“We’ve got drones and SOF teams. Who should we go after?”
A lot of what I have posted here has been about how to better fight the small wars and target-centric counter-terrorism that the United States has found itself pursuing lately. Over at Gunpowder and Lead, Caidid steps back and asks the most important question.
My thinking on this led me back to the War on Drugs, which bears a striking similarity to the Global War on Terror in that it’s waged as a series of interdiction missions with no clear end state. Building capabilities for this then assumes the problem will remain similar and predictable enough, and that we’ll have and utilize the capacity to keep fighting it as it appears now.
But if we’re building on a War on Drugs model, the situation is unlikely to remain static. Centralized Colombian Cartels were replaced by smaller and more agile players, speedboats were routinely stopped and so drug runners built submarines, maritime routes abandoned in favor of land transport, and gangs once confined to distinct neighborhoods became transnational nonstate actors. While the US has adapted to the specific new form of the threat, the War on Drugs has remained one in which the best our current strategy can do is hope to maintain a status quo of interdiction.
If the Global War on Terror follows this pattern, we might pursue the same means with better tactics, but we will not be making progress towards a political end. At best, will instead be really good at treading water. (via kelseyatherton)
The problem with this argument is that the War on Drugs has not maintained a status quo of interdiction. Compare homicide rates in Central American countries between 2000 and 2011:
El Salvador: 60>71
Guatemala: 26>39 or 52 depending on your source
Costa Rica: 6.4>11
Panama: 10>20 or 24
Mexico: 14>18. Homicide rates in the states or northern Mexico have risen to staggering proportions: well over 100 in Chihuahua.
According to a plethora of sources, rates of drug addiction and incarceration in the United States continue to rise each year.
Finally, rates of drug use and addiction are rising even more significantly in Latin America, in places that were once regarded as suppliers rather than consumers of drugs.
It’s important to clarify that the U.S. response (which for the most part has dictated the response of Mexico and Central American nations) to logistical and tactical changes on the part of drug traffickers has lead to steadily increasing violence and addiction. It has not maintained a status quo. It has significantly worsened the situation for normal citizens while empowering a new set of criminal enterprises and driven corruption even deeper in Latin American governments. All the evidence suggests that to base a strategy for the “Global War on Terror” on the “War on Drugs” would be to invite an increase in terrorism and strengthen terrorist organization, and reveals the folly of treating either drugs or terrorism as problems that can be eradicated through war in the first place.
I think we’re arguing towards the same point here. What this shows is that a strategy attempting to hold the status quo in interdiction failed as it was innovated around, and as the conflict itself became more violent in response to forceful confrontation. If the start of the War on Drugs interdiction campaign mirrors the Global War on Terror’s focus on target-centric operations, the past decades of deteriorating conditions in countries where the War on Drugs was primarily waged form a growing body of evidence on blowback.
While I think that force must be an option in counter-terror and law enforcement operations, force without a political direction in a conflict without a potential settlement will not solve the problem. In the short term, force can be used to halt or limit some intransigent actors, but on a systemic level it will not end the problem, while blowback remains a real possibility.
Perhaps this is the difference between war and law enforcement, where the former uses force to change the political status quo and the latter uses force to uphold it. If that is the case, when something is declared a big enough problem to warrant a war, a political solution should be possible. If one isn’t, the rules and language of the conflict should be different.