One of the things we miss out on as aviators is getting on the ground in third world countries, interacting with the locals, and truly attempting to learn how their country operates.
In the summer of 2006, I had just pinned on captain, when my battalion received an order to send one officer to serve in Joint Task Force Bravo in Honduras. Joint Task Force Bravo is a 600-strong task force near the city of Comayagua, Honduras, which operates the largest runway in Central America, and serves as America's forward presence in Latin America. The task force specialized in the training of foreign militaries and security forces, disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, and medical assistance throughout Central and South America.
Our battalion was over-strength on captains, and my battalion commander went down the list of captains that weren't in command of companies or in primary staff slots. With a list of about five names left, he then eyed my name.
I was an anomaly among the officers in the group—I had two characteristics that would have made me ideal for the job. The first was that I liked traveling to foreign countries, and the second was that I was single and lived in an apartment. It was therefore simple to have me pack my stuff and move to Honduras.
If you've never been to a third-world country, it's an eye-opening experience. Our plane took off from Miami International Airport, and as we were taxiing, the pilot pointed out the left door of the airplane at a gleaming vintage DC-3 sitting on the runway in pristine condition. A few hours later, we made the treacherous approach into Tegucigalpa International Airport, one which took us through the mountains, and skimming over the tops of tin-roof houses. There, we also saw DC-3 airplanes—only these were in a state of disarray. As I later found out, they were part of the Honduran Air Force.
My ride to Soto Cano Airbase, the headquarters of Joint Task Force Bravo, was one that I will never forget. Children tagged along as we carried our bags to the truck, offering to help us with our bags if only we'd give them a little money. I began to discover a number of different things that no one ever teaches you in class about interactions with different cultures. I discovered that, when tipping a group of people for menial work, you should always have small bills with you so you can divide the money evenly among the helpers.
Starving, we crossed the street and entered a knock-off Burger King next to the airport—one of the finer points of globalization. As we walked into the Burger King, I couldn't help but notice that there were armed guards outside the BK. The rich bought their own protection.
As we drove from Tegucigalpa to Soto Cano, we navigated the truck down the treacherous roads of CA-5. The Honduran "highway" system was really a winding two-way road which snaked through the mountains. Often we would drive through the mountain passes, and see precipitous drops off the side of the road. The Honduran government had put up guard rails along the road at one time, but the locals, in desperate need of scrap metal, had taken the guard rails AND the bolts that held them in place. Children walked along the side of the road during the middle of the day. In America, they'd be in school at this time of the day, but I doubted they actually had school to attend. We drove past sweatshops (rumored to belong to Kathie Lee Gifford) and banana farms.
As we arrived on the base, we saw that Soto Cano was being outfitted with a massive wall for protection. In the past, American troops—gringos easily stand out in Honduras—were often targets for bandits who would venture on to the base and rob American troops as they were doing their morning runs. One nurse had reported that she had her bicycle, ring, watch, shoes and iPod stolen by bandits. Another Soldier, conducting a survey of a drop zone while in a Humvee, found himself ambushed by machete-wielding Hondurans who took his wallet.
Farming is a poor way to make a living in Honduras. Many doctors would go to Honduras in order to work on medical conditions unthinkable in the United States. The would see advanced cases of disease or deformities unheard of in the United States, as the Hondurans wouldn't have the money to provide medical care when these conditions first manifested. The gardener who worked in the headquarters building—a lively, happy gentleman—had a condition where his right foot was rotated some ninety degrees. He'd had it since birth, and it would have been a simple fix when he was young and his bones still soft. But his family could never afford medical care, and he lived his entire life with a club foot.
With the rampant poverty in Latin America, it's easy to see why so many turn to illegal activity. When faced with the prospect of honest work in exchange for not even enough money for medical care, it's almost a given that farmers will take the risk and grow coca, and other youths might turn to robbery in order to make ends meet. Afghanistan isn't much different. In both cases, the hard-line elements of the insurgency are small compared to the large number of those who just want to make money.
Eradication efforts, therefore, are actually counter-productive to counter-insurgency efforts. By eradicating a dirt farmer's means of existence, you've created someone who is now entirely dependent upon insurgent groups. They can either accept that they've lost an entire year's income and go back to growing legitimate crops, or they can do something more lucrative.
Both the Taliban and the FARC are largely dependent upon narcotics for subsistence. Without the profits they raise from these cash crops, they would have difficulty in purchasing arms or bribing government officials. Obviously, the US needs to eliminate the Taliban's means of support, but they also need to avoid alienating the entire population.
One suggestion would be to legalize opium growing. Opium has legitimate medical uses—in codeine and morphine. It could also be purchased by the US for more than the Taliban is paying for it. Poppy fields are also a fact of life in Afghanistan—our first concern shouldn't be the moral outrage over drugs in the hands of our children, but money in the hands of our enemies.
While a policy of purchasing poppies from the population might make them targets for the Taliban, that's where an effective strategy of population security comes into play. It's the first and most important step in any counter-insurgency strategy.
It could also strike an effective information operation blow to point out the hypocrisy of the Taliban over the issue of opium production—they had outlawed it during their time in power, and later supported it as an insurgent group, being their only source of income. Destroying credibility is an important first step in separating the fish from the water. Getting a handle on the drug problem won't win the Afghan War by any stretch of the imagination, but it might at least be a small first step.
This post inspired by the counter-insurgency conference in Bogata, Colombia, which was attended by US SOUTHCOM Commander, Admiral Stavridis and Washington Post writer Scott Wilson. Not to mention, "Accidental Guerilla" author David Kilcullen.