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June 20, 2009 / jeni

The Other Problem with Narco-Insurgency

afghan_opium0214The Washington Post this weekend offers a fantastic piece of reportage on a Marine battalion’s ‘change in mission‘ upon being deployed to Now Zad, Afghanistan. Originally sent to train Afghan police, they arrived to find a deserted town: not only devoid of police, but empty of civilians. Insurgents had taken over the town and the Marines’ new mission was to clear them out, despite not being equipped or supported for major combat operations.

It’s a fascinating article and well worth a read. One detail in particular caught my eye in the recounting of the Marines’ struggle to clear out an insurgent compound (how difficult are COIN operations? a Marine platoon with air support struggled for seven hours to get past an estimated half-dozen insurgents).

A group of Marines has trouble clearing an armed man out of a basement in the compound. Despite being hit he won’t stop shooting at them, and they can’t convince him to surrender either.

So they kept throwing in grenades and lining up to go in. Culliver had been on the receiving end of grenades before, and he knew how you couldn’t hear afterward. But still, each time they went in, they shouted in Pashtu for the shooter to surrender. They kept getting shot at for their trouble. Never one to mess around, Buegel, the platoon sergeant, applied some C-4 explosives, but even that got them nowhere. The shooter just kept shooting. He wasn’t going down despite being hit repeatedly…

Finally, the smoke-filled basement went still. Culliver heard Karell empty his M9 through the window as a final precaution, and then the Marines went in. Culliver was second through the doorway. Through the smoke, he saw the mortally wounded shooter. He saw him reach for his AK-47.

The Marine in front of Culliver fired two rounds. Both hit the shooter in the head, according to Culliver. After the smoke cleared, Culliver wasn’t surprised to find syringes. He had guessed the shooter, like others, had been amped up on something — despite all his wounds, the man never cried out.

The use of mind-altering substances by combatants is an enduring feature of war, but that doesn’t mean we have a thorough grasp of the implications in the context of modern warfare. I highly recommend a Strategic Studies Institute paper by Paul Rexton Kan: Drug Intoxicated Irregular Fighters: Complications, Dangers and Responses.

The complexity of many ongoing and persistent conflicts in the post-Cold War is partially attributed to the widespread presence of drug intoxicated irregular fighters. Drug consumption in contemporary wars has coincided with the use of child soldiers, has led to increased unpredictability among irregular fighters, provided the conditions for the breakdown of social controls and commission of atrocities, and caused the lessening of command and control among the ranks. Although the nonmedical use of drugs by combatants has a long history, recent encounters of professional armed forces have demonstrated the need to reinvestigate the reasons irregular combatants consume drugs, the type of drugs they consume, how they acquire drugs, and the consequences for professional militaries.

As Dr Kan notes, there is a solid base of discussion on the use of the drugs trade to finance irregular war-fighting forces. When we think, for example, of the problems spawned by the opium industry in Afghanistan, we tend to think of the pots of money flowing into Taliban coffers that allows them to sustain their insurgent operations. But as the article above shows, there is another problem: the presence of intoxicated militants in combat. What effects are they having? Do we know how to cope with them?

It is important to view narco-trafficking as a strategic problem, but in doing so we should not neglect the tactical and local-level effects. It’s safe to say that it does matter if irregular fighters are drugged up, and it does matter that the transnational drugs trade in Central Asia also ensnares hundreds of thousands of locals in hopeless drug addiction and criminality. There is much to say on this topic, and we’ll return to this in future posts.

One Comment

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  1. NFF / Aug 19 2009 16:34


    Afghanistan has, once again, become the country most tenuous in the world. With Iraq starting to settle down, and an Obama administration, I believe, is committed to withdrawing troops from the area, Afghanistan is now the main focus of the U.S. Military. While narco-insurgency is a tactical problem (this was also a problem the U.S. Military experienced in Somalia) narco-dollars funding a further insurgency is a greater problem (in my opinion). Had the U.S. Military dealt with this problem 7 years ago, it would have been more difficult for the Taliban, al Qaeda, and even regional warlords to put up the fight they have.

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