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Russia fights opium war as US marks 8 years in Afghanistan

Published time: February 28, 2010 04:18
Edited time: February 28, 2010 04:18

As America’s dream of nation-building in Afghanistan gets sand stuck in its gears, Russia, fighting its own war against a new generation of heroin addicts, wants poppy production slashed.

As Russia grapples with its ominous demographic situation – according to the grimmest estimates, the population could tumble by as much as 3 million people to below 140 million by the next decade – it should come as no surprise that heroin addiction, which kills up to 30,000 Russians annually, sits front and center on the Kremlin’s radar.

“For Russia, the task of eradicating Afghan opium production is an unrivaled priority for Russia,” said Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics (FSKN). “More than 90 percent of drug addicts in our country are consumers of opiates from Afghanistan. Up to 30,000 people die of heroin-related illnesses annually.”

“The 1990s saw a tenfold increase in heroin consumption in Russia,” continued Ivanov, speaking at a news conference at RIA Novosti on Thursday. “Today, the number of drug addicts has grown to 2.5 million people, predominantly between the ages of 18 and 39.”

“According to date available from the UN, as well as our own research, we have found that the number of people using heroin in Russia is on average 5 to 8 times higher than in the EU countries.”

Last month, Ivanov took his message to Washington D.C., where he gave a speech to the Nixon Center. There, he stressed that Russia is not the only country that is threatened by the “scourge of Afghan opium production.”

“The transnational nature of Afghan heroin trafficking makes it impossible for any state to take refuge from its calamitous impact,” Ivanov said. “The Afghan heroin market is situated mainly outside and away from Afghanistan and is based on a sophisticated global sales infrastructure.”

Finally, Ivanov provided perhaps the most convincing argument of all that the Afghanistan’s drug production needs to be given the highest priority: Afghan heroin helps to nurture the very roots of terrorist networks.

“It has been repeatedly demonstrated that the drug business provides the financial basis for terrorism and is one of its main factors for its upsurge.”

Ivanov then drew a direct parallel with Russia’s past experience in dealing with the world’s premier terror mastermind, Osama bin Laden, who the Russians say funneled enormous funds to Chechen rebels.

“It was Osama bin Laden,” Ivanov reminded, “who in the middle 1990s created heroin supply chains to Russia’s Chechnya in order to fund Chechen terrorists.”

But what makes the Afghan drug problem for Russia different from the specter of, say, alcoholism, road fatalities or serious illnesses is that a solution to the problem is not dependent upon Russia’s efforts alone. Indeed, the success of Russia’s campaign against heroin addiction hinges on the efforts of the coalition forces in Afghanistan, of which the U.S. dominates in terms of both numbers and leadership.

Against the background of Russia’s dire drug problem, Ivanov stressed during his Thursday news conference that “cooperation between the United States and Russia was on the rise.”

The Americans respond

Timothy Jones, the Drug Enforcement Administration’s attaché at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, echoed Ivanov’s positive assessments of the joint efforts now occurring between Moscow and Washington on the drug front.

“We’re going to be combining our expertise,” Jones said in a telephone interview with RT. “The DEA and the FSKN have been working together for years in joint investigations. But this new level of cooperation will bring a greater number, and more emphasis, to the problem that Russia is facing.”

Jones then reiterated Ivanov’s remarks that the heroin problem is not relegated to Russia alone.

“The drug trade is not just a problem for Russia,” he said. "It’s a problem for the United States, it’s a problem for Iran, and it’s a problem for Turkey. It’s a problem for all of the neighboring countries.”

The DEA’s Moscow attaché then stressed the need for all nations to work together to defeat the heroin problem.

“Unless we all work together and attack this problem as a joint effort,” Jones warned, “we’re not going to be able to make the difference that we need to make.”

Jones then spoke at length about the DEA’s work in Afghanistan.

“The DEA has a large number of agents down there that work jointly with the coalition forces. And so we are actively engaged in looking for the drug labs, for the drug traffickers, and the… chemicals that are coming into the country. And of course we have other offices in the surrounding countries that surround Afghanistan. So in cooperation with those offices, as a team, together with our counterparts, try to attack the problem.”

But the US embassy’s DEA attaché stressed that the United States was not working alone to defeat the drug traffickers operating in Afghanistan, and discussed the DEA’s cooperation with Russia’s FSKN, as well as other affiliates in the field.

“Our efforts are not singlehanded,” Jones said. “We work in conjunction with our counterparts in the respective countries we’re in. Any leads that we find regarding Russia, we pass those along to the FSKN, and vice versa. We have a large number of people in Afghanistan, so if FSKN has some leads for us, we will receive those and actively cooperate to resolve the problem.”

Look! Up in the sky!

One area where the United States and Russia have opposing views on how to beat the drug traffickers at their own game involves the use of airplanes, which Russia said could fumigate the poppy fields.

So far the United States has responded coolly to the proposal, and this continues to vex the Russians.

“In 2008, the state of Columbia successfully eliminated 230 out of 280 hectares of coca crops through the method of defoliation by spraying herbicides from the air,” Ivanov told his audience in Washington last month in an effort to garner support for the initiative. “Yet opponents of the chemical methods argue that herbicide spraying would be perceived negatively by the Afghan peasants, which could strengthen resistance movements.”

Ivanov then quoted the political analyst and author, David Kilcullen, the author of the book, "The Accidental Guerrilla," a copy of which he hoisted into the air at his Moscow media conference.

“If we are already bombing Taliban positions,” he quotes Kilcullen as saying, “why won’t we spray their fields with a harmless herbicide and cut off their money?”

DEA Attaché Timothy Jones said that the coalition forces, not just the U.S. forces, were against the use of employing herbicides against the drug traffickers over fears it might spark some sort of a backlash from the local population.

“First, I don’t think you can say that it’s only the United States that is making all of the decision there (in Afghanistan),” Jones said. “We have a Coalition. And it’s the Coalition that has to make the determination as to what is proper. So for us to say that the United States supports something and we’re just going to do it no matter what – that’s not the way this is set up.”

“On the surface, I would say yes, it is a very quick way of eradicating the opium,” Jones said, before pointing out the disadvantages of spraying defoliates over the fields. “But there’s another thing you must take into consideration. A lot of these people do not understand the concept of aerial spraying. And even though we can use chemicals that attack a specific type of plant, the people on the ground may think that you are attacking everything, destroying their livelihood.”

Jones, arguing that an “educational process would need to take place before we just started spraying chemicals,” said the chemicals from aerial spraying could get into the soil and water supply, possibly harming children and animals.

Although this is one point of contention between the United States and Russia, it seems that in the future a compromise may be found and active defoliation of the poppy fields may begin in earnest. On the face of it, there really seems to be no other way to tackle the problem. After all, 7,700 tons of opium was produced in Afghanistan last year, officials say, which accounts for 93 percent of total global opium production. Needless to say, opium is Afghanistan's cash crop.

Will the United States eventually give in to Russian demands for an active defoliation program, perhaps with the direct assistance of Russian planes and pilots (after all, the job would certainly contain extreme risks, especially when we consider that around 3 million Afghan people are dependent directly or indirectly on opium production)?

Stranger things have happened. Who would have guessed, for example, that Russia would agree to give American military planes clearance to fly over Russian airspace to a distant theater of war? But that is exactly what is happening today, and it seems that Russia will expect some sort of concessions for these flights.

Ivanov hinted as much in Washington.

“Russia is the main victim of Afghan heroin,” he reminded his audience. “However, it is helping the United States and NATO by making concessions. We allowed the transit of not only lethal, but also military Afghanistan-bound cargoes across our territory. This must be viewed as considerable support to the Coalition’s activities in Afghanistan.”

In the meantime, America is becoming increasingly bogged down in a land rightfully nicknamed “the graveyard of empires,” while parts of Russia are starting to resemble “graveyards of drug addicts.”

Given this grim political landscape that presents a massive threat to both former Cold War powers, some form of mutually advantageous cooperation should be achievable. After all, both countries share more or less the same nightmares over Afghanistan.

Robert Bridge, RT

Watch also: How the US goodwill, blood and treasure have been squandered in Afghanistan

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