Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of an article from the ‘Oxford Analytica Daily Brief’. Oxford Analytica is a global analysis and advisory firm that draws on a worldwide network of experts to advise its clients on their strategy and performance.
Moscow blames the United States and NATO for failing to stem the flow of Afghan narcotics into Central Asia and Russia. Washington has been trying to strengthen anti-narcotics efforts in the region while not undermining counter-insurgency operations. However, Russia still considers this region its ‘sphere of influence’ and has blocked an attempt to expand U.S. law enforcement presence there. Hence, the pickle.
For the past decade, Afghanistan has manufactured and exported more heroin than any other country. The United Nations estimates that about 10% of Afghanistan's gross economic output derives from opium poppy cultivation. The country produced about 6,000 tonnes of opium in 2011, valued at 1.4 billion dollars. Moreover, Afghan growers’ gross income from opium poppy doubled between 2010 and 2011 (to $10,700 per hectare).
A vicious circle exists: Narcotics trafficking finances the Taliban insurgency, whose disruptive activities prevent the Afghan authorities from suppressing opium cultivation and promoting alternative livelihoods.
About a quarter of Afghan heroin is trafficked along the 'northern route' through Central Asia into Russia - and onwards to Europe (most of the rest flows into Iran or Pakistan). Porous borders between former Soviet republics facilitate this trade, which in addition to drug consumption along the route has significant impact on Central Asian (and Russian) economic development, promoting corruption, increasing HIV/AIDS rates and supporting organized crime and terrorist groups.
Russian-U.S. cooperation on Afghanistan has increased since 2008. The Pentagon now buys Russian fuel for its helicopters in Afghanistan; it sends supplies to U.S. troops through Russian territory. Bilateral counter-narcotics cooperation has improved so much that Russia last year helped with raids against large drug laboratories in Afghanistan. A Russia-U.S. counter-narcotics working group exists, and has a broad mandate.
However, Moscow routinely criticizes NATO and the Afghan government for ineffective efforts at curbing opium cultivation and heroin production/trafficking. It also maintains that NATO can never defeat the Afghan Taliban without reducing its narcotics proceeds. Afghan government campaigns typically avoid confronting powerful and politically connected drug lords, or engage in deals that safeguard the bulk of the crop. Russian officials want authorities to spray herbicides from small aircraft, as done with coca crops in Colombia.
Since 2008, U.S. and NATO forces have stopped direct efforts to eradicate Afghan opium production. Instead, they have provided indirect support to Afghan government forces engaged in eradication, focusing instead on interdicting narcotics shipments and financial transactions, attacking major drug lords and supporting programs designed to transition Afghan farmers to cultivating legal, alternative crops such as wheat. This resulted in part from the U.S. decision to adopt a counter-insurgency strategy that emphasized winning Afghan ‘hearts and minds’ - an aim not easily obtained through poppy eradication.
The U.S.-led Central Asian Counter-narcotics Initiative envisages collaboration with existing task forces and all five Central Asian states to disrupt narcotics trafficking and other transnational criminal activity. Moscow has lobbied Central Asian governments to reject the initiative, which was supposed to launch last month but failed to muster enough support. Russia wants the United States to focus law enforcement and related efforts exclusively inside Afghanistan, rather than establish networks in Central Asia that would be less open to Russian influence.
As U.S. and NATO forces continue - or even accelerate - their withdrawal from the region, they may become more accepting of a greater Russian role in Central Asia. However, Russia-U.S. tensions will persist because they result from genuine differences over tactics as well as geopolitical competition. Neither is ready to give up their goals for the sake of better bilateral counter-narcotics cooperation. Meanwhile governments in Central Asia are wary of U.S. intelligence-gathering on drug activities, since these are likely to point the finger partly at local officials in these countries.
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