Russia puts anti-narcotics in Afghanistan at top of international agenda

Source: Getty Images/Photobank

Source: Getty Images/Photobank

Ever since assuming the post in 2008, Ivanov has made clear that for him the battle against Russia’s spiraling heroin addiction will be won or lost in the Hindu Kush.
A series of vigorous statements by top Russian officials in recent days, orchestrated by Ivanov, including a high level international conference on the issue in Moscow, show Russia placing anti-narcotics in Afghanistan on an equal footing with the worldwide war on terrorism.

“We consider drug addiction one of the biggest and most serious threats to our country’s development and our people’s health,” Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told an international Moscow conference organized by Ivanov’s anti-narcotics agency, FSKN on June 9.

“Fundamentally before our eyes a new global agenda is unfolding – the narco-threat as a challenge to humanity and one of the strongest factors in global instability,” Ivanov later said at the same conference. “The priority here is the liquidation of Afghan narcotic production. “

With similar statements calling for crop eradication in Afghanistan sounding from powerful prime minister and ex-president Vladimir Putin in Istanbul June 9, deputy prime minister Sergei Ivanov in Singapore June 7, as well as foreign minister Sergei Lavrov at the Moscow conference, Russia is putting all its big hitters into play in the call for international forces in Afghanistan to directly engage opium farmers and drug producers.

The reason is clear: Russia suffers most from Afghanistan’s narcotics exports. Russia is the world’s largest consumer of Afghan heroin, and official statistics point to a staggering 30-40,000 deaths each year as a result of overdoses, with an estimated total of 2.5m users, according to statistics compiled by Ivanov’s FSKN. Even more worrying is that Russia has a spiraling HIV problem mostly resulting from addicts sharing needles, with an estimated 1m HIV positive.

With Russia still a very weak state in terms of law enforcement, as prime minister Vladimir Putin acknowledged recently, trying to strangle the heroin problem at birth – in Afghanistan’s poppy fields – may seem the most effective strategy to Russian policymakers.

But Russian demands on Afghanistan could create an anomalous source of new tension with the US, just as President Barrack Obama’s ‘reset’ policy of cooperating with Russia is bearing fruit on a wide range of other issues. The fact that, until 2008 US policymakers were equally enthusiastic supporters of opium crop eradication gives Russian officials additional ammunition.

Under George W. Bush the US was preparing to rollout in Afghanistan the crop eradication policy that had proved successful in Columbia, including aerial crop spraying. But under Barack Obama there has been a U-turn on the issue. Obama’s Afghanistan policy-makers diplomat Richard Holbrooke and newly-appointed head of international and US forces General Stanley McChrystal argue crop eradication would fuel the insurgency by depriving farmers of livelihoods and forcing them to sign up with the insurgency. The new policy is to encourage farmers to adopt ‘alternative livelihoods’ such as wheat farming, while stepping up narcotics interdiction.

Ivanov has bitterly attacked the US U-turn. From the Russian point of view, US-led forces in Afghanistan turn a blind eye to opium production, because the US is not directly affected by the heroin flood. From the US point of view, it is not Russian troops who will die if eradication is resisted and the insurgency grows.

The billion dollar question is: if crops are destroyed, will the Taliban insurgency will lose revenues from opium crop taxation, and be less able to pay fighters or buy weapons? Or will impoverished farmers flock to join the Taliban? The key variable here is the Taliban’s believed opium stockpiles, meaning the insurgency might only experience financial problems in the medium term, while farmers would be plunged in immediate distress.

Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, whom Ivanov has attacked in the past for opposing crop eradication, lamented in Moscow an “extraordinary lack of information about opium,” and pointed out that Afghan opium cultivation was down 30% 2008-2009. Moreover, said Costa, a blight currently devastating the opium crop will reduce the harvest by another 30% this year. Costa conceded that production could bounce back again in 2011, given the price hike that resulted from the blight.

Responding to his Russian critics, Costa argued that affected countries, including Russia, should do more to reduce their own domestic demand for heroin, with $13bn heroin consumed in Russia, $20bn in the EU, annually. He called for progress in drug addiction prevention and treatment where Russia is historically weak.

Competing claims and conflicting interests led to high emotions during the Moscow conference. US ambassador to Russia John Beyrle dismissed as ‘fanciful’ Russian claims that international forcers were complicit with drug smugglers in failing to inspect outbound cargos, and even abetting drugs leaving Afghanistan. Afghan voices pointed out that it was the Soviet invasion and occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s that created the conditions for opium production, by destroying much of the elaborate irrigation systems essential for successfully farming licit crops in Afghanistan. Conversely, there were Russian calls for crucial NATO transit to Afghanistan via Russia to be made conditional on crop eradication, and for transit countries like Tadjikistan, economically dependent on migrants’ remittances from Russia, to do more to prevent drug transit. Russian Duma deputy Semen Bagdasarov spoke of a ‘genocide by drugs’ inflicted on Russia.

“What is new here is that Russian leaders, including President Medvedev, for the first time are saying that international drug trafficking, and what they call ‘narco-aggression’, is a greater threat to Russia than international terrorism,” commented Alexander Rahr from the thinktank German Council on Foreign Relations. “But Russia needs to do more in terms of domestic combating of drug addiction to make its international concerns more credible.”

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