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Is Afghanistan Becoming Russia’s Mexico?

opium_poppy052410.jpgIt is an imperfect analogy in many respects, such as population, immigration, development, and Islamic extremism just to name a few, but the growing problem the Russian Federation is facing from the ongoing war in Afghanistan and the massive growth in narcotics exports has some parallels to Mexico’s war on drugs.

Growing consumption of heroin and opium by Russian citizens is posing a public health crisis in many regions blighted by unemployment and neglect, and the issue has been seized upon as a diplomatic urgency by the very influential new drug czar, Viktor Ivanov, an arch-silovik and veteran of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.  Some time ago we published some posts speculating that the narco trade from Afghanistan would become the new “missile shield” in terms of Russia’s rhetoric toward NATO – and after accusing the defense alliance of colluding in “narco-terrorism” against Russia, it will be hard to back down from such tough words.

However if the goal of Ivanov’s offices is to stem the flow of drugs into Russia (and we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of multiple objectives here), he might need to take a look at all the mistakes experienced by the United States in its dealings with Mexico, and consider alternative approaches which involve working with, not against, NATO and local Afghan authorities.


The most recent statements by Ivanov indicate that there is significant anger and frustration in Moscow over NATO’s conduct in Afghanistan, though it seems unclear whether this would improve if the mission were to shut down and withdraw.  On Sunday Ivanov sharply rebuked the U.S. government for failing to eradicate poppy crops, which Washington believes would cause more Afghans to join the insurgency.  At a press conference, the Russians announced that they had passed information on nine different Afghan and Central Asian drug lords to their U.S. counterparts, as well as 25 other individuals involved and the locations of 175 drug labs operating in Afghanistan.  “Where is the logic here?,” Ivanov said. “To destroy a plant ismuch cheaper than … catching it later on the streets of Berlin, Rome,London, Moscow and so on.”

Reporting on the story in the Christian Science Monitor, Fred Weir points out that “Moscow is increasingly dubious about NATO’s ability to impose order inAfghanistan, and may be seeking ways to expand its influence in CentralAsia against the day the United States decides to leave. Some analystssuggest that the Kremlin’s recent backing of a coup in Kyrgyzstan could be a sign of moreassertive behavior to come.

Russia has some very legitimate grounds to cite in terms of Afghanistan’s narco explosion over the past nine years – a problem for which they are shouldering most of the burden.  The government estimates that every year 80,000 Russian citizens experiment with drugs for the first time, while 30,000 die of drug abuse.  Heroin exports from Afghanistan, which make up 90% of supply in Russia, have increased by 13% each of the last two years.  Last year Ivanov said that heroin seizures were up by 70%, while authorities finally admitted that Russia is likely the world’s biggest consumer of the drug.  No word on whether or not the fungus which is destroying the poppy crop naturally will have an impact on these numbers.

Such figures do not make it unreasonable for Russian officials to question the success and objectives of the anti-terrorism and counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan (in fact, it sometimes appears to be a pretext to reject the NATO presence entirely), however pursuing an independent policy and an all-out war on drugs in the region is fraught with policy challenges as well.

Enter Mexico.  The worsening situation of drug violence and increased activity near the U.S. border and beyond has seized the headlines in recent months, with high-profile and audacious murders, acts of terrorism, and a disproportionate show of power by the cartels.  President Felipe Calderon appears to be a sincere and trusted ally committed to battling the drug problem, however others blame his tactics of armed confrontation with drug gangs as exacerbating the violence and provoking a situation which approaches civil war.

In what is regarded as one of the most stinging critiques of Calderon’s narco strategy, the former Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda penned an article in Foreign Policy last January which may carry some lessons for Ivanov and co. with regard to the success of eradication:  “U.S. drug consumption has not diminished over the past decade, and there is no reason to think it will in the future. (…) American society will never reduce its overall demand for drugs, because it simply does not wish to; and it does not because, quite rightly, it does not believe that the cost of doing so is worth bearing. (…) If anything, the United States seems to be moving in the opposite direction; that is, toward decriminalization of marijuana, greater tolerance for safer forms of heroin, an effort to wean people off methamphetamines, and in general, the adoption of a far more relaxedattitude toward drugs.

Furthermore, in a country with an economy as decimated as that of Afghanistan, eradication efforts are likely to ultimately fail, as opium farmers continue to anticipate these moves and continue moving crops – likely assisted by the corrupt elements within the local security apparatus.  Many experts have made the case that rural economic development must go hand-in-hand in order to make lasting gains in an anti-narcotics strategy.

Russia may be using a harsh tone in order to get itself a seat at the table in Afghanistan, in search of more input and participation in the NATO counter-insurgency effort to make sure that drug exports are targeted. It certainly appears that the alliance has done very little to address Russia’s legitimate concerns here, and they will need to come up with a better explanation other than “we’re afraid that without poppies they’ll pick up guns.”  Other times it seems as though the hawkish elements are taking over narcotics policy in Russia, and the goal is to get NATO out of Central Asia by any means necessary … even if that may be like shooting themselves in the foot.

Nevertheless, the growing problem of Afghanistan’s drug exports to Russia underscores the shared interests between Washington and Moscow in a successful outcome in country.  It has long been argued that Russia is the one country whose national security interests are most directly affected by events in Afghanistan, or taken to an extreme, there is the argument that NATO has been indirectly providing a national security service to Russia.  Yet there have been repeated instances of interference and obstacles from Moscow (Kyrgyzstan), as they are not so eager to have NATO hanging out in Central Asia for several decades.

The tension between these two visions – maximum distance from NATO and a stable, non-drug-exporting Afghanistan – has created significant policy incoherence.  In several opinion articles, Mikhail Gorbachev has been a leading voice of reason:  “Russia is Afghanistan’s neighbor, and its interests must be taken intoaccount. The logic seems self-evident, but sometimes a reminder is inorder.” 

Hopefully Gorbachev realizes that both parties need reminding, as these calls for cooperation don’t square well with Ivanov’s barking and angry recriminations.  Hopefully the United States and Russia can come to amicable enough terms to avoid the kind of bloodshed and chaos currently being experienced in Mexico – as the death toll south of the border far exceeds combat fatalities in the active war zone.