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18 Aug, 2010 09:16

Sochi summit seeks to break curse of Afghan heroin

President Dmitry Medvedev is hosting a summit on terrorism and drug trafficking in Russia's city of Sochi with the leaders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and analysts say a regional approach is the key to winning the global war on drugs.

It is the second four-nation meeting of its kind. The first one was held in Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe last year. Back then leaders focused on cross border projects, security issues and economic recovery of the region.

This year the event’s agenda remains the same. Russia is reluctant to get involved in military action in Afghanistan, but continues to seek a role in settling the conflict.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has met with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai. Russia has been showing its commitment to financially assist the region and Afghanistan in particular. Just several months ago, Russia wrote off the last portion of Afghan debt – $12 billion overall.

In connection with this, Russia’s president announced today at the summit that “Russia firmly supports all efforts on the part of Afghanistan to restore peace in the country. We also support the Afghan government’s fight against terror and are ready to provide any help needed to tackle the problem,” Medvedev said.

For Russia, Central Asia is a traditional sphere of interest and it has always been sensitive to the instability of the region caused by the Afghan problem.

Drug trafficking and Islamic radicalism spreading from Afghanistan are the main security threats. In addition, the drug trade is the main source of finance for Afghan militants.

Russia, which became the world’s largest consumer of heroin after the US-military alliance occupied Afghanistan, is striving to break up the drug channeling.

An estimated 30,000 people die in Russia annually due to drug abuse, a third of the total world drug death toll.

Opium and heroin are pouring into Russia and further into Europe by way of the northern route over the Afghan-Tajik border. Also, Tajiks need no visas to visit Russia, which eases the risk for drug traffickers.

Tightening security on the border is one of the central issues of the four-sided talks.

President Medvedev is also pushing energy and transportation projects to facilitate economic recovery in the region.

Last year Russia finished construction of a major hydroelectric power plant in Tajikistan which produces 12% of all the country’s energy needs.

Several other ambitious projects with multi-million investments are being discussed at the talks.

Sealing off Afghan’s heroin flow

Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan stretches 1,200 kilometres, which is approximately 750 miles.

Tajik border guards are being trained by the Russian Federal Security Service under a deal signed back in 2004.

The use of different weapons, physical education, combat tactics, and survival techniques are all part of the course.

Turning a boy into a soldier is a hard task in itself, but getting him ready to guard one of the trickiest borders in Central Asia is even more difficult.

Training sessions are held every day regardless of the time of year. Despite extreme summer heat the troops train in full combat harness to get accustomed to it since it is what they will have to wear on the job. Every six months trained soldiers are sent to guard the border while new conscripts arrive, continuing the cycle.

“Terrorism, drug and arms smuggling, and human trafficking have put this region in the global spotlight. That is why there are currently over 20 international organizations, including the UN and the OSCE working in Tajikistan alone,” informs representative of Russian Federal Security Service in Dushanbe Anatoly Mikheyev.

Afghanistan produces over 90% of all opium in the world. According to the UN, the death toll from opiates in NATO countries is five times more than all the NATO soldiers who died in Afghanistan since 2001.

In Russia, the government says Afghan heroin kills more people in just one year than the whole ten-year-long Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan did. The USSR’s decade in the country resulted in the loss of approximately 15,000 troops.

According to Rashid Abdullo, an independent political analyst and the author of dozens of articles about Tajikistan, the flow of drugs is unlikely to stop no matter how strong the border is.

“This problem may have various technical solutions. But it will never be fully solved while there is fighting in Afghanistan and global demand for opiates,” said Abdullo.

Afghan opium production has grown by a third since the US-led invasion in 2001.

It is thought the billion dollar black market brings more money than all foreign investments put together. That is why it is unlikely that even the most advanced border-control system possible would solve the problem completely; for the smugglers, business is simply too good.

Aleksandr Selivanov from the Moscow State University for the Humanities believes that there is no way to resolve the situation in Afghanistan without improving the security situation.

“It’s not possible to do so because there is currently no stability, and if there is no stability, there is no control,” Selivanov told RT. “A way out could be just building the ring of security and stability with the help of all stake holders in the region, in Central Asia. Mainly, it’s Russia, it’s Afghanistan, it’s Pakistan, and of course it should be, in a way, Iran, [as well as] Tajikistan.”

“I don’t think [it is possible to solve the problem by just destroying the poppy fields], because opium makes 52% of the Afghan GDP, and in the heroin market its record is 92% of the world market, so the whole economy is based on the drug market,” Selivanov noted.

Afghanistan needs political reforms to get back on track, said Igor Khokhlov from the Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

“We have to understand that Afghanistan is not a military problem. It is a political and nation-building problem,” he said. “If the situation were military, the problem would have been solved long ago by Americans and their allies themselves.”

“President Hamid Karzai and his brother, who is considered to be the top drug lord of Afghanistan, they have their own agenda and their agenda is very different from the one of America, Russia and European countries,” Khokhlov added. “The basic problem of Afghanistan is severe corruption and the lack of reputation and respect of the Kabul government among the people.”

“In this situation Russia has to deliver this clear message to Afghanistan that political reform is needed to solve the situation and no foreign aid, no military assistance would help to turn the country back on track again and to restore peace in Afghanistan.”

Anatol Lieven, a professor at the Department of War Studies at King’s College London, is certain that America’s days in Afghanistan are numbered.

“The most interesting aspect of it is the development for regional diplomacy which does not depend on the United States,” Lieven told RT. “And in particular, this very new aspect of development of new links between Russia and Pakistan, which historically has been almost completely absent. Because I think it is time that we began to look forward to a day when the United States will not in fact be present on the ground in Afghanistan and countries in the region will have to make their own arrangements to deal with whatever comes after the American presence.”

The drug production problem in Afghanistan does not have a military solution, believes Brian Becker, the head of the anti-war coalition ANSWER.

“The war on drugs is not winnable because unless the economic situation changes radically for the people of Afghanistan, in other worlds where there can be a thriving economic development separate and apart from drugs, people, farmers especially will rely on a drug trade because they must feed their family,” he said.

Becker pointed out that simply burning down poppy fields is also not a solution to the problem and rather it will inflame the insurgency.

“The United States government is well aware that if they were to burn the poppy fields these would leave a large number of Afghan farmers completely penniless and so the US, in order to not have the insurgency be even more in flame, tries to do certain things that would not deprive the country completely of its economic resources,” he said. “In other words, they are making a tactical alliance with poppy growers in order so that those poppy growers do not become additional allies to the Taliban and other armed insurgent groups. That is the calculation by the military.”

However, according to former White House drugs policy spokesman Robert Weiner, such a strategy by the US military is a major mistake.

"The US military regrettably has determined that a policy should be had of not interdicting, not eradicating the drugs in Afghanistan because it would destabilize Afghanistan. What a mistake of a policy!” he said. “It is the drugs that fund Al Qaeda, which is the reason that the United States went into Afghanistan in the first place. Drugs are as much as 70 percent of Al Qaeda and Taliban’s funding, according to senior Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.”

”What are we doing? Making happy farmers in Afghanistan? Or is our job to secure Afghanistan, stop the drug trafficking, create alternative economies and then stop the killing that goes around the world both by the terrorists and by the drugs themselves?” Weiner asked.

James Denselow, a writer on Middle East geopolitics and security, agrees that fighting the drug trade in Afghanistan is vital for America’s success in the region.

“I find it almost incredible to think that the Americans say that countering narcotics in Afghanistan is not part of its mission,” he said. “If we look at the size of the amount of money that drugs bring into this country – over a billion dollars – and the Taliban are estimated to accrue some $300 million of that a year, that makes up some 40 to 60 percent of their annual income, according to NATO figures.”

“If they are fighting the Taliban and the Taliban are largely reliant upon money from the drug trade, it would seem to be a total no-brainer to suggest the Americans try to cut off this funding,” Denselow added.