Russia, Europe and Afghan drugs

December 6, 2006
MOSCOW -- It will take more than two or three years to fight drug trafficking from Afghanistan, according to a joint report of the World Bank and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime published recently.

"History teaches us that it will take a generation to render Afghanistan opium-free," the report reads. To eradicate this evil, "support to farmers, the arrest of corrupt officials and eradication measures must be concentrated in half a dozen provinces… so as to free them from the scourge of opium."

Not a very optimistic forecast. Especially for Russia, which is the main target of the Afghan drug trafficking, standing on its way to Europe. By November this year, the Russian Federal Service for Control of Drugs and Psychotropic Substances Circulation alone confiscated over 80 tons of drugs from Afghanistan, including 2 tons of heroin.

Moscow, however, was not too upbeat about the outlook for fighting Afghan drugs even before the release of the report. The Service's director, Viktor Cherkesov, says that measures taken in Afghanistan by the international community and the Afghan government, are insufficient and their efficiency is extremely low. International programs for financing alternative crops (such as cotton instead of opium poppy) have failed.

Moreover, criminal structures that control heroin production in the country are often close to the Afghan regional authorities. This means that those who are responsible for fighting drugs are most interested in the business's prosperity. So it would be ridiculous to make any optimistic predictions.

Hopes vested in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan are also ungrounded. The coalition can do little when the Afghan authorities have almost no control over the situation outside Kabul, so it is difficult to launch programs that would cover the whole country.

Moscow is still quite critical about the stand of the ISAF and NATO (which now commands the ISAF) on fighting drugs.

Anatoly Safonov, the Russian president's envoy on counterterrorism, said he disagreed with the NATO commanders that destruction of opium poppy crops by the ISAF would only aggravate relations with the local population. "We believe that this is a deadlock," he said when commenting on these statements.

A voice in the wilderness. What does NATO have to do with it if the UN Security Council does not give the ISAF the go ahead to destroy opium crops? The United States, whose troops are the backbone of the anti-terrorist coalition, is not going to do it either, justifying its refusal with impressive statements. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said once that as Afghan drugs were planted on Russian and European money, it was Russia and Europe that should address the problem. What he meant was that the U.S. did not care.

There are serious objections as well. The above-mentioned UNODC report says that destruction of opium poppy crops, planted by the poorest Afghan farmers, should be done with extreme caution in order not to aggravate the situation. What is Russia to do then? Is there a way out of this vicious cycle?

Major General Alexander Yanevsky, head of the Drugs Control Service's department for inter-department preventive interaction, says that Russia has 342,000 people officially diagnosed as drug addicts. Overall, the country has up to 6 million drug addicts. The situation in Europe is no better, although addicts there prefer cocaine and marijuana to Afghan opium.

Perhaps, it is worth considering a proposal made by the Senlis Council, an international drug policy think tank based in Europe. It believes that Western countries should officially buy opium poppy from Afghanistan and then license it to produce pain killers. The Afghan state would benefit and establish at least partial control over the poppy fields. More importantly, this would be a severe blow to illegal drug trafficking.

This year, opium poppy crops in Afghanistan have surged 60% against last year, according to the UN, and production of opium – used to produce heroin – will be up at least 50% by the yearend. This means that Afghanistan can export over 600 tons of premium quality heroin to Europe this year. Russia has already confiscated about 2 tons. There's some tough work still left in store.