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War On Drugs Takes Backseat To Other Conflicts

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Stretched thin from fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. military has sharply reduced its role in the war on drugs, leaving significant gaps in U.S. anti-narcotics efforts.

Since 1989, Congress has directed the Pentagon to lead the detection by air and sea of illegal drugs headed to the United States and to support the Coast Guard in catching them.

But since 2002, the military has withdrawn many of those assets, according to more than a dozen current and former counter-narcotics officials, as well as a review of congressional, military and Homeland Security documents.

Internal records show that in the last four years, the Pentagon has reduced by more than 62 percent its flight hours over Caribbean and Pacific Ocean routes used to smuggle cocaine, marijuana and Colombian heroin. The Navy is deploying one-third fewer patrol boats.

The Department of Defense defended its policy shift in a budget document for Congress in October: "The DOD position is that detecting drug trafficking is a lower priority than supporting our service members on ongoing combat missions." Members of Congress and drug-control officials have said the cuts have hamstrung anti-drug efforts at a time when about 1,000 metric tons of cheap, high-quality cocaine are entering the country each year.

In the budget report, the Pentagon estimated that it detected only 22 percent of the "actionable maritime events" in fiscal 2006 because it "lacks the optimal number of assets." Even when they found suspected smuggling vessels, authorities had to let one in every five go because they lacked the resources to chase them.

"We have not stopped trying to fix that gap. We're very much concerned about it, and working very hard to try and fix these problems," said Edward Frothingham, acting deputy assistant defense secretary for counter-narcotics. "But in the post-9/11 world, some of these assets are needed elsewhere."

The cutbacks continue even though the Pentagon has classified the anti-drug effort as part of the war on terrorism, citing intelligence showing ties among terrorists, drug dealers and organized crime.

"In the post-9/11 world, where both securing and detecting threats to our nation's borders have become critical national security objectives, we cannot continue to neglect the fact that narco-traffickers are breaching our borders on a daily basis," said a report issued last month by the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy and Human Resources.

At a 2005 hearing before another House subcommittee, Rep. Dan Burton, an Indiana Republican, said the lack of military assets and the amount of drugs getting through "just boggled my mind."

"The spike in narcotics shipments via Central America we ignore at our own peril," said Burton, who at the time was chairman of the international relations subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. "They could be carrying weapons, terrorists and other things that could destroy not only the youth of America, but American cities."

Source: Concord Monitor (NH)
Copyright: 2007 Monitor Publishing Company
Contact: letters@cmonitor.com
Website: Concord Monitor - NH news, sports, opinion and photos
 
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