The silk route of the Afghan poppy

On June 9-10, at the initiative of of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, Moscow will host an international forum entitled “Afghan Drug Production: A Challenge to the World Community”. Izvestia talked to Nikolai Tsvetkov, the deputy director of the Federal Service to Control the Drug Trade (FSKN), head of the State Anti-Narcotics Committee about why the Northern drug route is called the “silk” route and why NATO refuses to destroy Afghan poppy crops.

Izvestia: What topics will be discussed at the Moscow forum?

Nikolai Tsvetkov:Actually, this is apparent from the name of the forum: “Afghan Drug Production: A Challenge to the World Community.” That is exactly how we see the problem—not locally, not regionally, but globally. The first topic of discussion will be the need to combine international anti-drug forces. These forces include not only the major powers, not only state institutions in general, but also international organizations and the Islamic world.

The second topic will be international law enforcement measures to fight Afghan narcotics production. We must define the legal status of this trade. There is, say, piracy in the Gulf of Aden, there is international terrorism. These are legally qualified, which means that persons who are a party to such crimes may expect specific international and legal sanctions.

The third topic will be measures to destroy opium poppy crops and narcotics laboratories in Afghanistan, where most of the world’s opiates are produced. Recently, Afghanistan has also become the world’s top producer of hemp. In other words, the production of drugs is the only significant factor in its domestic economy, which is deplorable.

The narcotics laboratories are a separate matter. We know that many of the regions where heroin is produced from opium are not regions where the war is going on. A significant part of it is produced in relatively peaceful provinces along the former Soviet-Afghan border. Here, incidentally, experts from the UN have noted a sharp increase in crops of opium poppies, although the main cultivation areas remain the south.

And, finally, the last topic of discussion, though not the least in importance, will be the need for economic development in Afghanistan—then Afghan peasants will grow not poppies, but wheat. Now it’s simpler to grow poppies, because all you need to do is sow them and gather them. A buyer comes, pays money and credits the “harvest,” and though small, this is a guaranteed source of income. With grain, it is more complicated. It has to be grown, and the harvest has to be protected, exported, sold.
I: How does the situation look now with narcotics in Afghanistan?

If you compare it with what it was a decade ago, then it looks much worse, and for Russia, more tragic. Since Fall 2001, when the Operation Enduring Freedom began and an international contingent of security forces went into Afghanistan under the UN flag, the production of narcotics there, mainly of the opiate group, has multiplied by a factor of 40.

I: Which province is the top producer?

NT: The province of Helmand in the south, on the border with Pakistan. According to UN statistics, Helmand produced 4,085 tons of opium in 2009 (59.2 percent of the entire Afghan harvest). At the same time, Helmand is not very densely populated (with only 5 percent of the Afghan population) and a place of constant armed clashes.

I: Who controls this province?

NT: British soldiers, formally.

I: They say that a large part of the drugs produced in Afghanistan go through Russia to Europe. Therefore the American forces, the backbone of the peacekeeping contingent, are engaged to a small degree in patrolling this route. Is that so?

NT: To a significant degree. But here one must specify. Afghan narcotics take three main routes. One of these is the so-called Northern route. It is aimed at Russia. Obviously, we no longer share a direct border with Afghanistan. There is the former Afghan-Soviet border. That line is controlled by Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The longest section is the Tajiks. It is also the most complex in terms of the topography. The Uzbeks have a comparatively small section. And finally the Turkmens have a fairly long section. As far as we can judge, it too is fairly porous. That is, it wouldn’t cause smugglers much trouble. The narco-transit zone includes parts of Kyrgyzstan, also Kazakhstan, with which we share a land border of 7,500 km. (4,650 miles). Of course, the law-enforcement structures in these neighboring countries do what they are supposed to do. But the fact remains: the flow of narcotics from Afghanistan is now an avalanche. Therefore we are interested in even closer cooperation with our colleagues in Central Asia, Iran, and of course, Afghanistan itself.

I: What volume of Afghan drugs is sent by the Northern route?

NT: Roughly 25-30 percent. At the same I want to stress: This is not transit to Europe through Russia. The route goes to Russia. I would categorically object to anyone’s saying that Russian soil is used to get the drugs to Europe. We intercept, or rather, do not let this plague through our territory. Our European colleagues also exercise appropriate vigilance, reinforced by good technical equipment. Narco-transit from Russia to Europe practically does not happen. In any case, our European neighbors have not criticized us for this. On the other hand, drugs do come from Europe to Russia, mainly synthetics. Of course, the Europeans are very disturbed by the Afghan narcotics phenomenon. But they have far more serious reasons for this — specifically the Balkan route, which goes through Iran, Turkey and Kosovo. The border between Iran and Afghanistan, by the way, is very strict and well fortified.

You’ve probably seen those startling pictures of truck-mounted cranes with drug couriers hanging from them. Who those people actually are we don’t know, but the sight is horrific. And this goes on all along the border. Nevertheless, roughly a third of the “product” goes to the West by this route. And this isn’t just about transit to the Balkans. We’re worried about what’s happening on the Iranian-Azerbaijani border. That again is one of the supply channels to Russian territory. We even know that the border between Azerbaijan and [the Russian Republic of] Dagestan is known in the slang of our contractors as the “golden gates” or “golden bridge.” That’s how abundant the flow of narcotics is there. In addition, there are trans-Caspian sea routes — from a port in northern Iran, for example, to Derbent, to Astrakhan, to Makhachkala, and also from Turkmenistan. Other times the “product” makes several loops before arriving at its point of destination.

I: What happens on the Southern route?

NT: The southern direction is to Pakistan. It goes through Afghan territory where some of the most active fighting is going on. In fact, the calmest and safest route for purposes of drug traffic is the Northern one. No wonder it’s sometimes called — again in slang — the “silk” route, “the Northern silk route.”

I: Now a breach has appeared along that route: Kyrgyzstan. Some experts say that Kyrgyz drug rings are using the instability in that country to improve their positions.

NT: It’s not a breach, which wouldn’t be that bad, but rather a zone of increased tension. Conspiracy theories are not our line, but we know that know that various cities in southern Kyrgyzstan are drug hubs, primarily, Osh, Batken, Dzhalal-Abad and Kyzyl-Kiya. They are all on the ring surrounding the Fergana Valley. They belong mainly to Uzbekistan. One of the routes in this direction begins in the Tajik city of Khorog, on the Afghan border. Then it goes up into the mountains along the Khorog-Osh highway that was built in the Soviet era. In essence, it is the only serious route for crossing Pamir and coming out into the Fergana Valley. Osh is a large city with an international airport. The Osh drug mafia is an influential group. It’s fair to assume that it has political levers, and is trying to strengthen them. In general, narcotics and political extremism, just like narcotics and terrorism, are separate topics. It is clear that the narcotics, or rather the billions of narco-dollars are going to finance and arm criminals of all different “ideological” persuasions. States in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) feel the effects of this most of all.

I:There is a Russian position that has been made public both in Kabul and in Brussels: that NATO forces must take control of the drug traffic from Afghanistan

N.T.:We are realists and understand that it is impossible to control all paths along which the drug couriers move. But you need to begin, in our view, not with cutting off those paths, but with cutting off the production itself of narcotics, the crops of opium poppies. In Colombia, for example, our American colleagues, in cooperation with the local authorities, have practically solved this problem at the root, both in the literal and figurative sense. Their method is defoliation. There are chemical preparations that can destroy plantations of this or that crop. In that case, we are talking about coca. They destroyed nearly 75 percent of all the coca crops, and that means they destroyed the phenomenon as a fact. The eradication of the Latin American drug industry and drug mafia may still be a long way off, but for a country taken separately, this is a huge achievement.

I: But in Brussels they refused to do this on Afghan soil

N.T. Yes. In Afghanistan we have exactly the opposite picture. There, of course, they also destroy crops, but by a mechanical means, with hoes, scythes, sabers. And as a rule, this happens when they find these plantations by chance. Any landowner will tell you that this will not solve the problem. It improves the soil. Sometimes you need to mow a crop to make it grow more thickly. Why has NATO refused to use effective chemical methods? There are three arguments that have been made by Richard Holbrooke, U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and by NATO Spokesman James Appathurai. The first argument says that to destroy the crops would deprive Afghan peasants of a source of subsistence, and that unhappy peasants would then go over to the Taliban. Secondly, if NATO soldiers become involved in this activity they will increase the risk of their own lives. Thirdly, this costs money. Given that approach, the prospects for substantially decreasing drug production in Afghanistan do not look good.

I:So are we making no headway?

N.T.: The Medvedev-Obama Presidential Commission has created a working group on the production of illegal drugs. This group is co-chaired by the head of Russia’s State Anti-Narcotics Committee, Viktor Ivanov, and by Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy for the Obama Administration. In short, we have good collegial relations with these professionals in charge of solving the drug problem.

I: Is Gil Kerlikowske the man who recently gave Viktor Ivanov a list of nine Afghan drug barons living in Afghanistan and other countries in Central Asia?

N.T.: That is one example of our cooperation, and this cooperation goes on not only at the highest level, but at the operative one as well. Naturally, our dialogue is strictly regulated. We, just like the Americans, do not show all our cards. The information that we have managed to collect is mainly the work of the FSKN and other security structures. Border guards, customs and police.

I: Coordinating the work of various departments is the Anti-Narcotics Committee’s function.

N.T.: Exactly, that is one of its functions. There is another serious component as well — our collegial ties with neighbors, especially with those countries that are transit zones in Central Asia and in the Caucasus. With some of them, you realize, we cannot have close ties today, but they go on being transit zones nevertheless. With others we do have close ties and an effective collaboration. And we want that collaboration to develop, and for our dialogue to be reinforced by specific concerted actions. The scale of this disaster is such that it’s high time we created a worldwide anti-drug front. The Moscow forum should be a step in this direction. Politicians, security officials, and experts on Afghanistan from the United States, China, Germany will be there, and the Afghan delegation will be one of the most represented.


According to the U.N. Commission on Drugs and Crime (in “Drug Addiction, Crime and Rebels”, a 2009 paper), Afghanistan annually exports some 900 tons of opium and 375 tons of heroin. Over 12,000 tons are in storage. Enough to satisfy the demand of heroin addicts worldwide for the next 100 years. Every year 100,000 people die from overdoses of Afghan heroin, including 30,000 Russians. The world opiates market totals $65 billion, of which the Russian share is $13 billion (20 percent).

Revenue from heroin traffic by the Northern route

Annual turnover: $18 billion.
Distribution of main royalties:
Transnational criminal and terrorist organizations: $15 billion
Small wholesale traders and retail: $1 billion
Narcotics labs in northern Afghanistan: $1 billion
Taliban: $30 billion
Proceeds to peasants in southern Afghanistan: $100 million

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