The South Asia Channel

Russia’s dangerous fix

Today the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released an alarming report, finding that since 2005 the number of Afghans addicted to opiate drugs like heroin and opium has doubled and that nearly million Afghans are steady users. But the problem of opiate addiction spreads far beyond Afghanistan. Last October, a UNODC report ...

BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Today the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released an alarming report, finding that since 2005 the number of Afghans addicted to opiate drugs like heroin and opium has doubled and that nearly million Afghans are steady users. But the problem of opiate addiction spreads far beyond Afghanistan. Last October, a UNODC report concluded that Afghanistan’s poppy crop, refined into hard drugs such as heroin and opium, kills 100,000 people annually around the world. According to Russian authorities 30,000 to 40,000 of those killed are Russian citizens, a higher number than all the Russian soldiers who died during the Soviet war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. These figures make Afghan opiates the most deadly drug in the world, with Russians the leading victims.

Given this context, it is understandable that earlier this month Moscow hosted the first international conference on "Drug Production in Afghanistan: A Challenge for the International Community." Russian officials used the forum, which combined graphic displays of drug addicts and narcotics-smuggling techniques with detailed analytical briefings, to highlight the devastating effects of Afghan narcotics trafficking on their country and other states in Europe and Asia. The Russian participants — who represented the largest national contingency among the hundreds of politicians, counternarcotics experts, and journalists in attendance, from some 40 countries including Iran, Colombia, and the United States — also sought to galvanize NATO into adopting a more aggressive stance toward the problem, which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, the keynote speaker, called one of the most serious threats facing his country today.

The Russia government’s Federal Drug Control Service estimates that more than 2 million Russians are now addicted to Afghan-supplied drugs, a higher figure than anywhere else in the world and one that continues to grow. Most of these addicts are between the ages of 18 and 39, depriving Russia of its most productive generation. And in addition to deaths from overdoses, the use of unclean needles for injecting heroin has resulted in more than 1 million Russians becoming infected with the HIV virus.

Russia’s drug-control chief, Viktor Ivanov, and other Russians castigated the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan for failing to curb that country’s exploding opium production. Since the coalition invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, opium cultivation has increased by 40,000 percent, according to Ivanov’s slide briefing. Russian officials argue that by occupying the country, NATO has assumed responsibility for countering narcotics trafficking and other transnational crime based in Afghanistan. Although some Russians acknowledge NATO concerns that attacking drug production directly could temporarily increase the number of Afghan insurgents, Russian officials maintain that the problems of crime and insurgency are interrelated and that NATO can never defeat the Taliban as long as the movement can finance its operations through the millions of dollars the UNDOC estimates the Taliban earns through participation in the Afghan drug trade. Ivanov also presented his government-backed "Rainbow-2" plan for solving the Afghan narcotics problem.

Much of the debate at the forum concerned the wisdom of employing the aerial spraying of chemicals to eradicate Afghanistan’s opium poppy, something many Russian officials advocate. Current NATO policy is to leave the physical destruction of poppy crops to the Afghan counternarcotics agencies, which use manual eradication methods such as using animals to plow under the opium fields and beating the poppy plants with sticks. According to Ivanov’s briefing, in 2008, Afghans only destroyed some 3 percent of the country’s opium crop using mechanical means, whereas in Colombia, the aerial spraying of herbicides eliminated 75 percent of all coca crops that year.

In contrast, the NATO officials at the forum argued that the most effective way to curb Afghan drug exports would be to defeat the insurgency, re-establish a strong Kabul government capable of enforcing law and order throughout the country, and rebuild the national economy so that Afghans can earn their livings without fueling the drug problem. In the interim, NATO representatives argued that the coalition could make significant progress by interdicting large drug deliveries and apprehending the major Afghan drug lords while strengthening Afghan law enforcement agencies and pursuing other socioeconomic programs that addressed the underlying sources of drug production.

Russian experts responded that the Afghan government was too weak to lead the national counternarcotics efforts, that interdiction efforts could only seize a small percentage of the drug traffickers, and that alternative livelihood programs would have little impact unless the disincentives for growing opium were higher. Some of the Russian officials at the Moscow forum accused Washington in particular of employing a double standard, doing whatever it could to curb the flow of cocaine into the United States while effectively ignoring how Russia was suffering as a result of the instability in Afghanistan.

It is unclear how many of the participants recalled that in 2006 and 2007, after several years of embarrassing surges in Afghan opium production and evidence that the Taliban insurgents were using revenue derived from trafficking to finance their revival, the George W. Bush administration actually reached the same conclusion as the Russians, deciding that aerial spraying of herbicides was essential for addressing the Afghan narcotics problem. In addition to its inefficiency, U.S. and U.N. analysts found that the ground-based eradication teams using manual methods disproportionately directed their efforts against poor farmers who lacked assets and influence, while the large wealthy producers escaped enforcement through bribery, connections, or intimidation. Furthermore, the U.S. and other NATO militaries were reluctant to assist eradication and interdiction efforts that diverted scarce resources from combat forces. As a result, Afghan counternarcotics officers and their foreign partners lacked adequate transportation and other capabilities to confront the well-armed drug lords or those operating in areas under Taliban control. Using crop-duster planes, flown by foreign pilots, would address these problems by allowing for both more comprehensive and equal coverage.

In early 2007, however, Afghan President Hamid Karzai rescinded his earlier consent to a pilot program that would involve the ground spraying of the weed-killer glyphosate. With the quiet backing of European officials concerned about growing public discontent over rising NATO casualties in Afghanistan, Karzai argued that even ground spraying would anger local farmers dependent on growing poppy for the livelihood, thereby further fueling grassroots support for the insurgency. Some U.S. military commanders shared these concerns.

The current debate over the merits of spraying Afghan opium crops reflects the same underlying difference in priorities. In accordance with the counterinsurgency strategy pursued by the U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, coalition forces and their Afghan allies are seeking to win Afghans’ hearts and minds. Spraying their fields with chemicals would likely work against this objective since the Taliban would accuse the coalition of poisoning their food, water, and environment.

Russia, on the other hand, has no combat troops in Afghanistan — and every Russian present at the forum made clear they were not eager to send any. Yet, Russians have still become victims of the war. Their clear priority is to curtail the influx of Afghan opium that is devastating their society today in a manner similar to how the crack-cocaine epidemic ravaged certain parts of the United States in the 1980s. From the Russian perspective, the death of more NATO soldiers is an acceptable price to pay for curtailing Afghan narcotics trafficking since, as Ivanov explained, a soldier’s job is to protect civilians. As he and other Russian speakers pointed out, the UNODC has calculated that more NATO citizens die from overdosing on Afghan heroin each year than have been killed during the entire post-9/11military campaign in Afghanistan.

NATO and Russia might find it more profitable to pursue a Russian idea curiously not on the list Ivanov presented to the conference attendees — better integrating a multilateral response to the Afghan narcotics problem. For many years, Russian officials have proposed that NATO cooperate directly with the Moscow-dominated Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) on Afghanistan and other Eurasian security issues. Among other activities, the CSTO — which in recent days has become better known in the West due to its possible role in leading (and legitimizing ) a Russian-led military intervention in Kyrgyzstan — has conducted so-called "Kanal" counterdrug interdiction operations around Afghanistan.

Although individual NATO countries, including the United States, have sent observers to the Kanal missions, NATO officials and the alliance-member governments have refused to establish formal institutional ties with the CSTO for fear of strengthening Moscow’s security primacy over the organization’s other members — Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. But NATO might want to reconsider this policy, at least in the Afghan case, to prevent Russian anger over the Afghan narcotics issue from impeding the growing bilateral cooperation between Moscow and NATO over Eurasian security issues, which includes Russia’s granting NATO the right to transit military supplies through its territory as well as, more recently, joint Russian-American efforts to re-establish stability in Kyrgyzstan.

At the Moscow forum, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that the Russian government would make drugs a key issue at next month’s international conference in Kabul. The meeting would provide an appropriate venue for NATO to announce its new approach and work toward a more coherent anti-narcotics policy in Afghanistan.

Richard Weitz is a senior fellow and director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.

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