Alarmed by the rise of opium cultivation in Afghanistan, Russia’s Federal Drug Enforcement Service has opened a permanent office in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Federal Drug Enforcement Service Director Alexei Milovanov said of the move, “Russia advances cooperation and interaction with Afghanistan in the war on drug production and proliferation…As for the office in Kabul, our representative there will be in charge of efficient interaction between Russian and Afghani structures dealing with trafficking. With an emphasis, needless to say, on what channels lead to Russia. All of that will be carried out in close cooperation with our Central Asian colleagues.”
Milovanov also suggested that Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan establish border checkpoints and customs offices and make a joint effort to draw up an international agreement to track and confiscate drug trafficking profits (Ferghana.ru, February 20).
Russia’s interest in eradicating Afghanistan’s thriving drug trade is hardly academic. Not only did the Soviet Union suffer more than 20,000 fatalities and thousands more wounded while occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s, returning soldiers brought home a new problem from the war zone – drug addiction. The Afghan occupation and the ensuing years have left Russia with an estimated 4-6 million drug addicts. According to official figures, some 10,000 Russians die every year from drug overdoses and another 70,000 from drug-related health conditions (RFE/RL, January 9).
Concurrently with the Soviet occupation, Afghan opium production rose from 250 tons in 1982 to 2,000 tons in 1991. Production has now more than quadrupled, with no end in sight.
During a February 6 press conference in Kabul, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa discussed his office’s latest Afghanistan Opium Winter Survey. According to Costa, Afghanistan is now the biggest supplier of opium in the world. In 2007 it had more land growing drugs than Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru combined, producing 8,200 tons of opium, a 34% increase from 2006 (Agence France Presse, February 6). Even more unsettling, Costa noted that a 10% “tax” paid by most farmers in the Taliban-dominated south would generate close to $100 million for the insurgency.
There is no question that the drug trade has now become an integral element of the Afghan economy, with the estimated incomes of Afghan drug barons calculated at more than $3 billion, which, according to many estimates, comprises approximately 40% of Afghanistan’s official GDP (Kommersant, February 1).
Moscow began to notice a significant rise in drug seizures from Central Asia after Russian border guards ceded control of the Afghan–Tajik border to their Tajik counterparts in December 2004.
Indicating its heightened concern over the drug trade, Moscow dedicated one of its reconnaissance satellites to the issue. On April 20, 2006, Anatoly Safonov, presidential envoy for international anti-terrorist cooperation, told a press conference in Moscow that Russia would monitor poppy-growing areas in Afghanistan from space and share the data with the Afghan government under bilateral agreements, telling reporters, “Space control over Afghan areas under drug cultivation is one of the projects” (Interfax, April 20, 2006).
Russia also reached out for foreign assistance. Two years ago Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer concluded an agreement with NATO to undertake a joint project to train Afghan and other Central Asian anti-narcotics officers to counter the booming regional drug trade (Agence France Presse, April 28, 2006).
Russia’s involvement in attempting to stanch the drug trade has interested Kabul for several years; in May 2006 Afghan President Hamid Karzai appealed to Russia to help convert opium fields to other crops (RBC, August 28, 2007).
One of Russia’s southern neighbors is reporting success in battling the drug trade. Turkey’s Security Directorate reported that in 2007 security forces carried out 10,128 drug operations throughout the country. Operations along the country’s eastern frontier, often as part of military operations against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), forced smugglers to develop alternative routes traversing the Black Sea. The news was not good for Russia, however, as former Intelligence Office Chief Bulent Orakoglu pointed out that smugglers merely switched to using the Russia-Ukraine- Poland and Iran-Azerbaijan-Armenia-Georgia-Russia-Europe routes (Zaman, February 15).
Further complicating the international picture, the Afghan drug trade issue has now become fused with the Kremlin’s unhappiness over the West’s promotion of Kosova’s independence. On February 10 Russia’s state-controlled Channel 1 television aired an explosive report that claimed that Kosova “is a major link for drug trafficking” from Afghanistan to Europe, adding that there are “close links between the Kosova Albanians and the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” Further fanning the flames, the report quoted Geydar Dzhemal, chair of the Islamic Committee of Russia, who averred, “Without the control and connivance on the part of the special services none of these things are possible. For example in Afghanistan, the CIA and the special services are quite brazen. Under the protection of the American army they meet the necessary people. They collect the stuff, go to the Bagram airbase and they hand in a large consignment of narcotics, which is then taken away” (“Voskresnoe Vremya,” Channel 1 News, February 10).
While the issue undeniably deserves international attention, it is combating the drug trade. For the moment however, the common program remains vulnerable to divergent political agendas, which in the end only benefit the traffickers.