The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


Drug Intoxicated Irregular Fighters: Complications, Dangers, and Responses

Drug Intoxicated Irregular Fighters: Complications, Dangers, and Responses - Cover

Authored by Dr. Paul Rexton Kan.

March 2008

50 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The presence of drugged fighters is not unknown in the history of warfare. Yet widespread drug use on the battlefield is now part of protracted conflicts largely fought by nonprofessional combatants that take place in an international system characterized by the process of globalization. From marijuana, khat, hallucinogenic mushrooms, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine to looted pharmaceuticals, irregular fighters have found a ready supply of narcotics to consume for a variety of combat purposes. Such consumption has led to unpredictable fighting, the commission of atrocities, and to the prolongation of internal violence. The presence of intoxicated combatants will continue to be a feature of armed conflict and requires a fuller accounting to adequately prepare policymakers and military planners for future conflicts.


The complexity of many ongoing and persistent conflicts in the post-Cold War is partially attributed to the widespread presence of drug intoxicated irregular fighters. Drug consumption in contemporary wars has coincided with the use of child soldiers, has led to increased unpredictability among irregular fighters, provided the conditions for the breakdown of social controls and commission of atrocities, and caused the lessening of command and control among the ranks. Although the nonmedical use of drugs by combatants has a long history, recent encounters of professional armed forces have demonstrated the need to reinvestigate the reasons irregular combatants consume drugs, the type of drugs they consume, how they acquire drugs, and the consequences for professional militaries.

Intoxication among combatants continues to be a part of today’s conflicts and occurs in minimal, acute, and unrestrained degrees. The perceived benefits felt by combatants consuming illegal narcotics on the battlefield have few pressures to constrain them. Pressures like social norms, legal controls, expense, and availability, along with individual fears of addiction, toxicity, and concerns about the lack of knowledge about a drug and supervision of its use are often mitigated by the nature of contemporary wars which tear down each of these by focusing attacks on the institutions and people who comprise them. However, drug use and abuse in wartime still depend on the law of supply and demand which is distorted due to the type of consumer (a person engaged in armed violence) and the areas (zones of conflict) where a drug is available.

“Combatant demand” is comprised of four main reasons that drugs are sought by those engaged in armed conflict: stimulation, reward, recruitment, and relaxation. The supply side for drugs in today’s wars falls into at least one of four categories: traditional, transshipped, looted, and manufactured. The result is the use of marijuana, khat, hallucinogenic mushrooms, cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and looted pharmaceuticals to stoke a variety of conflicts. Drugged fighters are a significant feature of protracted conflicts, presenting challenges for Western militaries to overcome since such protraction creates conditions for drug use among their forces as well. Lengthier times spent in the field can generate personal hardships among troops that can be soothed by drug use. A type of drug quagmire can develop where protraction creates an atmosphere for the greater demand for drugs among irregular and professional forces.

Although militaries from developed countries are beginning to acknowledge the strategic and tactical effects of drugged combatants, little has changed in the way military and political leaders have conceptualized the role of illegal narcotics in warfare. What is needed is greater cooperation among agencies of the Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of Treasury, and Department of Homeland Security to monitor and assess the ways drugs are being used by irregular forces so that new strategies can be added to the plans of conventional forces who may intervene in such operational environments. More techniques from law enforcement to track and trace combatant supply and demand will prepare militaries for encounters with drug intoxicated combatants by developing early warning signals in order to adjust their tactics in particular conflicts.

Additional institutional measures should be put in place before the next intervention in environments that include drug intoxicated irregular fighters. Such measures could include nesting operations targeted at reducing drug use in campaign plans from the beginning, while including new training to consider new military objectives like patrols along smuggling routes and securing hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies during an intervention. In situations where nationbuilding and stability operations are mandated, the main goal of governments in responding to these conflict environments should be to reduce the level of violence through a reduction of the use of drugs. By lowering the demand for drug use, command and control can be strengthened among irregular forces, thus increasing the likelihood of adherence to the parameters of any potential peace accord. To reduce the potential for a drug quagmire, greater institutional support is needed for the professional military to monitor, treat, and provide long-term care for active duty troops and veterans who may develop substance abuse disorders.

Access Full Report [PDF]: Drug Intoxicated Irregular Fighters: Complications, Dangers, and Responses

Join the mailing list