As Russian President Dmitry Medvedev prepares to make an appearance in Lisbon during the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit on November 19-20, Russian officials are pushing for the Atlantic Alliance to demonstrate a greater spirit of cooperation with Moscow in combating drug production in Afghanistan.
In Lisbon, Medvedev is widely expected to press Western leaders for closer NATO cooperation with a Moscow-led security group, the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). The CSTO is a central element in Moscow’s efforts to contain narcotics production and trafficking in Afghanistan, as highlighted by a program called “Operation Channel.”
In an interview with EurasiaNet.org, the head of Russia’s drug-control agency, Victor Ivanov, described Operation Channel as a “preventive operation that allows a number of agencies on the territory of the operation to update their activities by enhancing their exchange of information.”
The initiative “involves the customs and border agencies and the police of a number of countries,” including observers from the United States and other NATO members, Ivanov added. Participating nations have become engaged in a “more intensive exchange of data” that is helping “to track drug trafficking channels and rapidly apply our capabilities to eliminate them.”
The October 28 counter-narcotics operation, in which Russian forces joined US and Afghan troops, offered tangible evidence of expanding US-Russian cooperation. And on November 15, Ivanov said the United States and Russia have plans to conduct more joint operations in Afghanistan in the future, according to the official RIA Novosti news agency.
Despite this, Russian officials have for years expressed frustration that NATO, which has led the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) since 2003, appears unenthusiastic about cooperating with Moscow on the Afghan narcotics issue. Afghanistan is the chief source of narcotics for Russia’s estimated 2.5 million heroin addicts.
A central element of Russia’s over-arching anti-drug strategy in Afghanistan, dubbed Rainbow 2, is a large-scale poppy eradication program, which would have to be carried out by the Afghan government. In addition, the Rainbow 2 plan wants the United Nations to declare Afghan drug production to be a threat to international peace and security, and place large landlords who cultivate poppy on the UN sanctions list. Such punitive measures would be supported by generously funded job-creation and infrastructure development programs, as well as expanded training for Afghan counter-narcotics officers.
In early November, Ivanov promoted the Rainbow 2 concept at a meeting of the Council of Europe’s Pompidou Counter-Narcotics Group, which includes senior drug control officials from 35 countries. Central Asian officials provided strong public support for Rainbow 2.
But the approach continues to meet resistance from NATO commanders, who fear that a forceful poppy eradication effort, including aerial spraying, would merely help swell the Taliban’s ranks by depriving tens of thousands of small poppy farmers of their main source of income. In addition, commanders fear that the Taliban would score propaganda points by accusing NATO of poisoning Afghanistan’s crops, water, livestock and its people through the use of herbicides.
NATO commanders have likewise been leery of diverting scarce tactical resources to the destruction of narcotics laboratories. Instead, they have focused their anti-drug efforts on interdicting the movement of narcotics and drug money, activities normally conducted by large dealers rather than the small farmers that NATO hopes to win over to its side.
Given the continuing NATO misgivings, Ivanov has worked hard in recent months to cultivate the support of Central Asian members of the CSTO. “We work closely and know each other well.” Ivanov said about his Central Asian colleagues. “We deal not only with the leaders of agencies, but also with the operational staff at the working level.”
Ivanov cast Central Asian states as transit countries for narcotics, not an area where drug production occurs. “You know, there is practically no opium production in Central Asia. There may be laboratories there, but I do not think that there are many.” Ivanov said. ”In Afghanistan, today so much heroin is produced that it is unprofitable to manufacture it on the territory of Central Asia.” He explained that dealers can more profitably make narcotics in Afghanistan and then transport them to Central Asian dealers.
Ivanov also stressed the importance of expanding counter-narcotics cooperation in the Caspian Basin, including Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan. “The Caspian Sea is used to transport [Afghan] drugs to Azerbaijan, Russia and from Iran in various directions” Ivanov said. He added that Russian experts “believe that approximately 20 percent of Afghan narcotics pass through the territory of the countries neighboring the Caspian Basin.”
Seeking greater influence in regional affairs, the CSTO has sought to establish cooperation programs with NATO. The Atlantic Alliance has resisted dealing with the CSTO and has instead focused on developing bilateral relationships with Russia and other members of the organization.
Russia now would like the CSTO to be, in effect, treated as NATO’s equal. To increase the pressure on NATO to alter its stance on the CSTO, Russian diplomats, including UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, have increased their criticism of the ineffectiveness of the Atlantic Alliance’s counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.