The Air National Guard and the war on drugs: non-state actors before 9/11.

Author:Meyer, Alan D.


On the morning of September 11, 2001, members of the radical Islamic terrorist group al-Qaeda hijacked four U.S. airliners with the intention of crashing the fully-loaded passenger jets into high-profile targets. Air National Guard (ANG) fighter planes--Massachusetts ANG F-15s from Otis ANG Base, South Dakota ANG F-16s based at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, and Washington, D.C. ANG F-16s from Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland--scrambled to intercept the hijacked aircraft. Unfortunately, they arrived too late to prevent two of the airliners from destroying New York City's World Trade Center and a third from severely damaging one section of the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. The fourth plane crashed in a Pennsylvania field when passengers attempted to battle the hijackers. (1)

Within hours, 34 ANG fighter units across the nation were ready to fly combat missions. And, in the first 24 hours alone, 15 of those units flew 179 fighter missions to provide combat air patrols (CAP) over major U.S. cities. Air Guard tanker, airlift, and rescue units flew scores of sorties on September 11, as well. Meanwhile on that terrible day, hundreds of other Air Guardsmen including personnel from chaplain services, civil engineers, security forces, and medical units volunteered for duty. In the first five years since September 11, 2001, more than 55,000 ANG citizen-airmen volunteered or were called up to fight terrorism at home and abroad in locations ranging from Afghanistan to Iraq to the Horn of Africa. (2)

The "9/11" terrorist attacks spotlighted the relationship between U.S. national security and so-called "non-state actors," like al-Qaeda. On television and radio, in print and online, politicians and pundits argued that military leaders and civilian officials could no longer limit their strategic policies and plans to individual nations and multinational alliances that threatened U.S. interests. Many experts implied and some declared that this new focus on non-state actors represented a major revolution in military and political thinking. (3)

This viewpoint, however, overlooks the historical record. The U.S. military had confronted nonstate actor adversaries long before 9/11. Studying this rich and varied background can provide leaders, planners, and analysts a broader perspective and an invaluable context that may help them better to understand the present and shape the future.

This article briefly explores four instances involving the use of U.S. air power--specifically, the Air National Guard--to engage non-state actors both at home and abroad prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. These case studies, drawn from America's decades-long war on drugs, include two long-term overseas counternarcotics undertakings, a domestic National Guard Bureau counterdrug program conducted in conjunction with civilian law enforcement agencies, and a series of overseas military engineering and medical civic assistance exercises intended to promote host nation and regional stability.

At first glance, there may seem scant similarity between America's long-running war on drugs and the more recent "War on Terror" declared by President George W. Bush. Indeed, despite the fact that some terror groups have started to use the illicit drug trade to fund other operations, the authors do not attempt to draw direct comparisons between these two endeavors. Broadly speaking, profit-motivated drug lords are not interchangeable with jihadist al-Qaeda leaders. And most narco-traffickers, the "mules" who transport drugs across international borders, and the local dealers who sell to users on the street, bear little comparison with the terrorists and foot soldiers of antiwestern extremist groups. Yet, both the war on terror and the war on drugs are responses to long-term threats to America. Moreover, unlike most military conflicts facing the nation since the American Civil War, the battlegrounds for these two wars are found abroad and at home. They share at least one other feature, as well. As these pre-9/11 case studies from the war on drugs reveal, both conflicts involve the United States and its allies facing off against "non-state actors." Thus, opponents in the form of non-state actors are actually nothing new to the modern U.S. military.

Defining the Non-State Actor

For a term that enjoys such widespread use today, defining "non-state actor" proves more difficult than one might expect. Many authors, including those of several U.S. national policy documents, employ the expression without bothering to explain what it means. (4) The same is true of several key Joint Publications (JP) that describe current U.S. military doctrine. For example, JP 2.0 (Joint and National Intelligence Support to Military Operations), JP 3.0 (Joint Operations), and JP 3-26 (Homeland Security) all list non-state actors as serious potential threats to U.S. national security, but none provide a definition. (5) This implies either that the term is so commonplace that no definition is required, or that its meanings are so varied and amorphous that it is actually difficult to define. A quick check online suggests that the latter may be the case. For instance, the first hit on a Google[TM] search provided this vastly oversimplified, and thus essentially useless, definition: "Non-state actors, in international relations, are actors on the international level which are not states." (6) Fortunately, the same site goes on to list what can take considerable effort to piece together from various official--and up-to-date--government sources:

non-state actors include international paramilitary and terrorist groups; international organized crime and drug trafficking groups; non-governmental organizations (NGOs); multi-national corporations; the international media; and transnational diaspora communities. (7)

Thus, by these and other current definitions, those who produce, transport, or sell illicit drugs clearly count among the legions of modern-day nonstate actors.

Background: America's War on Drugs

By the early 1980s, illicit drug use in the United States had reached epidemic proportions. Drug trafficking, drug abuse, and drug-related crime placed an enormous drain on the national economy; most Americans viewed drugs as a threat to the very fabric of modern society. At the international level, the illicit drug trade jeopardized U.S. foreign relations with governments in Central and South America. Drug cartels and their leaders, the "drug lords," had grown so wealthy, powerful, and bold that they could threaten legitimate national governments in Latin America. At the same time, terrorist groups with political or ideological agendas--in particular, the Peru-based Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) and the "Movimiento 19 de Abril" (also known as M-19) in Colombia--exploited the cocaine trade to fund their war against the governments of those countries. (8)

In response to the growing drug-related problems at home and abroad, President Ronald Reagan, on January 30, 1982, officially declared a "War on Drugs" to combat drug-smuggling operations. What began that year with the South Florida Task Force eventually grew into the National Narcotics Border Interdiction System (NNBIS). Directed by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, the NNBIS was responsible for coordinating all federal counterdrug efforts. (9) The Department of Defense (DoD) initially resisted becoming involved in counterdrug operations. First, DoD leaders feared that a new mission would diminish military readiness at a time when the Soviet Union remained a significant military threat. Second, there was a longstanding tradition--dating to the early days of the American Republic--of the military resisting any involvement in civil law enforcement matters. (10)

This tradition had been codified into law through the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878, which expressly prohibited the U.S. military from providing certain types of assistance to civil authorities without first obtaining Presidential approval, and made violations of this law a felony. Over time, this law was interpreted to include members of all active duty, Reserve, and National Guard forces (with the exception of special law enforcement provisions for the U.S. Coast Guard). In 1982, however, Congress made significant changes regarding how the military could support counterdrug operations. Public Law 97-86 amended the Posse Comitatus Act by authorizing indirect involvement by any component of the U.S. military to assist civilian law enforcement agencies. This could include equipment loans, personnel support, training, and the sharing of information. There were still several caveats. This "indirect support" could not be a primary mission; instead it either had to provide equivalent military training for the units involved or else be accomplished in addition to required training missions. Furthermore, the law directed that this indirect support could not degrade unit combat readiness or the DoD's capacity to fulfill its national defense mission. (11)

These changes to the Posse Comitatus Act cleared the way for increased military involvement in counterdrug operations. By late 1988, the DoD was named the lead agency for detecting and monitoring illegal drug traffic into the United States. Then in September of 1989, President George H.W. Bush unveiled a National Drug Control Strategy that outlined his proposed policies for dealing with the problem. That same month, and in keeping with the President's intent, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney stated that counterdrug operations were now a part of DoD national security priorities. In short, the U.S. military had joined the war on drugs. (12)

Overseas Counter-Narcotics Missions: Operation "Coronet Nighthawk"

In 1990, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) determined that its counterdrug mission required a high-speed, covert method to intercept, identify, and shadow civilian aircraft suspected of transporting...

To continue reading