Ties between Afghanistan and its Central Asian neighbors to the north, in spite of years of encouragement by Western officials, remain at a very low level, with the conspicuous exception being the cross-border drug trade. That's the conclusion of a comprehensive new report, Between Cooperation And Insulation: Afghanistan's Relations with the Central Asian Republics.
"The trans-border narcotics trade between Afghanistan and Central Asia – supported, managed and/or protected by government officials and security forces on both sides of the border – is the one enduring economic connection that has demonstrated resilience since the fall of the Taleban, as well as promise for the future. It is the only true cross-border economic activity that is truly supported by all relevant state and non-state actors," write the report's authors, Christian Bleuer and Said Reza Kazemi.
And so, they argue, Western policies aimed at stemming the drug trade suffer from the fatal flaw that their partners in this effort, the Central Asian governments, benefit from the trafficking:=
"[S]ecurity risks that link Afghanistan to the former Soviet republics of Central Asia are often highly exaggerated, especially so the alleged link between narcotics trafficking and radical Islamist groups. In reality, throughout Central Asia the main players in narcotics trafficking are government employees, security officers and mafia figures," the report says. "Throughout Central Asia the narcotics trade has deeply penetrated the economic, social, political and security structures and created mutually beneficial relations. Powerful government and security figures use state resources and structures to actively assist and/or control this trade in cooperation with powerful mafia leaders."
This means that the drug control agencies of the states -- the agencies that foreign governments train and equip -- are essentially the muscle for the government-backed drug trade, eliminating its rivals:
In Central Asia, state-protected drug traffickers or employees of the state itself move most of the narcotics, while state security structures focus on their competition – the smaller independent smugglers. And often the seized drugs are merely resold rather than destroyed. However, occasionally there is some competition or score-settling within the state-protected drug trade and a previously protected smuggler may be arrested. At other times, drug-related charges are brought against political figures or former commanders who are becoming too powerful, troublesome or independent of central authority. This does not apply, however, to those near the top. Thanks to the close relationship, no major drug trafficker has been arrested in Central Asia since 1991 and no large cartels have been dismantled.
While this is true to all of the Afghanistan-neighboring Central Asian states to some degree, it is most pronounced in Tajikistan:
Some point to Tajikistan’s Drug Control Agency (DCA) as a success. Rustam Nazarov, considered to be a competent and honest leader, runs it. However, there are limits to what the DCA can do. It is an isolated institution with limited ability to rein in other security agencies or to arrest major traffickers.Any attempt to arrest powerful narcotics traffickers would mean the end of Nazarov’s career – or worse. At times mid-level traffickers are arrested, including officers in the security forces. But those traffickers and officers with good connections are immune. Several DCA officers, including the head of the operations directorate, learned this in 2012 when they arrested men transporting a car full of heroin. These particular heroin traffickers were supported by powerful Tajik KBG officers who, when the DCA officers would not back down, simply retaliated by arresting the DCA officers for narcotics trafficking, the end result of which was prison sentences of nearly 20 years.
There is a silver lining of sorts to this cloud, in that the drug trade has brought a certain stability to Central Asia, Bleuer and Kazemi argue:
Since 2001, throughout Central Asia, the increased drug trade has not brought with it a wave of drug gang-related crime and instability as predicted by many, including the United Nations. Instead Central Asian governments have used the drug trade to consolidate control over their states and societies. The profits in the drug trade and the appointments to lucrative (i.e., highly corrupt) positions in the security services have been used to buy and/or ensure loyalty to the leadership....
Now, if the government of Tajikistan actually attempted to arrest high-level traffickers and their backers in government structures, the backlash could result in instability and violent conflict. The possibility of a destabilised Tajikistan is concerning to many players in Central Asia. As stated by narcotics trafficking researcher Hillary Evans, “my ultimate conclusion: without the profits of the drug trade, Tajikistan would be a failed state, which is not in anyone’s interest.” Foreign donors and supporters of the Tajik government understand this best of all, especially regarding the need for a friendly and stable government on Afghanistan’s northern border. As an anonymous Western government official bluntly stated, anti-narcotics initiatives in Tajikistan are “a joke. The West has accepted that narcotics are the price for relative security on Afghanistan’s northern border.”
The report covers many other aspects of Afghanistan-Central Asian relations and it's worth reading in full.