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Russia opposes new U.S. counternarcotics initiative in Central Asia

18:40 | 08.03.2012 | Analytic


8 March 2012. PenzaNews. Representatives of the Russian delegation at the Third Ministerial Conference of the Paris Pact held in Vienna on 16 February 2012 expressed their disagreement with the new U.S. counterdrug program in Central Asia called the Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative (CACI). Russia’s main concerns are caused by the very broad powers of American special units in countering drug trafficking in the Central Asian countries.

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As was already mentioned in an article published by news agency PenzaNews on 11 January 2012, Georgy Borodin, an expert of the Institute of Foreign Policy Research and Initiatives, believes that the U.S. under the guise of the “fight against drugs” is trying to expand its influence on the law enforcement agencies of the Central Asian countries. Its efforts in this area include the opening of the Central Asian Regional Information and Coordination Centre (CARICC) on 9 December 2009 which, according to Georgy Borodin, “is only one of the stages of penetration into law enforcement structures of Central Asia.”

“Today members of CARICC include 7 states: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Russia. The stated purpose of CARICC is to promote cooperation among law enforcement agencies of the member states in the fight against drugs and drug-related crime and to serve as the region's main centre for information exchange and analysis and for the coordination of joint operations. The center was created with the financial support from NATO member states: USA, UK, Italy, Canada, Turkey, France, Czech Republic as well as Finland and Luxembourg. These states and also Afghanistan and Pakistan have observer status with CARICC while China and Iran do not. Observer states have full access to the information collected and analyzed by the Center,” the expert explained.

However, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) William Brownfield emphasized that CACI investigative units will be established with the approval of Central Asian governments and will consist of 20-25 personnel from host government drug control agencies. In his words, each country will determine the pace, development and composition of those units, which will concentrate on disrupting and dismantling the networks that produce and transport narcotics.

Nevertheless, Russian counterparts consider the plan outlined in the CACI to be ineffective as it envisions combating drug trafficking from Afghanistan in the territory of transit states rather than in Afghanistan itself where, according to the UN estimates, only 3 percent of drug crops are eradicated.

“The most urgent task today is to destroy drug crops and drug infrastructure. This task should become a priority for practical steps of the International Security Assistance Forces. No doubt, more efforts should be made to efficiently combat the complicated issue which does exist along the entire drug trafficking route from Afghanistan. However, without serious measures to destroy drug crops as it has been done, for example, in Columbia, we are going to fight symptoms rather than the disease itself,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at the conference in Vienna.

In the opinion of Kazakhstani political scientist Dosym Satpayev, the U.S. plan to combat drug trafficking within the states bordering Afghanistan is explained by the fact that the fight against drug production in Afghanistan has practically failed.

“As the Americans themselves admit, the problem with drug production in Afghanistan has only deteriorated since the overthrow of the Taliban regime. This is primarily due to the fact that the Americans and their coalition allies do not control the entire territory of Afghanistan, but only a part of it. The U.S. tries to maintain more or less friendly relations with the warlords who are not connected to the Taliban, often turning a blind eye to their involvement in drug production. The Americans play their own game here using double standards. While calling to step up the fight against drug trafficking through Central Asia and further through Russia to Europe, the Americans do very little to fight drugs inside Afghanistan. I think that this initiative raises very many questions,” he said.

Rasul Jumaly, a Kazakhstani political scientist, expert in Arab studies and career diplomat, editor-in-chief of the Exclusive magazine, also thinks that the Americans pay little attention to the increased heroin production and the expansion of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. However, in his opinion, the importance of Central Asia as a transit area should not be underestimated.

In addition, experts seriously question the very idea of creating a new structure in the countries where similar organizations are already functioning. At the conference in Vienna Russia again voiced its proposal for possible U.S.-Russian cooperation in combating drugs within the existing arrangements.

“It would be useful to finally develop cooperation on counternarcotics between the CSTO and NATO. We have been proposing this for many years but have yet to receive a clear answer from NATO. We need to understand whether we are equal partners who respect the interests of each other and take action to fight the common evil or whether NATO is ready to cooperate only in those areas which satisfy its own interests, for example, transit issues,” diplomat Sergey Lavrov stated to explain the Russian position.

According to Dosym Satpayev, jointly coordinated measures to combat drug trafficking would be more effective, although the reluctance of the countries to work together is understandable.

“Faced with the same problem as the Russians, the Americans do not want to share their geopolitical initiatives with anybody. In my opinion, they once again emphasize that their proposal directly concerns bilateral relations with the Central Asian countries. The Americans view Russia and now also China as serious competitors for geopolitical influence in Central Asia. Indeed, the Americans consider the CSTO as a structure that is supervised by Moscow and used as an instrument in its efforts to strengthen Russia’s military and political influence in the region. For the same reason, the Americans do not cooperate actively with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which they see as a geopolitical instrument, only in the hands of China,” the expert said.

It is true that the initiative proposed by the United States does not regard China as an ally in the fight against drug trafficking in Central Asia. However, according to Rasul Jumaly, this should not cause serious controversies primarily because “the special character of Chinese diplomacy is that China prefers to act mainly within the framework of bilateral agreements.” The expert believes that China will only benefit from this project if it proves to be really effective. However, this can hardly be expected if “the United States starts talking about expanding American military bases and strengthening its military presence in the region” which will result in serious opposition from China.

Commentators do not rule out the possibility that Washington will try to get the Central Asian countries to sign “separate” pacts for combating drug trafficking from Afghanistan despite its failure in Vienna when Russia managed to dissuade its CSTO allies from joining the new U.S. project.

As Dosym Satpayev notes, Russia in this case will be unable to exert any pressure on the Central Asian countries and make them take a decision beneficial to Russia.

“If Kazakhstan decides that it will benefit from this initiative, Kazakhstan can agree to such cooperation given the fact that the United States and Kazakhstan are partners. Uzbekistan traditionally had close cooperation with the U.S. before the events in Andijan, so it is only up to Islam Karimov to decide whether Uzbekistan will support this initiative. As for the other Central Asian countries, it is clear that they will consider the possible advantages of the proposed cooperation. It should be emphasized that this decision will not be made within the CSTO, but will be based on the relations between the U.S. and the Central Asian states and their views on the CACI,” the analyst stressed.

Meanwhile, there are reasons to doubt whether the U.S. has a genuine interest in fighting drugs in Central Asia. Thus, international experts Jonathan Caulkins, Jonathan Kulick and Mark Kleiman indicate in their article in the Foreign Policy magazine that Afghan opium exports are directed exclusively to the regions of Asia and Europe and do not affect American drug markets.

“The big money in U.S. drug markets is still in cocaine, all of which is produced in the Western Hemisphere. The United States consumes only about 5 percent of the world’s illegal opium, and most of that comes from Colombia and Mexico. Most Afghan opiates, meanwhile, never leave Asia — they are that continent’s health problem, and to a lesser extent Europe’s. Iran and Russia may have a stake in Afghan exports, but protecting those countries’ citizens from drug abuse is not obviously a major U.S. interest unless the Russian and Iranian governments are willing to offer something of value in exchange,” the experts wrote.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 50% of Afghan opiates are transported to Europe through Iran, 35% through Pakistan, and about 15% through Central Asia. Meanwhile, 75-80 tons of heroin are trafficked annually from Afghanistan to Russia via Central Asia where only around 5% is seized.

Most analysts point out that it is the wrong policy and inability of the United States to effectively assist the reconstruction and economic development of Afghanistan that have led to a drastic increase in drug trade.

Under the George W. Bush administration, the coalition policy included widespread forced poppy crop eradication. In June 2009, however, Barack Obama's administration announced that U.S. and other international forces would no longer conduct eradication operations, on which former U.S. envoy to the region Richard Holbrooke said the United States had “wasted hundreds of millions of dollars.”

“The sensible motivation for this reversal was recognition that eradication produced unintended consequences. Eradication of “narcotic crops” turned farmers against the U.S., often pushing them to join the Taliban, and had a minimal and temporary effect on the drug trade, at most pushing production to the next valley or district. So the Obama administration swore off direct support of eradication, though the governors of some Afghan provinces continue to pursue their own eradication programs,” international experts Jonathan Caulkins, Jonathan Kulick and Mark Kleiman explained.

A researcher at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies Jonathan Goodhand and a fellow in the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School David Mansfield believe that the Obama administration has shifted the emphasis to targeting so-called “drugs kingpins” and trafficking networks.

“In order to combat corruption and improve intelligence gathering on opium networks, the United States assembled a new intelligence cell at Bagram air base led by Drug Enforcement Administration operatives. Furthermore the U.S. assembled a “kill or capture” target list of 367 named individuals, including 50 so-called “nexus targets”, which combine links to drugs trafficking and the insurgency,” the experts stated.

David Mansfield thinks that an effective counterdrug policy must be built from the ground up, and the first step in the process is to understand farmers’ motivations.

“Eradication, the physical destruction of crop, can play a role, but improving the lives and livelihoods of rural Afghans is the end game. It’s not just about a crop, it’s about a broader process of development: improving governance, security, and economic growth,” he noted.

According to the analyst, the sudden loss of opium production had a multiplier effect throughout the Afghan economy, sharply reducing incomes both in the farm sector and in businesses unrelated to poppy. Access to land and credit diminished and, because poppy cultivation is very labor intensive, unemployment rose and wage rates fell.

“The poor suffered as a result. It is clear that the opium economy cannot be considered in isolation. Where a measure of economic growth, security, and good governance has been established, poppy reduction can be sustained,” Mansfield emphasized.

William Byrd, an economic advisor with the World Bank’s South Asia division, also believes that Afghanistan’s response to poppy cultivation is so interwoven with the country’s nation-building strategy that finding the right solution is essential to the success of that larger agenda.

Head of the UNODC Office in Afghanistan Jean-Luc Lemahieu believes that the developing politics and economics of opium production in Afghanistan resemble the satiation in Colombia and Mexico in the early years, when rebel groups started out as an ideological, antigovernment movement, which was later taken over by financial interests. He brings the example of “collusion” among Helmand’s power brokers and the Taliban, who, for a price, protect the farmers from poppy eradication by government security officials.

“From the farmers on, there’s collusion. That has added to the sense that the government has little to offer — a feeling compounded by the lack of government services like schools or clinics in poppy-growing areas,” Jean-Luc Lemahieu stated.

In general, experts agree that the solution to the problem of growing production and distribution of Afghan opiates requires more effective and comprehensive measures, first and foremost, inside the country. For example, the United States could fund drug treatment in Afghanistan, a country with a horrendous heroin problem, to reduce demand and earn support from the Afghan public. Focusing alternative-development efforts on more stable parts of the country, as a reward for taking steps toward normalcy, could further erode the threat of the Taliban gaining influence there while removing Afghan officials corrupted by the drug trade and punishing them would bolster confidence in the government.

Meanwhile, the effectiveness of the U.S. counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan continues to raise doubts. UNODC issued a report on 12 January 2012 noting that around 90% of the world’s opium comes from Afghanistan with the area of land used for opium poppy cultivation in 2011 totaling 131,000 hectares, 7% higher than in 2010. The amount of opium produced in Afghanistan increased by 61% compared with 2010. According to the UNODC survey, the farm-gate income generated by opium probably exceeded $1.4 billion, equivalent to 9% of the GDP of Afghanistan in 2011. Export earnings from Afghan opiates in 2011 may be worth $2.4 billion or about 15% of the country’s GDP with a dramatic increase of 133% in the farm-gate value of opium compared with 2010.

CACI is aimed at setting up DEA-mentored investigative units in all five Central Asian countries — Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan — and hooking them up with similar units in Afghanistan and Russia.

On 22 February 2012 the U.S. Department of State issued a fact sheet on CACI identifying the main goals of the project which include, inter alia, “promotion of regional cooperation for successful joint and cross-border operations” and “development of counter-narcotics task forces to enable meaningful law enforcement cooperation of Afghanistan and border countries.”

The U.S. Department of State has allocated $4.2 million to support counternarcotics agencies in the Central Asian countries and plans to provide additional U.S. government resources to support CACI as it further develops. These funds are in addition to approximately $14 million which INL provides on a bilateral basis for law enforcement and rule of law programs in Central Asia.

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