Mexico, Colombia, and Why Afghanistan Should Follow Their Lead Dealing With Drugs

A major Afghan drug lord was convicted, but it's not nearly enough.

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Yesterday, a New York jury convicted a major Afghan drug lord on two counts of heroin distribution. Nearly six years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the verdicts against Bashir Noorzai represent the first high-level convictions of an Afghan opium lord. And while the case is an individual success, it is also a reminder of how ineffective U.S. counternarcotics policy is in Afghanistan.

When I was in Afghanistan two years ago writing on the drug trade, a senior U.S. counternarcotics official faced no illusions that high-level convictions were needed soon. With the Taliban, powerful businessmen, and high-level politicians all in the drug trade together, the country was dangerously close to becoming a narco-state. As both a symptom and a cause of this, Afghanistan's traditional courts were useless, and the Justice Department and allied governments set about establishing separate courts for drug offenders. The idea was to make this special drug court a rule-of-law bastion whose best practices would bleed into other areas of justice and law enforcement. Scads of money were spent building new trial and prison facilities and training Afghan judges.

So far, the courts have been disastrous. Low-level functionaries may or may not be pursued and punished, but anyone of any importance gets off scot-free. In addition to further hobbling the central government and the war, this social laboratory experiment has only reinforced the (correct) impression among ordinary Afghans that justice is blind in only one eye.

Far more successful have been the examples of Colombia and Mexico. Both are well-established democracies whose governments recognize that their courts can't withstand a drug-lord defendant with millions of dollars at his disposal and have extradited hundreds of their own Bashir Noorzais to face trial in the United States.

Does this mean that the drug business has been shut down in these countries? Of course not. But strong extradition treaties have severely disrupted these drug trades, and it's safe to say that, as bad as the problem now is in these countries, it could be much worse. So, while it's good that Noorzai represents the first Afghan drug lord to go to a U.S. prison, it will be a disaster if he is not joined by many more soon.