By Richard Weitz (11/30/2011 issue of the CACI Analyst)

One reason why the Russian and Central Asian governments have become increasingly supportive of NATO’s mission in Afghanistan is their concern regarding the export of Afghan narcotics into and through their countries. These governments have become increasingly worried that NATO’s ongoing withdrawal of combat troops from Afghanistan will result in their having to confront the problem of narco-trafficking largely by themselves. Mutual concerns about Afghanistan are helping to drive Moscow and Washington to cooperate despite their persistent differences over other issues, but major disagreements over the U.S. role in Central Asia continue.

BACKGROUND: Russia and NATO continue to disagree over how best to deal with the problem of Afghanistan narcotics. Afghanistan has long been the world's leading producer of opium, used to make heroin. An estimated one-quarter of its production flows northward through the former Soviet states, supplying as many as 3 million Russian addicts and, according to Russian statistics, killing 30,000 Russians each year. Russia is the world's largest per capita consumer of heroin. The widespread use of dirty needles among Russians has promoted a national HIV/AIDS epidemic.

Central Asia has become a major trafficking route for Afghan narcotics exports because of its strategic location, weak border controls, and ineffective law enforcement. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that ninety percent of the world’s opium is harvested in Afghanistan. Twenty-five percent of that opium is trafficked through the Central Asian Republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan en route to large drug markets in Europe, the Russian Federation, and China. This route is referred to as the “Northern Route,” and is a fairly recent phenomenon. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, drug traffickers in Afghanistan realized that they could exploit the weak security capacity of the newly independent governments of Central Asia, which lack the financial resources or experience necessary to police their borders adequately.

Afghanistan’s border with three Central Asian countries, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, spans 2,600 kilometers, along remote and geographically challenging terrain, which is virtually impossible for the countries to regulate. Afghan drug traffickers use Central Asia as one of their main transit routes. Most trafficking begins in Tajikistan or southern Kyrgyzstan and makes its way through Kazakhstan to Russia, though some Afghan opium is also trafficked through Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. In total, the UNODC estimates that about 1,725 metric tons of opium, whether in the form of pure opium or heroin, is trafficked through Central Asia each year.

Russians doubt the effectiveness of interdiction given the large flow of Afghan drugs and the enormous financial resources available to the traffickers to bribe customs officials and otherwise overcome natural and manmade obstacles. They instead stress the need to destroy the crops and the drug laboratories. Russian experts argue that even if one could seal the Afghan-Tajikistan border, the same drugs would simply flow along another trafficking route. Instead, the Russian government wants NATO to undertake a more active and direct campaign to destroy the poppy fields as well as the laboratories. The Russian government maintains that NATO could never defeat the Taliban as long as the movement can finance its operations through the millions of dollars it earns through participation in the Afghan narcotics trade.

NATO governments have made clear their reluctance to meet Russian demands to eradicate the opium crops through aerial spraying of poppy crops or other actions against individual Afghan farmers. They fear that such direct action against large numbers of Afghans would prove a public relations disaster, alienating citizens from the coalition and facilitating Taliban recruitment. Farmers, whose crops suffer damage, whether from herbicides or other causes, would blame NATO for their losses, while Taliban propaganda would misconstrue NATO spraying as polluting the environment. Following a formal change in U.S. policy announced in June 2009, NATO forces have instead focused their efforts on destroying large warehouses storing illicit drugs as well as interdicting the flow of narcotics out of Afghanistan and the drug money that the Taliban use to finance its operations.

IMPLICATIONS: The Russian government has been promoting a “Rainbow-2” Plan to deal with the Afghan narcotics issue. Its key elements include having the UN Security Council declare Afghan narcotics a threat to international peace and security, imposing sanctions on Afghan landlords who allow opium poppy plantations on their land, providing Afghanistan with large-scale aid that would create millions of legitimate jobs, including opium poppy eradication in the UN mandate for NATO, using aerial spraying of herbicides to eradicate Afghan opium production, sharing more narcotics intelligence among UN members, and offering more multinational training for Afghan counternarcotics officers. NATO governments have reviewed the plan but have yet to act on it as an integrated package due to disagreements over several key points.

Russian officials have proposed several new initiatives outside their Rainbow 2 plan designed to strengthen Russian-American cooperation against Afghan narcotics. First, they want to create an integrated command that would include representatives from the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

They anticipate that the new arrangement would address the problems that had impeded the work of what appeared last fall to be a promising new Russian-U.S. initiative. In October 2010, their drug enforcement personnel conducted a joint counternarcotic raid that destroyed drug-producing laboratories in Afghanistan. From December 2010 to February 2011, four additional Russian-U.S. counternarcotics raids took place against Afghan narcotics laboratories.

The Russians argue that the time needed to plan and secure military support for these joint operations sometimes took months. By the time they had surmounted all the bureaucratic hurdles in Russia, the U.S., within NATO, and in Afghanistan, the intelligence had grown stale. The new joint command could presumably make it easier to break through these bureaucratic obstacles by accelerating the staff work and clearance procedures.

Second, the Russian government has advocated using more high technology to increase situational awareness of Afghan narcotics conditions. Specifically, they want to create a “Digital Poppy Road Map” in which multiple users would collect and submit data about narcotics production and trafficking in Afghanistan. The interactive map would identify poppy fields, narcotics laboratories, transportation hubs, and trafficking routes. The data would also make clear where eradication was succeeding and where further efforts were needed. The publicly accessible map, which could be a smartphone application, would use surveillance data gathered by American drones and possibly a Russian-American satellite dedicated to the task. Using digital technologies, he argued, would keep the costs of the process down to about US$ 150 million annually.

In addition to their differences over NATO’s refraining from attacking the Afghan crops directly, a remaining difference between Moscow and Washington is Russian opposition to the new U.S. State Department initiative to establish a network of U.S.-supported counternarcotics centers in Central Asia. This Central Asian Counternarcotics Initiative seeks to establish counternarcotics task forces in all five Central Asian countries. These units would collaborate with the similar task forces that already exist in Afghanistan and Russia. The State Department would pay for the centers’ equipment and the training of their personnel. The seven groups would share sensitive information about drug production, interdiction operations, and law enforcement efforts against traffickers in Afghanistan. They would also help improve coordination on cross-border or multinational operations. The resulting counternarcotics network would link both the main narcotics source country, Afghanistan, with the key transit countries in Eurasia.

The Russian government has framed its opposition to this program within the context of its general lack of enthusiasm regarding interdiction. They want the U.S. to concentrate its resources in fighting opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan itself. At least some Russians oppose the Central Asian Counternarcotics Initiative for geopolitical reasons: they aim to minimize the U.S. presence in Central Asia, a region that Russian “old thinkers” consider as falling within Moscow’s sphere of influence. They want the U.S. to focus its counternarcotics efforts exclusively inside Afghanistan rather than take the lead in constructing region-wide networks independent of Russia.

CONCLUSIONS: With Putin’s return to the presidency in a few months, we could well see more such old thinking in Moscow – in which Central Asia is seen as a region of east-west competition rather than one of shared interest. The U.S. should try to work with Russia on the Afghan narcotics issue, perhaps by enhancing NATO’s contacts with the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization, but should not give Russian old thinkers a veto on direct U.S. collaboration with the independent countries of Central Asia.

AUTHOR’S BIO: Dr. Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Associate Director of the Center for Future Security Strategies at the Hudson Institute.