Central Asia Cracks Down on Drug Trafficking

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 58

(Source: The Moscow Times)

Executive Summary:

  • The Central Asian states are becoming more concerned with the surge in drugs being trafficked from Afghanistan since the Taliban retook power in 2021.
  • The Taliban has banned poppy cultivation, but drug enforcement agencies in Central Asia claim that drug production continues in underground laboratories within Afghanistan and from which directly Kabul benefits.
  • The increased drug trafficking in Central Asia is contributing to a surge in cross-border crime, corruption, degradation of public institutions, human trafficking, and money laundering.

In March, Tajikistan voiced concerns over a surge in opiate trafficking from production centers in Afghanistan. In a meeting convened by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Zafar Samad, head of Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency, said that drugs, including heroin, opium, and hashish, are being trafficked to Central Asia and the European Union primarily from Afghanistan. Zafar declared, “The threat to the Central Asian countries, especially those bordering Afghanistan, is gradually increasing because the methamphetamines discovered in the region were produced in Afghanistan” (Tolo News, March 17). Increased drug trafficking poses a serious threat to regional security and may have received a recent boost due to the political instability, social unrest, and growth of radical and extremist groups in the region. Rebel groups and separatist movements feed on the huge revenues coming from the drug trade. It also plays a central role in acquiring funds for the Taliban government, as Kabul’s illicit activities contribute significantly to Afghanistan’s central budget.

The so-called “Northern Route” has historically been used to traffic drugs from Afghanistan through Central Asia to Russia and Eastern Europe. Initially, the Northern Route, also known as the “Northern Silk Road,” was not used for drug trafficking, but in the 1990s, traffickers began using it as an alternative passage. Today, it is the main route for the illegal drug trade between Asia and Europe. The route itself starts from the northern border of Afghanistan and passes through Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan before entering the Russian and European markets (UNODC, June 2018).

In April 2022, the Taliban banned the cultivation of poppies, which are used to produce opium and other drugs. Kabul ordered the burning of poppy crops and announced that it would punish poppy growers under Islamic law. Some of the population in the cash-strapped, internationally isolated, and sanctioned country, however, have been forced to keep growing poppies to make a living, and enforcement of the legal measure has been lax (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, April 3, 2022). At the beginning of 2022, over 180,000 hectares of land in Afghanistan were dedicated to poppy cultivation.

In 2022, Afghanistan produced 80 percent of the world’s opium but ranked 170th in global drug consumption. Kazakhstan came in eighth on the list of the top nations in drug consumption, while Kyrgyzstan placed 23rd, Turkmenistan placed 41st, Tajikistan placed 76th, and Uzbekistan placed 95th (Daryo, February 18). These statistics demonstrate that some of the drugs being trafficked from Afghanistan remain in Central Asia. A significant quantity, however, continues to Russia and Europe.

The Central Asian states have begun introducing new measures to combat the growing drug trade. Tajikistan shares a 1,300-kilometer (about 800 miles) border with Afghanistan. Last year, Dushanbe asked members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization to establish an independent agency to combat drug trafficking from Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin also proposed establishing a “safety belt” around Afghanistan. While all parties seemed interested in following through on these arrangements, neither has come to fruition (Radio Free Europe, May 9, 2023).

Uzbekistan’s 85-mile border with Afghanistan is considered a crucial transit point for the narcotics trade. For traffickers of heroin, opium, and other drugs, the Afghan-Uzbek border, with numerous crossing points and vast stretches of open desert and rugged mountain terrain, offers both direct and indirect pathways to ultimately take the narcotics to the Russian and European markets (Daryo, February 22). Tashkent has sought to improve its capabilities to stem the flow of drugs through the country. For example, in February 2022, the State Security Service thwarted multiple attempts to smuggle narcotics into the country and arrested numerous individuals suspected of being involved in regional drug trafficking (Eurasianet, February 18, 2022).

Turkmenistan also plays a vital role as a transit country for Afghan drugs. From Turkmenistan, Afghan narcotics are trafficked to Europe through the Balkan Route, which moves through Iran and Türkiye to reach southeastern Europe (Observer Research Foundation, July 20, 2022). In the March UNODC meeting, Eskandar Momeni, secretary general of Iran’s Drug Control Headquarters, claimed, “Over the past five years, nearly 4,450 tons of various types of narcotics originating from Afghanistan have been discovered and seized as a result of the sacrifice of my colleagues. The Islamic Republic of Iran has yet to see a significant decrease in drug trafficking from Afghanistan” (Tolo News, March 17).

Taliban officials claim that the ban on poppy cultivation and opium production is effectively being implemented, though realities on the ground tell a different story. For example, in February, Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency reported no indications of a decline in drug trafficking from Afghanistan to Tajikistan. The Tajik authorities claim that drug production continues in underground laboratories within Afghanistan, with some revenues going directly to the Taliban government (Afghanistan International, February 6).

A lack of authentic data on Afghan narcotics reaching Central Asia makes enforcement extremely uneven (Observer Research Foundation, July 20, 2022). In Kyrgyzstan, authorities seized 10 tons of drugs during a short sting operation in November and December 2020. Since then, Kyrgyzstan’s Counter Narcotics Service has carried out several special operations to suppress distribution channels and has seized large consignments of narcotics. Kyrgyz authorities acknowledge the comprehensive support provided by the UNODC in their counternarcotics operations (UNODC, April 1). In contrast, Tajik authorities on the border with Afghanistan have been largely unsuccessful in checking the smuggling of narcotics. The corruption and lack of professionalism of Tajik border forces have complicated these efforts. The industry enjoys the support and patronage of some of those in power, hampering efforts to quell drug trafficking. Tajikistan’s highest state structures have allegedly been among the main beneficiaries (Observer Research Foundation, July 20, 2022). Similarly, in Turkmenistan, underpaid and corrupt civil servants have failed to reduce drug trafficking significantly. Increased drug trafficking in Central Asia is contributing to a surge in cross-border crime, corruption, degradation of public institutions, human trafficking, and money laundering (UNODC, April 1).

Narcotrafficking in Central Asia has steadily worsened since the Taliban returned to power in Afghanistan in 2021. The Central Asian governments desperately need a joint regional response to counter drug trafficking and must invest more in capacity-building for their border forces (Observer Research Foundation, July 20, 2022). Authorities in each country may have to work closer together to find and destroy the links between extremist groups and drug traffickers. Moreover, these governments could do more to improve the socioeconomic conditions of their populations, and civil society organizations can launch public awareness campaigns that highlight the negative impact of drug trafficking in the region in hopes of stemming the tide over the long term.