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8 Oct, 2010 03:04

New front in Afghanistan needed: on opium – Russian anti-drug boss

Even if drug production stops, Afghanistan will be able to supply the international market with heroin for another 20-30 years from existing stocks, warns head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service Viktor Ivanov.

RT: Afghanistan is the world’s No. 1 drug producer. How much of the drugs produced in Afghanistan goes to Russia?

Viktor Ivanov: Afghanistan produced about 7,000 tonnes of opium last year, which is equivalent to 700 tonnes of heroin. We believe that about 36 tonnes of this goes to Russia. This is a lot. It’s about 5 billion doses. And it’s about 35 per cent of all drugs exported from Afghanistan – because, in fact, Afghanistan exports less than half the drugs it produces, as drug addicts throughout the world are unable to consume everything that Afghanistan produces. So Afghanistan has a huge amount of drugs in storage. Russia and other countries estimate it at about 13,000-15,000 tonnes of opium. So even if drug production stops in Afghanistan, the country will still be able to supply the international market with heroin for another 20 or even 30 years.

RT: What are the common routes by which drugs get from Afghanistan to Russia?

VI: There is the northern route, which is sometimes called the “Northern Silk Route,” after the 17th Century trade route. The reason the Silk Route is popular is because, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, new nations emerged, and while their borders exist on paper, in reality they are not guarded properly. So essentially, there are no effective borders between Afghanistan and Russia. With such porous borders, it is very easy for traffickers to transport drugs. The bulk of the drugs flow through Tajikistan and Kazakhstan and on to Russia. Another part goes through Iran, across the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus Ridge and ends up in the North Caucasus or deeper into Russia’s territory. By the way, this provides a source of financing for terrorists and extremists in the Russian Caucasus.

RT: Ironically, the United States claims it cannot destroy poppy fields because this business is the only source of livelihood for more than a half of the Afghan population. What can be done in such a situation?

VI: When the US says you can’t deprive farmers of their livelihood, it actually sends a message to the Afghan leadership as well, saying they shouldn’t do it because, first, this will destroy people’s livelihoods and, second, you push farmers into the hands of the Taliban. I think this is merely an excuse.

Furthermore, since US special representative for Central Asia Richard Holbrooke first suggested this idea that instead of eradicating drug crops the US should target drug labs and traffickers, which was almost a year ago, the number of labs producing drugs for Russia tripled. A year ago, we knew about 170 labs in Afghanistan; today, we know of more than 400 labs producing drugs for Russia.

With more than 70 per cent of coca crops eradicated in Colombia and only 3 per cent in Afghanistan, don’t you think this is a case of a double standard? In other words, it’s not that NATO can’t do it; they do it in one country but for some reason they don’t do the same thing in Afghanistan.

When I visited the NATO headquarters in Brussels to address the Russia-NATO Council, I pointed out that more than 2,300 sq. km of coca crops are destroyed in Colombia annually. Yet only 20 sq. km of drug crops were destroyed in Afghanistan last year. Of course, there should be no double standard in the matter of eradication.

Furthermore, the UN General Assembly has adopted a number of resolutions on the issue. For example, there is the Political Declaration on Drug Control that the UN General Assembly adopted in 1998. In September 2009, the UN General Assembly reaffirmed that declaration and said crop eradication was of strategic importance. By the way, all countries, including NATO countries, signed that resolution. So I can’t understand why NATO is not applying the same standard that is applied in Latin America.

RT: It is also ironic that when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan, the drug trade, drug trafficking and even poppy cultivation were limited, but when the United States and NATO forces invaded Afghanistan, both production and trafficking skyrocketed. How do you explain this? And how can we even believe NATO when it says it is fighting the drug trade?

VI: You’re right. I had a meeting with my Pakistani colleagues here in Islamabad, and they, too, were amazed at this phenomenon. There is only one way to explain this. When the Taliban sought official recognition for its Kabul regime, they took unprecedented measures to eradicate opium poppy crops. They consistently took serious steps in 1998, 1999 and 2000, when they introduced capital punishment for poppy cultivation. As a result, they succeeded in eradicating drug crops on 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s territory, i.e., in all the provinces they controlled. The only place they couldn’t do it was northern Afghanistan, which was controlled by the so-called Northern Alliance.

But then Operation Enduring Freedom started, and the situation changed drastically. Only a competent government that has the support of the people can really control the country and take serious steps to destroy drug production.

RT: So can we really say that military intervention helps resolve the problem of drug production if practically all opium poppy fields in Afghanistan are located in combat zones and places where foreign units are deployed?

VI: The nine years of the military operation in Afghanistan have demonstrated that the more fighting there is in Afghanistan, the smaller the chances of destroying drug production are. Growing alternative crops is a risky proposition. Risks are immense. You can lose your crop at any stage—at the stage of growing, storing, marketing, etc. Opium, on the other hand, doesn’t require any effort. Poppies grow all by themselevs, and buyers come straight to the field and purchase the crop. So it is obvious that you can’t destroy drug production this way.

RT: Then what would you recommend as an effective way to stop opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan?

VI: Actually, we have already made some steps. The Russian Federation has developed a plan which is called Rainbow 2, because it consists of seven points. We presented this plan to the European Commission, the European Parliament, NATO, our partners in the US, in Afghanistan and here in Pakistan. This plans calls for a comprehensive approach.

First of all, this huge problem should be officially recognized as a threat to international peace and security. In other words, this is a separate problem that kills more than 100,000 people each year. Hundreds of millions of people suffer from this problem, which everybody has been talking about for almost a decade.

Second, as I just said, we need opium poppy eradication. And the International Security Assistance Force, which is in Afghanistan today under the UN mandate and therefore has assumed responsibility for the future of Afghanistan, should play a very active role in crop eradication.

Then, of course, Afghanistan needs economic aid. We need to rebuild its infrastructure. By the way, the legal Afghan economy today operates mostly thanks to 142 industrial facilities that the Soviet Union built there earlier. As far as I know, no new facilities have been built there since that time.

Also, we need to make international co-operation more effective. I’d like to emphasize particularly the role of regional co-operation. For example, there is a four-party format that the presidents of four nations – Russia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Tajikistan – have established. Also, I think that the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation should step up its efforts, because most of the drugs produced in Afghanistan go to the SCO countries and the people of the SCO countries suffer the most from drug production in Afghanistan.

RT: Considering that Pakistan is under strong US influence, do you think this influence may undermine the efforts to stop drug production?

VI: Pakistan is a sovereign state, and a rather strong one at that. There are 170 million people living here. Pakistan is a nuclear power. So I think there is nothing wrong with the fact that Pakistan co-operates with the US. We, too, view the United States as a partner, and we work with America as partners. It’s just the question of finding the most effective approach. We don’t have time for mistakes, and we have no right to make a mistake.