A U.S. Marine patrols through a poppy field in a village in the Golestan district of Farah province, Afghanistan
Goran Tomasevic / Courtesy Reuters

Since its inception in 1971, the U.S. war on drugs has never been as unpopular as it is today. Civil liberty groups decry the injustice of arresting nearly 1.5 million people each year on drug-related charges. Civil rights advocates point out that African-Americans bear the brunt of the current rules, making up 55 percent of all drug possession convictions and 74 percent of all prison sentences for drug possession. Prominent political officials, including several presidents of Latin American countries, have signed on to new efforts to legalize marijuana use. And voters in Colorado and Washington have supported such measures as well.

Yet the war wages on, namely because it has been more successful than most people realize. The reason, surprisingly enough, has to do with U.S. President George W. Bush’s “war on terror,” for which he also enlisted the Drug Enforcement Administration. The arrangement benefitted Washington’s drug warriors enormously. The DEA, which had fewer than 3,000 employees in 1972, now employs over 10,000 personnel working out of 312 offices in some 67 countries. And its annual budget has grown from a mere $65 million to more than $2 billion in 2012. After September 11, DEA administrators pushed for additional funding from the attorney general's Counterterrorism Fund to enhance the DEA's intelligence capabilities, particularly its ability to intercept communications in support of agencies conducting counterterrorism in the United States and abroad.

The effects have been remarkably positive. In reshaping the war on drugs to support the war on terrorism, the United States found a better way to fight both. Take, for example, the rise in prosecutions of drug traffickers in the past decade. During the 1990s, the United States managed to extradite only a handful of alleged drug traffickers from Mexico; since 2001, the U.S. government has brought hundreds of drug-trafficking offenders north of the border for trial. In many of those trials, the defendants were members of terrorist organizations. In 2001, for example, U.S. federal prosecutors indicted Tomás Molina Caracas, an alleged commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), for conspiring to produce and distribute cocaine in the United States.

By treating the FARC as a terrorist organization that also engaged in drug trafficking, the case became a model for future prosecutions. At the time, then Attorney General John Ashcroft said that the indictment represented "the convergence of two of the top priorities of this Department of Justice -- the prevention of terrorism and the reduction of illegal drug use -- in a single act of justice." In 2006, a single indictment filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia named 50 high-ranking members of the FARC, and alleged that it supplied more than 60 percent of the world’s cocaine. Prosecutors again emphasized the nexus between narcotics and terrorism.

DEA operatives have also found success in penetrating the international networks where drug trafficking and terrorist activity intersect. Between November 2007 and March 2008, confidential sources working with the DEA and posing as members of the FARC arranged to buy millions of dollars in weaponry from international arms dealer Viktor Bout, ostensibly to use against U.S. helicopters in Colombia. The weaponry included 800 surface-to-air missiles, more than 20,000 AK-47s, and five tons of C-4 plastic explosives. In 2009, another set of confidential sources -- also posing as members of the FARC -- arranged a deal with a trio of Malian traffickers and militants to transport cocaine through West and North Africa and to use the profits to support the activities of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. U.S. officials quickly apprehended the traffickers, extraditing them to the United States to stand trial. Further, it was a DEA confidential source who first uncovered an alleged Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington on October 11, 2011. Posing as a member of the Mexican drug cartel Los Zetas, the source claimed to have discussed executing the plan on behalf of Iranian agent Manssor Arbabsiar.

The DEA has benefitted from larger changes in U.S. intelligence-gathering procedures through the DEA Special Operations Division, which comprises two dozen partner agencies, including the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, and the IRS. Internationally, the DEA has reaped the rewards of increased flexibility regarding wiretapping by host nations. In some instances, however, its surveillance activities have caused diplomatic tussles involving foreign politicians linked to the drug trade itself.


Throughout the war on terror, critics of U.S. counterterrorism techniques have singled out the CIA, the Pentagon, and U.S. Presidents Bush and Obama for continuing unpopular interrogation practices, drone strikes, and detention policies in the Middle East and North Africa. The DEA, meanwhile, has quietly evaded the public eye. Yet even in countries such as Afghanistan, it has been remarkably active -- and effective -- in disrupting parts of the same terrorist networks targeted by its military counterparts.

In 2003, the DEA reopened its Kabul office (which it had closed when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979). The agency has steadily expanded its presence in Afghanistan ever since, from 13 to 95 offices. Between 2001 and 2013, moreover, the DEA increased its in-country budget by roughly $6 million each year. Finally, the DEA has increased its training of Afghan drug investigators. Every four months, the agency rotates a new a team of foreign-deployed advisers into the country.

Thanks to these efforts, the DEA has investigated and arrested several key players in the Afghan drug trade. In 2005, Afghan authorities, with DEA assistance, arrested the drug kingpin Haji Baz Mohammad, and extradited him to the United States. Mohammad, the leader of a major international heroin-trafficking organization since 1990, maintained close ties to the Taliban. He was the first Afghan to be extradited to the United States for prosecution under the Foreign Narcotics Kingpin Designation Act, which aims to deny "significant" foreign drug traffickers access to the U.S. financial system and to allow U.S. authorities and their counterparts to pursue the leaders of drug-trafficking organizations. The DEA also arrested Khan Mohammad, a major drug trafficker who helped the Taliban plan an attack a U.S. airfield in Jalalabad. In 2006, a federal judge in Washington sentenced Mohammad to two terms of life in prison.

At the same time, the DEA has forged strong relationships with Afghan and Pakistani partners. When Pakistani authorities arrested the Afghan narcotics trafficker Haji Baghcho on charges unrelated to the drug trade, they swiftly sent him, by way of Afghan authorities, into the hands of the DEA.


At the same time, the DEA’s recent success -- in Afghanistan and elsewhere -- has its limits. Drug production in Afghanistan has increased significantly since 2001, and now constitutes 93 percent of the global opium trade. Calls to end the drug war, combined with criticism of U.S. counterterrorism policies, have only grown louder. Even the current U.S. drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, has called for an end to the war on drugs.

Kerlikowske has repeatedly claimed that the Obama administration has sought to deal with the drug trade in ways that go beyond the U.S. government’s traditionally narrow focus on criminal justice. Even so, there are few signs of any real change in strategy, perhaps because the alternatives are so unattractive. Arguments in favor of legalizing marijuana defy simple logic: in such a scenario, Latin American drug-trafficking organizations could simply undercut a government-regulated market and flood users with a cheaper product. With annual profits ranging from $19 billion to $40 billion, Latin American cartels could easily afford to slash their prices. A greater focus in expanding access to treatment for drug addiction could help some, but there is little evidence that treatment significantly curbs consumption. Juvenile drug courts in cities like Chicago have shown promise, but they might represent too little too late: statistics show that growing numbers of Chicago teens are turning to hard drugs, including heroin.

For now, the DEA is pursuing the only viable path forward. The war on drugs may be unwinnable, but at least the United States has finally found a way of making some progress.

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  • MALCOLM BEITH is the author of two books on the drug war in Mexico. He was previously a general editor at Newsweek International.
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