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Drugs and Contemporary Warfare

Drugs and Contemporary Warfare by Paul Rexton Kan. Potomac Books, 2009, 194 pp.

Drugs and Contemporary Warfare is a comprehensive visualization of how drugs play a role in warfare, within armed forces, and as a source of funding for terrorists and illicit activities. Author Paul Rexton Kan, an associate professor at the US Army War College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, has written extensively about the blurred territory of irregular warfare, drugs, and criminality that we need to understand.

My reading of this book coincided with a recent event. In October 2011, federal authorities uncovered an attempt to murder the Saudi ambassador to the United States, alleging that the Iranian government enlisted a Mexican drug cartel to carry out the covert plot, which involved drugs as partial payment for the assassination. The Iranian attempt to “hire” the cartel by providing opiates is an archetype of the kinds of new threats Dr. Kan discusses—threats that include an intricate web of drugs and drug trafficking; a mix of warlords as well as criminal and political actors; covert operations; and the flow of money that paves the way.

Having selected the role of drugs in terrorism and asymmetric warfare as a key theme, the author demonstrates how terrorists use the sale of drugs to transfer financial resources undetected by the authorities (since no money goes through the banking system). Street profits from such sales also fund terrorist activity. In particular, Dr. Kan highlights terrorists’ attraction to dealing in different forms of amphetamines, a refined, high-value drug made domestically and having advantages over both marijuana (which requires space to grow and whose bulk makes large-scale trade problematic) and heroin (susceptible to interception by authorities at border crossings).

Additionally, Dr. Kan addresses several ethical dilemmas, such as confrontations with child soldiers so drug-intoxicated that they make easy targets. These underage soldiers commit atrocities and shoot at anyone who opposes them. Do we consider them children or combatants? Rather than gun down children, members of a British unit in Sierra Leone risked their own lives and were captured after finding themselves in the hands of a crowd of intoxicated, undisciplined irregulars. The Special Air Service, composed of British elite forces, extracted them, losing one member of the unit but killing more than 150 of the enemy.

The eye-opening chapter “Sober Lessons for the Future: The Dynamics of Drug-Fueled Conflicts” (pp. 93–116) gives readers an idea of what the United States, its military, and law enforcement agencies are up against. Here, Dr. Kan examines our efforts to build nations out of collapsed autocracies, showing how warlords together with drug-trafficking and criminal organizations can exploit such attempts; he also exposes as a myth the notion that democracy is always the answer for such countries. Dr. Kan points out that a rapid transformation of government can backfire when, for example, the old military elite of the failed regime is allowed to stay in place for the new regime. However, the removal of older institutions in the absence of stable replacements creates a vacuum that drug traders, extremists who use drugs as a source of revenue, and an illicit economy can quickly fill.

In the final chapter, “Shaky Paths Forward: Strategies and Approaches in Drug-Fueled Conflicts,” the author lays out several ways of dealing with these challenges, analyzing both their strengths and weaknesses. Though well presented, the chapter may leave some readers with questions about the feasibility of the strategies, especially individuals who have the impression that a country cannot exercise sufficient control over terrorists, drug cartels, and other illicit enterprises to fully implement the suggested approaches.

I highly recommend Drugs and Contemporary Warfare, a timely book that offers readers a thorough explanation of how the diminishing separation of warfare and drugs affects national security. Any member of the armed forces will appreciate its coverage of drugs as a factor at all levels, from policy to violent conflicts.

Jan Kallberg, PhD

Richardson, Texas

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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