RUSSIA AND NATO CLASH OVER AFGHAN DRUGS
In recent months, the Russian government has stepped up its attacks on NATO governments for failing to curb Afghanistan’s exploding opium production and the resulting surge in Eurasian drug trafficking. Since Western troops occupied Afghanistan in late 2001, opium cultivation has soared and the Russian government argues that NATO should take more vigorous action to repress the cultivation of narcotics in Afghanistan. Russian officials have indicated that they will press for aerial spraying of herbicides on the poppy fields. Although sympathetic to Russian concerns, neither the Afghan government, nor its NATO backers, are prepared to take such risky action, which could greatly assist Taliban recruitment efforts.
BACKGROUND: According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan supplies approximately 90 percent of the world’s consumption of opium. As a result, Afghanistan has become the world's largest heroin producing and trafficking country. Determining the precise quantity of narcotics exports from Afghanistan is difficult, but the UNODC estimates it to be around 3,500 tons per year. The primary routes run through Iran to Turkey and Western Europe; through Pakistan to Africa, Asia, and the Middle East; and through Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan to Russia. Additional routes through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Xinjiang-China also exist.
The Afghan drug trade clearly represents a major problem for Central Asia, the Caucasus, and other countries since it encourages local narcotics consumption and exposes their citizens to crime, corruption, drug addiction, HIV, and the other maladies associated with narcotics trafficking. The region is characterized by lengthy and porous borders due to the terrain and the misalignment between national boundaries and ethnic ties. The Fergana Valley, the scene of the recent riots in Kyrgyzstan, as well as the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, have tribes, clans, and other ethnic groups that transcend national frontiers and therefore have legitimate reasons to move across the borders. The territories encompassing the formerly integrated Soviet republics are especially easy to cross since, in addition to their integrated road and rail networks, many governments have visa-free entry arrangements for other former Soviet citizens. The ease of travel between Central Asian countries and Russia allow drug traffickers to smuggle narcotics from Afghanistan, as well as other contraband, into Russia and onto Europe with little risk of interdiction. According to the UNODC, the Central Asian authorities are seizing only around 5 percent of the estimated 90 tons of heroin that enters their territory. The figures for Russian narcotics interdiction operations are even lower.
Afghans suffer more from the drug trade than any of their neighbors. According to a new UNODC survey released in late June 2010, about one million Afghans, approximately eight percent of the population, are currently addicted to narcotics. The number of regular opium users has increased to around 230,000, compared with 150,000 in 2005. This surge has occurred primarily in southern Afghanistan, the center of the country’s narcotics industry as well as the hotbed of the Taliban insurgency. The illicit drug’s industry is aggravating Afghanistan’s other economic, political, and security problems. For example, as a landlocked country, Afghanistan needs access to regional and international markets, an imperative document in recent reports by CACI and other institutions. But the governments of neighboring countries hesitate to open their borders to mutually beneficial economic exchanges as long as terrorists and drug traffickers can slip through them. Security imperatives typically trump commercial considerations in this volatile region. Despite the large sums involved, only a few Afghans derive substantial profits from their country’s opium industry. A 2009 UNODC report calculated that, of the US$ 65 billion in revenue generated by the global heroin market, only a small portion goes to the Afghan poppy growers. Those who benefit most financially are the people who manufacture and export the drugs as well as the Taliban insurgents, who collect taxes and other fees on the narcotics trade.
IMPLICATIONS: Russian officials have repeatedly expressed concern about NATO’s inability to counter narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan. They estimate that some 30,000 Russians die yearly from using Afghan-based heroin — either through drug overdoses or through contracting AIDS from contaminated needles. To underscore the importance of this issue, Moscow hosted the first international conference on “Drug Production in Afghanistan: A Challenge for the International Community”, on June 9-10. At the event, the head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, Viktor Ivanov, attributed many of Eurasia’s security problems to Afghan narcotics trafficking, labeling it “the predominant factor of instability, extremism, organized crime and terrorism … in the Caucasus, Kosovo, Fergana Valley and Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region.”
In his briefing at the forum, Ivanov proposed revising the international approach towards Afghan narcotics. The key points of his “Rainbow-2” plan are the following: first, the UN Security Council would declare Afghan drug production a threat to international peace and security. Second, the international community would fund a massive infrastructure development program, focused on the Afghan energy sector, to create at least two millions jobs. Third, NATO would use aerial spraying and other “well-tested methods” to eradicate at least 25 percent of Afghan opium production this year. Fourth, the UN would place landlords who cultivate poppy on its sanctions list. Fifth, the UN would mandate that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan eradicate opium poppy. National governments would share more intelligence on Afghan narcotics production, and the international community would expand multinational training programs for Afghan counternarcotics officers.
Although acknowledging the destructive effects of Afghanistan’s narcotics industry, NATO leaders have traditionally argued that their primary mission is to achieve a favorable security environment by countering the Taliban, allowing other non-military institutions to conduct more effective counter-narcotics programs. They have therefore encouraged other international institutions and various national governments to take the lead in strengthening Afghan law enforcement agencies, promoting alternative livelihood projects, and pursuing related programs. NATO commanders have traditionally resisted undertaking their own direct poppy eradication missions for fear of diverting scarce troops to non-combat missions and alienating local poppy farmers whose support is crucial for defeating the resurgent Taliban. The renewed emphasis in the current counterinsurgency campaign plan, which General David Petraeus has said he will continue, on winning Afghan popular support for the Kabul government has reinforced this aversion to attacking poppy fields directly, which could drive alienated farmers into the ranks of the insurgents.
Even so, the increasingly evident connections between Afghanistan’s narcotics problem and the country’s deteriorating security situation have induced NATO leaders to counter drug trafficking more actively, though still primarily indirectly by assisting the Afghan government efforts in this area by providing relevant intelligence, training, and logistical support. Besides fighting Taliban guerrillas, NATO forces have undertaken a variety of civic action programs that could indirectly reduce drug cultivation by providing alternative sources of employment. In addition, NATO and Afghan authorities have been offering financial incentives to farmers to not cultivate poppy plants and instead harvest wheat, cotton, or vegetables. This strategy has achieved some success in reducing the overall opium production in Afghanistan’s northern provinces, but the southern provinces have made up for the lower northern yield with a surge in their own production. Particularly in the south, the hotbed of the Taliban insurgency, the lack of viable livelihoods for many Afghans, combined with the government’s weak authority, has made cultivating opium a logical economic choice for farmers.
CONCLUSIONS: Russian and Central Asian governments will probably continue to raise the Afghan narcotics issue at the recently announced OSCE summit planned for later this year. NATO officials, who categorically refuse to engage in aerial spraying of herbicides as long as the Kabul government opposes it, seek to expand Russian-NATO collaboration to encompass all dimensions of the Afghan War rather than focus exclusively on the narcotics problem. In their assessment, the most effective means for curbing Afghan drug exports would be working with Russia and other international and Afghan actors to defeat the insurgency, reestablish a strong Afghan government capable of enforcing law and order throughout the country, and reconstruct the national economy so that Afghans can earn their living through means other than cultivating opium.
AUTHOR’S BIO: Richard Weitz is Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at Hudson Institute. He is the author, among other works, of Kazakhstan and the New International Politics of Eurasia (Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, 2008).