect growers who were alienated by government and U.S.-sponsored eradication programs.  The proceeds derived from these activities allowed them to purchase heavy weapons and raise salaries. Shining Path also made political gains by forging an alliance with the cocaleros and positioning themselves as nationalists protecting the economy from imperialist interference. As one DEA official lamented, “You’ll have imperialists cutting down coca trees in front of a crying peasant woman. Mao could not have thought of anything better.” The government ultimately marginalized the insurgency only when it adopted a hands-off policy toward cocaine, which accentuated divisions between the campesinos and the guerrillas, and when it managed the capture Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman. Counter-narcotics played no role in the defeat of the insurgency; in fact, aggressive counter-narcotics policies generally complicated things.

The same pattern held in Colombia, where officials have long argued that drugs are the roots of the FARC insurgency, and that the key to ending the insurgency is thus attacking the drug trade. Drugs are certainly central to the insurgency—the FARC has made up to $600 million per year from its role in the narcotics trade—but strong eradication efforts have often been more hindrance than help in terms of waging a successful counter-insurgency.  When the U.S. and Colombian governments unveiled an aerial eradication campaign in the 1990s, it led to demonstrations by outraged coca-growers (many of whom then sought to take advantage of FARC bounties for shooting down spraying planes). Because the government never succeeded in providing decent security in the countryside or fully developing alternative livelihood programs, eradication tended to be relatively ineffectual. As in Peru, progress against the insurgency since 2002 is mainly a result of direct military pressure, not counter-narcotics.

Then there is Afghanistan, where insurgency and poppies have been intertwined for decades.  While the United States initially de-prioritized counter-narcotics missions, from 2004 on Washington began to take a more forceful stance with respect to eradication.  This did little to shut off illicit funding for the insurgency—there was not enough rural security to make the eradication programs effective—but it did anger farmers for whom poppy production was an economic lifeline. Eradication also created new ways for a predatory government to extract money from its citizens, by allowing regime officials to solicit bribes in exchange for exemption from eradication efforts. The Taliban has tapped into the resulting resentment, helping them gain not only crucial financing but also a degree of respectability in poppy-dense areas.

What, then, is the answer to this conundrum? Eradication is clearly a self-defeating strategy, one that can only be effective if the government controls the entire eradication zone and can punish those who don’t cooperate while rewarding those who do.  Unfortunately, this is often quite difficult to do, because the provision of alternative livelihoods is dependent on security and access to markets—just the things that are often missing in conflict-prone, underdeveloped societies.

Felbab-Brown proposes several alternative strategies. She lays out steps that might, in certain conditions, make more political sense in a counter-insurgency context (such as licensing production of poppies or coca leaves). She also proposes ideas (such as weakening the coercive and corruptive power of criminal groups) that are eminently reasonable, if easier said than done.  But her most important recommendation relates to what governments shouldn’t do: namely, that attacking the drug trade may have to be delayed until the conflict has effectively been won militarily. Only then, when the insurgency is defeated and the government can focus its energies on alternative development programs, will eradication initiatives be successful.End.

Hal Brands is the author of From Berlin to Baghdad: America’s Search for Purpose in the Post-Cold War World. He is a defense analyst in Washington, D.C.


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