Interview: Gil Kerlikowske

"We've become much better at producing drugs in the United States": America's drug czar talks to FP about Afghanistan, Mexico, and how American producers are getting back in the drug game.

Foreign Policy: You recently returned from a trip to Russia. When you speak with your Russian counterparts, how much of that conversation is about Afghanistan?

Gil Kerlikowske: About 60 percent. They do a lot of training for Afghans in Moscow... Afghan police.

FP: Is that a good idea? Russia has one of the most corrupt police forces in the world.

GK: I guess there were people asking if they would be able to make arrests on drug traffickers, if that trafficker was a [Russian] Federation citizen. We've seen a 12-kilogram cocaine case made in St. Petersburg in which they've made the arrests and are trying federation citizens.

In some ways they might be looking at the drug-trafficking issue as not just the ability to corrupt governments, but as a way to limit the heroin addiction in that country. From what I've seen, it hasn't been the same thing as what you read about when people are pulled over for a traffic ticket and have to bribe the officer to get out of the ticket. We've seen substantial cooperation and substantial cases being made.

FP: When Russian drug czar Viktor Ivanov spoke with FP last year, he was very adamant that he favored a poppy eradication strategy in Afghanistan. Is he still pushing that line, and how do you respond to that?

GK: I think we've pretty much moved beyond that. It's clear they're concerned about the amount of Afghan heroin being used by Afghan citizens. We see eradication as a decision that needs to be made by [Afghanistan]. There has been no desire on the part of the Afghan government for eradication, and we aren't pushing it.

FP: Shifting to Latin America, during his trip last week, President Obama pledged an additional $200 million to fight drug trafficking in Central America. Is this a sign that you feel the drug battle in Mexico is spilling south of its border?

GK: For as long as I've been involved in policing, I can tell you that there have been rule-of-law courses, capacity building, and exchanges [with Central American countries]. I don't see it as suddenly more severe, but certainly, Mexico's southern border is a concern, not just to Mexico, but also to us. So building better institutions in those countries would be helpful.

FP: What's your big-picture sense of the drug situation in Latin America?

GK: It used to be fairly easy to categorize countries as production countries, transit countries, or consumer countries. I think those lines have been -- if not completely obliterated -- generally blurred. The amount of drug use in Mexico is significant. It's also clear from my most recent trip to visit drug treatment centers in Colombia that they're concerned as well.

FP: U.S. Ambassador Carlos Pascual was forced to leave his position in Mexico two weeks ago because of comments he made in WikiLeaks cables about the perception that the drug war in Mexico is failing and about pervasive corruption in Mexican law enforcement. Are those concerns you share?

GK: I can't and wouldn't comment on the WikiLeaks cables themselves. I can tell you I've had a number of conversations with Ambassador Pascual, who I thought had laid out a clear vision for the work of the United States in taking [the] Merida [Initiative] to the next step -- particularly in law enforcement and sharing information.

As a police officer, I can say that cynicism just comes with the territory, and it's pretty easy to adapt that kind of attitude to Mexico. I'm not overly optimistic, but I think there has been some progress and we have an administration that's courageously taking on these criminal organizations, who are now involved in so many other kinds of crimes.

FP: Do you agree with the assessment made by some in the administration recently that the violence in Mexico is taking on characteristics of an insurgency?

GK: No. I think we've been through that half a dozen times with statements that have been made. The cartels have used high-powered weapons and car bombs at times, but I think everyone on the U.S. government side has tried to be clear that tactics insurgents used in other places may be similar to what these criminal enterprises are using. There's a significant difference between that and the goal of taking over a government.

FP: It does seem that there have been a number of recent scandals involving U.S.-Mexico drug partnership: the Pascual resignation, the reports of the ATF allowing cross-border gunrunning, the controversial use of drones over Mexican territory. Has that relationship become more difficult lately?

GK: In my two years of dealing with this on a closer level, I'd say these last two months are more strained than during the rest of the time I've been here, but I don't see it as a significant bump in the road or a glitch that's going to stop things. The foundations of these relationships have already been built and so we'll continue on.

FP: What do you say to those in Latin America who say that it's useless to crack down on the drug trade as long as the demand persists from the United States?

GK: I really haven't encountered that argument as much, at least not nearly as much as in the past. For one thing, we've become much better at producing drugs in the United States: hydroponic marijuana with a very high THC content -- public lands produce a lot of marijuana. And we don't get any prescription drugs smuggled in to any great extent -- which, right now, are our No. 1 growing drug problem in the United States, and also methamphetamine. We're getting much better at making our own, albeit in small amounts.

The issue that's a real sticking point with President Calderón is medical marijuana. And I think he has a real legitimate point on that.

FP: You've made your views on legalization very clear in the past. How do you respond to the growing number of former Latin American leaders -- former Mexican President Vicente Fox, most recently -- who have come out in favor of legalization or at least a radical overhaul of the current policy?

GK: Isn't if funny how people who no longer have responsibility for anyone's safety or security suddenly see the light? I think it's not a lot different from what we've heard in recent years in the United States, which is: We've had a war on drugs for 40 years and we don't see success. If we have a kid in high school, they can still get drugs or there's drugs on the street corner. So legalization must be an answer.

What we in government fail to do is to show that there really are quite successful, cost-effective programs we can use, so we don't have to go from the "war on drugs has failed" to "let's legalize."

By the way, I've never seen any of the legalization arguments that say, here's how it will work and here's how we'll regulate it. Heaven knows, we're not very successful with alcohol. We don't collect much in tax money to cover the costs. We certainly can't keep it out of the hands of teenagers or people who get behind the wheel. Why in heavens name do we think that if we legalize marijuana, we'd have a system where we could collect enough tax revenue to cover the increased health-care costs? I haven't seen that grand plan.

FP: What have been the biggest surprises of your time in office so far?

GK: I don't think there's a real clear recognition of the drug problem worldwide. Too often we end up blaming other countries for allowing things to happen, not realizing there's a lot of pain within those countries themselves. I don't think within the United States we really recognize that we're all in this boat together. Securing borders, while important, is not just the answer.

Alex Wong/Getty Images


Interview: Yermukhamet Yertysbayev

Is Kazakhstan ready for democracy?

On April 3, Kazakhs will head to the polls to vote in a snap presidential election. With major opposition parties boycotting the vote, President Nursultan Nazarbayev -- who is overwhelmingly popular, in any case -- is virtually assured victory. In February, Nazarbayev called for the early vote -- more than a year ahead of schedule -- after discarding a plan pushed by his own supporters in Parliament that would have called for a referendum on extending his current term until 2020, bypassing elections entirely. There was some speculation that the overthrow of the autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt may have influenced Nazarbayev. He has been in power for 21 years, during which time he has presided over massive economic growth, but little in the way of democratic reform.

I discussed these issues, as well as Nazarbayev's plans for the future, with his advisor for political affairs, Yermukhamet Yertysbayev, earlier this week. On March 31, Reuters reported that a U.S. diplomatic cable obtained by WikiLeaks quotes Yertysbayev telling a U.S. official in 2009 that the government would "restrict the opposition's activities as much as possible" in the run-up to a planned parliamentary election that year. But in this interview, conducted before the cable was made public, Yertysbayev stressed the need for a strong opposition and robust democratic institutions.

Foreign Policy: Do you believe that the so-called domino effect of revolutions in the Middle East might have an impact on Kazakhstan?

Yermukhamet Yertysbayev: No. The Middle East is 10,000 km away. We have a much closer neighbor in Kyrgyzstan -- where they have already expelled two presidents and had two revolutions -- and it hasn't had any impact on Kazakhstan.

I can understand why Western journalists are asking this question. We already have the example of Mubarak and Qaddafi -- one in power for 30 years and one for 40 years. But we have other examples, positive examples. [Former Singaporean Prime Minister] Lee Kuan Yew ruled his country for 30 years, and although he is not at the helm now, he is still a very influential figure. In fact, Lee Kuan Yew was a real influence on our president and they are good friends.

Kazakhstan is a strategic partner of the United States. It has assisted the United States in Afghanistan both militarily and technically. It plays a critical role in fighting terrorism and drug trafficking.

Look at what happened in Kyrgyzstan last year with thousands of people dead, in Uzbekistan with the Andijan events, in Moscow last December when the opposition clashed with the government. Look at the Uighur problem in China. We can see that Kazakhstan is the only oasis of stability amid this chaos, the only country where there is an annual increase in standards of living and the well-being of the population. The people are squarely behind the president, support what he is doing, and want the situation to continue.

FP: Did the events in the Middle East play any role in the decision to cancel the Parliament's referendum?

YY: I had a conversation with the president on Dec. 3, 2010. In that conversation, I told him I was aware that there was a group of people, including some MPs, his entourage, and some oligarchs, who were keen to hold the referendum. But the president told me then quite firmly that the only option he could see as viable was the elections.

The president was elected in 2005 to a term of seven years. We then introduced an amendment in 2007, limiting his term to five years. So by the end of last year, the five years had expired. He concluded that he had implemented the program of actions he had set out, so he decided to announce early elections.

FP: So why was it important to hold the elections early, rather than in 2012 as had been planned?

YY: It makes no difference, really. On the third of April, millions of Kazakh citizens will head to the polls. They will have a ballot with four names. They can choose out of those four names. Those people who want modernization, reform, and stability will vote for President Nazarbayev. Those who don't want these things will have a choice.

FP: But opposition leaders in your country say that by holding the elections so soon, you're making it impossible for them to organize. Why not allow time for a full campaign season?

YY: I think the opposition parties have missed their chance. They have had five years to prepare, to consolidate, to group their efforts, to choose a single candidate and develop a political culture. From December 2005, they have really wasted time. They don't have a single impressive, charismatic leader. They haven't been able to group together. There is absolutely no unity among them. Whereas we, the pro-government parties, have united. We have grouped it behind the president. They have not done the same.

They have also made the mistake of now not contesting the elections, which I think is very wrong. As a professional boxer I can tell you, it's extremely important to go out there into the ring and fight. They are not carrying out a proper fight.

FP: Do you think the government might be able to make it easier for them to fight by lifting some of the restrictions on the opposition, such as requiring 40,000 members to create a party, or requiring 7 percent of the vote to enter Parliament?

YY: OK. Thank you very much for your suggestions. I'm going to pass them on to the president. After the presidential elections, which he's going to win, I'm going to suggest to him as his advisor that he carry out a program of political reform and the modernization of Parliament. It's important that we have a modern Parliament with modern rules for entering Parliament. He should embark on a course of political compromises.

FP: What sorts of compromises do you have in mind?

YY: We have to take a leaf out of Ukraine's book. Seven years have passed since the Orange Revolution, yet there hasn't been a single political victim of that confrontation between the government and the opposition. They have political parties who hate each other, yet they're capable of sitting down at a round table to discuss and have civilized negotiations. This is what we have to learn. Both the government and the opposition have to learn to create a proper political culture in our country.

FP: How can the government build such a culture?

YY: First and foremost, in a year's time we should hold parliamentary elections under strict international monitoring, so there are no abuses. Another measure we could take is to adopt a law on the opposition, so that all their rights would be protected in the Parliament and in the press. We already have an example of such a law passed in Ukraine.

At the moment, we allocate $10 million to support nongovernmental organizations. I think we should increase this to $100 million to support civil society. Both the president and the government should have a vested interest in civil society.

We also must invest in local self-government. We have a very large country and it is very difficult to rule such a country from the center.

FP: Assuming, as seems likely, that President Nazarbayev wins this election, do you have any sense of how long he plans to stay in power?

YY: I met with the president on Feb. 9. He said that he is planning on staying in power until 2016 and then will stand in another election in order to possibly stay in power until 2020 because he wants to complete his plan of industrial innovation. This is his dream and he is extremely keen on accomplishing it.