The United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual World Drug Report today. There are not a lot of surprises for Central Asia watchers, but the study is a good reminder of just how entrenched Afghan narcotics are in the region.
Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer of illicit opiates, accounting for 74 percent of global production in 2012. Those narcotics continue to pass relatively unhindered from Afghanistan through Central Asia for markets in Russia and Eastern Europe. On the way, they wreck havoc, as increasing numbers of Central Asians succumb to heroin addiction and HIV.
What’s being done? The striking chart to the right shows how, over the past ten years, interdiction in the region has actually fallen, especially in Tajikistan (shown in pink).
Over the same period, Afghan drug production generally increased (with the exception of 2012, when, due to adverse weather and disease, production fell by 36 percent). “A preliminary assessment of opium poppy cultivation trends in Afghanistan in 2013 revealed that such cultivation is likely to increase in the main opium growing regions, which would be the third consecutive increase since 2010,” the report says.
Why, then, the dramatic decline in seizures in Central Asia? The UNODC sort of sidesteps issue:
Alleged terror plots, thwarted by Georgian police, have became a fresh stick with which to bash political rivals in divided Georgia. But any link between the supposed plots and a recent YouTube video threatening retribution against Georgia for its participation in NATO's Afghanistan campaign remains unclear.
Police on June 13 recovered a significant stash of explosives and firearms from a Tbilisi apartment and arrested two men for allegedly plotting an act of terror, the interior ministry said. The two men, Mikail Kadiev and Rizvan Omarov, have Russian passports, and are presumed to hail from Russia's North Caucasus.
Wounded in Afghanistan by both weapons and words, Georgia appears to be busy with damage-control for its participation in the NATO-led mission there.
A June 6 truck-bomb attack that killed seven Georgian soldiers, the deadliest such incident to date for Georgian forces in Afghanistan, has sparked an unprecedented outpouring of domestic criticism of the Afghan campaign. With a presidential election just four months away, that criticism is something the Georgian government is eager to check.
In a TV talk-show interview on June 11, Defense Minister Irakli Alasania emphasized that troop security is first and foremost on the government's mind, and in its discussions with NATO. Among other security measures, he said, at Tbilisi's request, NATO's joint command will change the deployment areas for Georgian troops, currently stationed in the southern Helmand province.
The June 6 attack on the Shir Ghazay base happened just as Georgian forces were about to vacate the site, he added. He underlined that the risk to Georgian soldiers will decrease as the NATO pullout gets underway, and their mission shifts from combat to training.
Repeating previous warnings, he also advised Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili not to announce beforehand his plans to visit Afghanistan (as Saakashvili is wont to do), noting that the information puts soldiers' lives at risk.
Finally, he dismissed calls for bringing the troops home, saying that Georgia will see its Afghan mission through.
The latest and deadliest attack on Georgian troops in Afghanistan is putting to the test Georgia's patience with participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization campaign there. Many Georgians now say the price the country is paying for moving up on the defense alliance's membership waiting list is too high.
A truck bomb attack on June 6 in Afghanistan's Helmand province killed seven Georgian soldiers and wounded nine more. Less than a month ago, three Georgian servicemen were killed in a similar attack. The short interval between the attacks and the growing Georgian military death toll (a total of 30 servicemen) has led to the most vocal outpouring of frustration within Georgia about the campaign in Afghanistan, where the South Caucasus country is the largest non-NATO troop contributor.
The June 6 appearance of a questionable YouTube video, in which supposed Taliban fighters declare jihad on Georgia, has added to that debate.
A close inspection of the video, which was posted from Georgia, has raised suspicions of a domestic job or even of Russian intelligence, but the video's timing has contributed to the unease.
Kazakhstan’s president, Nursultan Nazarbayev, is bucking a trend by pooh-poohing scaremongering about the security threat that the Central Asian region will face after NATO troops finish withdrawing from Afghanistan next year.
Observers have voiced apprehension that the region will confront rising challenges from threats such as terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking that could destabilize the entire Central Asia region. But Nazarbayev does not subscribe to that view.
“I will say it directly: I do not accept the catastrophic theories that we read and hear from various sides,” he said on April 25, adding that he did not believe that there was some sort of “countdown timer” running, ticking off the days before coalition forces withdraw and disaster strikes.
Nazarbayev was speaking at the Eurasian Media Forum in Astana, a jamboree of assorted international media professionals and pundits organized by his daughter Dariga Nazarbayeva to discuss global and regional problems.
His remarks fly in the face of accepted wisdom about the mounting security threat that Central Asian states will struggle to cope with after 2014.
Nazarbayev’s own security chief, Nurtay Abykayev, is less insouciant than his boss, warning last month of “growing threats of instability.” “We are concerned by the ongoing activeness of terrorist and extremist organizations in the region, particularly in the run-up to the departure of NATO forces from Afghanistan.”
U.S. officials have long expressed the hope that its web of military transport lines through Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, would eventually spur non-military trade as well. But what they probably didn't have in mind was that it would help in the transit of Afghanistan's most profitable export: opium. Nevertheless, that's what's happening on the newly built, CENTCOM-brokered railroad between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, according to the United Nations. In a report (pdf), "Misuse of Licit Trade for Opiate Trafficking in Western and Central Asia: A Threat Assessment" by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, one of the key findings is that:
The rail network links a number of dry ports in Central Asia and plays a vital role in the region. In recent years, the Central Asian rail network has been extended to Afghanistan. Since this extension, several important heroin seizures have reportedly taken place along the network, suggesting that traffickers are abusing the lack of efficient law enforcement control along it.
(Yes, the report is from October 2012, but I only just came across it.)
That rail extension to Afghanistan, recall, has been a key project of U.S. military logisticians seeking to make the cargo route through Central Asia in and out of Afghanistan much smoother. As the report notes, "The road and railway link from Termez to Hairatan runs along the northern trade route and is part of the Northern Distribution Network." However, most of the recent drug seizures made on Uzbekistan's rail network have been on trains that originated in Tajikistan, rather than in Afghanistan, the report says:
Putin and Karimov on April 15. (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
Amid ongoing rumors about his frail health, Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov popped up in Moscow today, where he publicly glossed over strained ties with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The fight against terrorism and the pullout of NATO troops from Afghanistan topped the two leaders’ agenda, according to the Kremlin's press service.
Tashkent withdrew from the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organization last summer for the second time. Since then, Moscow's promises of military aid to Uzbekistan’s regional rivals – Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan – and its pledges of support and investment for grand hydropower projects in those upstream countries have vexed Tashkent. Meanwhile, Washington's promises to gift Tashkent some Afghanistan leftovers in return for facilitating the pullout have alarmed Moscow.
Yet whatever was said about these delicate topics behind the Kremlin’s closed doors, it was all smiles following the April 15 talks. Praising economic and humanitarian collaboration, Putin told journalists that security cooperation in light of the NATO pullout from Afghanistan was paramount to bilateral relations.
We have, of course, discussed the situation in Central Asia in detail and talked about problems associated with the pullout of international coalition forces from Afghanistan in 2014. We have agreed to continue to follow this topic attentively and to coordinate possible joint steps. By this we mean providing necessary assistance to the Afghan leadership regarding the stabilization of the military and political situation and the fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and extremism. […] I stress: Close interaction with Tashkent on a wide range of aspects will be continued.
Russia's announcement that it might be setting up repair facilities in Afghanistan for the maintenance of the Afghanistan military's equipment may seem like a pretty mundane bit of news, except for the irresistible symbolism. "Russia considers returning to Afghanistan," writes Foreign Policy. "Russia going back to Afghanistan? Kremlin confirms it could happen," writes the Christian Science Monitor.
“We will look into various options of creating repair bases on Afghan territory,” the head of the Defense Ministry’s department of international cooperation, Sergey Koshelev, told the press. He added that the maintenance of weapons and military hardware in Afghanistan remains a top priority, as any instability in the country would affect Russia’s own security, as well as the security of other European nations.
And Moscow is also not ruling out more substantive cooperation with NATO in Afghanistan. RT again:
Russian NATO envoy Aleksandr Grushko also said that Moscow was not excluding the possibility of broader cooperation with the military bloc. In particular, Russia could offer to enlarge the transport corridor to Afghanistan, so that the country’s own forces could continue to receive supplies from Western allies after coalition troops leave Afghanistan in 2014.
The logistics center that Russia set up in Ulyanovsk for NATO to use for transporting military equipment out of Afghanistan is not being used because it's too expensive, a senior NATO official has said. Alexander Vershbow, the alliance's deputy secretary general, gave a long interview to Russian newspaper Kommersant and discussed a variety of issues involving Russia-NATO relations. Unsurprisingly, the bulk of the conversation was about missile defense, but there was also some interesting discussion on Ulyanovsk:
Kommersant: What is happening with the transit center at Ulyanovsk? As far as I know, there has been only one test flight with NATO cargo from Afghanistan. When will the transit center start working in full?
Vershbow: Everything is agreed on there and ready for use not just by NATO countries but by all other partners in ISAF who want to transport cargo to or from Afghanistan. The issue is the commercial aspect. NATO countries are studying the most advantageous transportation networks from the financial point of view. So, for example, transit routes through Pakistan, closed not long ago, now are fully open and that is the most inexpensive route.
Kommersant: The Russian proposal is less advantageous?
Vershbow: It's costlier. NATO governments are looking for the best proposal for the least amount of money. We're talking about a very large quantity of cargo -- tens of thousands of containers. Correspondingly, the prices have to be competitive, this is business.
Kommersant: Not long ago Russia announced it was ready to use one of its ports for these transport networks.
Vershbow: Yes, on the Baltic Sea. That was one of the variants discussed, but everything will depend on how commercially advantageous it is in comparison with the other available routes. If Russia makes a better proposal, that could gain them a greater share of this business (laughs).
Conflicting reports about a bloody skirmish, or two, on the Uzbekistan-Afghanistan border in recent days have generated some basic questions -- like, who got killed? Some Russian-language media say the Uzbeks killed three Afghan police officers on March 16; Tashkent says it killed three Afghan attackers on March 14.
According to Tashkent’s account, about 10 Afghans attacked Uzbek border guards on March 14 and tried to seize their weapons. Uzbek guards were forced to shoot, wounding four Afghans, three of whom died.
But on March 17, Afghanistan’s border police commander, General Mohammad Jan Mamozai, said that Uzbek border guards had shot seven Afghan “police” on an Afghan island in the Amu Darya river, according to an Afghanistan.ru report, killing three.
The "police" narrative seems to have taken hold in the Russian-language media. But Pajhwok Afghan News, also citing Mamozai, says the seven Afghans were civilians.
Haji Sharfuddin, an elder from Kaldar District in Afghanistan’s Balkh Province, denounced the killings. He said the civilians had not crossed the border into Uzbekistan, according to Pajhwok.
The two countries share a 137-kilometer border defined by the Amu Darya.
Neither the Uzbek border service, nor the National Security Service (SNB, formerly the KGB), which operates it, have responded to the Afghan allegations.