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Afghan drug lords: targeted until proven innocent

So first we expanded our forces in Afghanistan. Then we took on the challenge of prison reform there (ignoring the fact that America's own prison system is a national disgrace). And yesterday we learned that U.S. armed forces are putting suspected Afghan drug dealers on a "kill or capture" list. In other words, we are now extending the "war on drugs" to Afghanistan, ignoring the fact that this "war" (first announced by Richard Nixon four decades ago) hasn't led to victory. The new strategy also ignores some of the obvious lessons of that "war," and places the United States on some pretty dubious moral ground.

A colleague with extensive experience in the field of criminal justice wrote me with the following comment yesterday:

If Obama thinks the Cambridge police 'acted stupidly' by arresting Skip Gates, I wonder what adverb he'd use to describe his own latest police strategy in the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. 'Gee, let’s kill the top drug dealers.' Sounds smart at first glance, but given how lucrative the drug trade is, what do you think will happen after few of the top leaders are bumped off? Answer: others will compete to take their places. Police in the United States are just beginning to admit that their own efforts to remove drug dealers from the street drug markets of the late 1980s may have been the cause of the spike in violence in America's cities in this same period. Why? Because the police operations threw drug markets into chaos, leading to a ruthless competition among those who would take the place of the dealers whom the police were eliminating. In short, this is a formula to escalate the cycle of violence in Afghanistan, not to end it. For anyone who's been awake and watching the many failed strategies in the US war on drugs at home, it just looks stupid.

And that doesn't even get to the legal/ethical questions here. The Obama administration now says they will put someone on the kill list if there are two credible sources plus corroborating information. Sounds to me like a reasonable standard for getting a search warrant, but not for an assassination. Gee, if that proves a legal and ethical standard, we might try it at home in the war on drugs. Sure is cheaper than those long prison sentences, and a far lower evidentiary standard.

And I love the claim by the architects of this policy: 'we just want them to choose legitimacy.' Do they just not see that they are forfeiting the very thing they claim they want? They don’t really give a damn about legitimacy -- defined as a morally defensible position -- they just want the drug dealers to choose our side. This is just like Bush: 'you’re either one of our drug dealers, or one of theirs.' And if you’re the latter, we’re going to kill you."

I would only add that we've had enough trouble waging the war on drugs here at home, where cops understand the local culture reasonably well and speak the relevant languages. Political rivals in Afghanistan are going to start ratting each other out to the Americans, and we aren't going to be very good at sorting out "credible sources" from accusations that spring from other motives. Just look at how many other intelligence errors we've made over the past decade; not because we're incompetent, mind you, but because accurate intelligence in a counterinsurgency war is very difficult to come by and errors are inevitable. But instead of the usual standard that one is "innocent until proven guilty," now simply being accused of being in the drug business is enough to get you killed.

And let's not forget that Afghan drug lords aren't socially isolated individuals: they are embedded in their own tribal and family networks. Killing them won't eliminate the drug problem, but it could easily anger their kinsmen and make efforts to pacify the country even more difficult. I hope my colleague and I are both wrong about this, but I fear this policy is another sign that we simply don’t know what we are doing there.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images