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Coming to terms with the impossibility of winning a drug war

An interesting article in Newsweek: Colombia’s Failed Drug War.

By some measures ¨lvaro Uribe is the world’s most successful head of state. Since taking office in 2002, the president of Colombia has routed the ELN terrorist group, broken the FARC guerrillas, demobilized their right-wing paramilitary foes and made Colombia’s cities safe again. Homicides are down 40 percent nationwide since his term began, and economic growth is up, from just 2.5 percent in 2002 to 8.2 percent in 2007. Result: 66 percent of Colombians approve of Uribe even during a global financial catastrophe Ödown from the 80s a few months agoÖthe highest of any president in a democracy.

This is quite positive stuff (at least positive-sounding). At this point, the U.S. government would tout this as proof that the drug war is working. Which, of course, is nonsense. Whether or not you agree that the developments listed above are positive for Colombia and/or the United States, it takes a certain level of self-delusion to use them as measures of drug war success.
Newsweek’s Adam Kushner is not deluded.

U.S. policymakers have also hailed Uribe: President George W. Bush has feted his “determination to rid the country of narcotrafficking.”
Determination is not, however, enough to win the war on drugs. Since 2000, the United States has sent more than $6 billion to Bogot½ to help Uribe and his predecessor stabilize the Andean region, stanch the flow of drugs into America’s cities and cut drug production. In what is known as Plan Colombia, Washington sent pilots and choppers to Colombia, trained commandos and furnished weapons to fight traffickers and terrorists. For his part, Uribe and his predecessor raised the military budget from 4 to 6 percent of the national GDP. But instead of cutting drug production in half by 2006, as Plan Colombia intended, the acreage of land dedicated to coca cultivation is up 15 percent since 2000 and now yields 4 percent more cocaine than it did eight years ago. An October report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, an oversight agency, says Plan Colombia’s goals “have not been fully achieved.”

A doozy of an understatement by the GAO. The notion that Plan Colombia could ever be considered a success with billions of dollars spent and cultivation and output going up is simply bizarre.
Kushner goes on to explain why economics, geography, and logistics actually make it impossible to win the drug war.

To a certain extent, Uribe is struggling against impossible odds. […]
All of which means that the drug war in Colombia may be at a stalemate. With diminishing returns on enforcement, American and Colombian officials are at a loss to say what, exactly, their endgame is. […]
So for now, Colombia and the United States will have to come to terms with the fact that even a popular president has limited power to fight drug traffickers.

Kushner’s article isn’t perfect. He blames neighboring countries for not participating enthusiastically enough, even though he doesn’t show that such participation would make a difference. He also neglects some of the important economic considerations.
However, this is an important moment.
An article in a major national magazine is saying, essentially, that the drug war (at least in Colombia) cannot be won. There is no quick answer, no option for solving it by simply throwing more money at it.
The conventional wisdom about Colombia has gone through quite a transition:

  1. We will win the drug war through Plan Colombia.
  2. We are winning the drug war in Colombia. We just need more time/money.
  3. While there have been some set-backs, if we redouble our efforts, we will win.
  4. We need to come up with some different options and get some more help from neighbors, and then we’ll win.
  5. There’s no possible way to win this war no matter what we do.

This is good progress. And now we have to help lead them to…

  1. What’s next?

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