America Failed in Afghanistan Because of the War on Drugs

The Taliban has a more sensible approach to the war on drugs than that shared by American elites, and that’s why they won the war in Afghanistan.

America lost in Afghanistan, not because the war was unwinnable, but because we insisted on shooting ourselves in the foot, by trying to ban a product that accounts for a sizeable fraction of Afghanistan’s GDP. The taliban tried to ban poppy cultivation in 2000, but gave up in the face of a popular backlash. The American people largely reject the failed war on drugs, too, but this doesn’t matter, because American elites generally ignore what American voters want.

By trying to enforce our drug laws in Afghanistan, we simultaneously drove a bunch of locals to support the taliban, while providing them with a guaranteed source of revenue – and we didn’t even make a real dent in poppy production!

If we had created material prosperity in Afghanistan, by protecting property rights, free speech, and the right of all people to an education, we would have created a place suitable for small scale entrepreneurship and growing wealth. This change in material conditions would have made us heroes to the locals. Opportunities for people to grow real wealth would have created local leaders, and nobody would have wanted to return to medieval barbarians who hate fun. Except, in this case, a group of violent theocrats was more responsive to the reality on the ground, than the products of america’s best universities and hedge funds, who never seemed to float the idea that maybe we are losing because of the war on drugs.

Why didn’t this idea ever get debated? The only answer i can think of is that it is outside the Overton window. Everyone knows that everyone else knows only idiots think decriminalizing the production of heroin is a good idea, and so nobody really talks about it. Success in a hierarchy requires much more in the way of social emotional intelligence than technical skill, and a key aspect of social emotional intelligence means knowing when everyone else thinks an idea is crazy.

The end result of this mechanism is that if a delusion becomes sufficiently widespread among powerful institutions, it becomes impossible to challenge the delusion. The idea that the war on drugs is going any better than Afghanistan was, is a total delusion.

Can you imagine how awful it would be if private companies were growing and producing heroin? Imagine if these private companies were paying taxes, paying their workers a fair wage, ensuring environmental controls, and subjecting their drugs to quality controls! Wouldn’t that just be the worst? Or would it be all that different from what is already happens with drugs like Oxycontin? As bad as Purdue Pharmaceuticals is, i think we can all agree Afghanistan would be better off if it were entirely owned and run by Purdue Pharma than the Taliban, because then at least girls could keep going to school.

I hate what drugs do to people. Drugs ruin people. As a former addict myself, I know this far better than most people. I know how easy it is to fall into addiction, and how hard it is to get out. If I could wave a magic wand and remove all drugs from the world, I would do that. I think most people who support the war on drugs feel like what they are supporting is that wand, that wish to make changes we know would be good for the world. But that wand doesn’t exist, any more than a wand which turns dictatorships into democracies.

We can’t choose between a world with drugs and no drugs, because that isn’t a choice. The only choice we do have is who gets the money from the sale of drugs. We can choose whether drug money goes to the Taliban, or Purdue Pharmaceuticals. We can choose whether we support the Sackler family or the Sina Loa Cartel. That’s it, those are the options. I don’t like the Sackler family, but at least they aren’t beheading anyone. The Taliban tried to ban poppy cultivation, but realized that wasn’t an option. They could only choose who would get that revenue, and they chose themselves.

When will we Americans figure this out and stop supporting violent gangs with our laws? We can save billions of dollars AND cut off a revenue stream for awful violent people, by ending our prohibition of narcotics.

The sad reality is that this change is entirely doable, but it’s blocked by the kind of groupthink that has captured American elites for decades. You don’t get yourself to positions in the department of state, or any giant hierarchical bureaucracy, by being willing to consider wildly unorthodox ideas, regardless of how reasonable they are when viewed strictly in terms of cause and effect.

Winning in Afghanistan would have required American elites to accept the idea that our war on drugs means we spend billions of dollars per year, to minimal positive consequences, while simultaneously providing revenue streams to violent dictatorships.

The Delusions of Elites are Much More Dangerous Than Mass Market Conspiracy Theories

The abysmal consequences of the war on drugs, and the continued institutional inertia that props them up, is why i don’t give a damn about anti vaccine conspiracy theorists, or global warming denialists. The delusions of the masses are as irrelevant as the votes of the masses – they have some effect, but not a ton. The delusions of people who seem to stay in power, regardless of who we vote for, are the most destructive delusions out there.

That the war on drugs is anything but a waste is a delusion. But it’s a subtle delusion. Intelligent people can and do buy into this idea – and that’s what makes it so incredibly destructive.

Why did we lose in Afghanistan? Our war on drugs caused us to drive the locals to join our enemies, who profited because we eliminated the small-scale entrepreneurs who would have been their competition. Even the Taliban understood that this approach was doomed to failure. What does it tell you when a group of religious fundamentalists who don’t drink alcohol are more responsive to the reality on the ground, than the best America has to offer?

Why did Breonna Taylor die? The war on drugs lead to the creation of absurd ‘no-knock’ warrants, which create situations which are indistinguishable, to a homeowner, from a violent intrusion by criminals.

Why has Mexico become a narco state? The war on drugs means we subsidize the budgets of violent organizations of criminals.

Why doesn’t any of this change? Because the american leadership are largely of one mind on this issue, and there hasn’t been any real attempt by anyone who could make a change here, to change it. We spend billions of dollars every year, we have no real gains to show for it, and all we have to do is just stop doing that.

Unlike global warming, there’s no game theoretical traps, where we need every nation on earth to stop emitting carbon. Unlike with vaccines, there’s no group of marginalized people whose trust we have to win over. The only thing standing in our way is the consensus that the war on drugs is anything but a destructive failure.

All we have to do is admit, collectively, that the war on drugs has failed. All we have to do is stop spending billions per year on a war that isn’t going any better than Afghanistan, and construct a legal regime for small-scale entrepreneurs to grow and and sell narcotics. Not only does it not cost anything, it saves us billions of dollars per year! The results won’t be any different from oxycontin or fentanyl, except we’ll collect more in tax revenue and less money will go to violent gangs.

Or are we going to have to admit that the taliban is more reasonable than we are?

2 thoughts on “America Failed in Afghanistan Because of the War on Drugs

  1. Wow. First essay ever to rattle my confidence that the war on drugs was worth it. Great writing. Two questions. 1) Legalization will increase supply. Increased supply plus legalization at age 18 introduces hard drugs to more kids in high schools. Many HS kids unable to avoid this temptation. Thus, more kids’ lives ruined. How do we deal with that?
    2) As we see in Colorado and should know from logic and basic economics: taxed/legalized drugs do not end war on drugs, unless they literally undercut market prices (affirmatively subsidize meth and heroin prices, etc, both absurd and eliminating the benefits of taxation. Taxes, govt regulations, etc. raise costs relative to unlawful sellers, creating an illegal market of lower-priced products. To get these tax cheats requires cops, strict penalties, etc. Basically, a War on Drug Dealers. Other than reduced deaths from tainted products, how do we end up in a better place? Slightly smaller war on drugs?
    Thanks again. (I’m really here because of your brilliant comment elsewhere: “imagine how different education would be if a teacher’s earnings came from the lifetime accomplishments of their students, if a teacher’s pension were funded only by the earnings of the students they personally taught.”)

    1. Hi, thanks for the compliment!

      I agree with people like Gabor Mate who argue that addiction is primarily a mal-adapted response to childhood trauma. I don’t think we’ll ever be able to prevent people from being addicted by sufficiently reducing the supplies of addicting substances; the only plausible approach there is to have most children growing up in healthy functioning environments. I don’t know what ‘we’ as a state could do; i think the future is going to require much more vibrant, smaller, personal communities oriented around explicitly stated shared values.

      > slightly smaller war on drugs?

      I think that’s probably the right approach here. Taxing things too heavily does create a black market for them; but we don’t have this problem with, say, alcohol. The regulations are often onerous and excessive but they’re at least reasonable that black market enterprises have a hard time reaching profitability compared to commercial ones.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.