Can the United States and Russia Jointly Combat Afghan Heroin?
Heroin seized by by the Counter Narcotics Police of Afghanistan

Can the United States and Russia Jointly Combat Afghan Heroin?


The EastWest Institute has released a new report by a working group of Russian and U.S. experts on how the United States and Russia can jointly combat narcotrafficking out of Afghanistan. The joint U.S.-Russia working group previously has released two reports, “Afghan Narcotrafficking: A Joint Threat Assessment” in 2013 and “Afghan Narcotrafficking: Post-2014 Scenarios” in February 2015.

The paper points out that Afghanistan accounts for 80 percent of global opium and 74 percent of illicit opium production worldwide – 90 percent of which is trafficked out of the country. Afghan heroin has created an addiction crisis in Russia, whereas for the United States the growing Afghan drug trade is further testimony to the failed decade long U.S.-led state-building exercise in the country.

The current publication comes at a time of increased tensions between the United States and Russia over Ukraine, which is detrimentally affecting joint efforts elsewhere in the world. “(…) [C]ooperation between the United States and Russia may not come easily even when confronting a common threat. Fallout from the Ukraine crisis has damaged the bilateral relationship to an extent that will take years to repair,” the study notes pessimistically.

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Prior to the Ukraine crisis, both countries had slowly increased joint operations in the region. For example, back in 2010, Russian and American authorities seized approximately $60 million worth of opium during raids on four drug laboratories near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. The EastWest paper elaborates:

According to official data from the Federal Drug Control Service of the Russian Federation (FSKN), such cooperative operations continued through 2012, yielding a total of seven FSKN-DEA operations in the country. These operations resulted in seizures of 2.5 tons of opiates, 3.5 tons of hashish, 1.5 tons of morphine and 5.5 tons of precursors — along with the destruction of 10 drug laboratories.

However, even prior to the Ukraine crisis things did not always go smoothly between Moscow and Washington. Right around the time when United States state-building efforts intensified in Afghanistan (2008-2009), it became apparent that Moscow favored a more heavy-handed approach — a combination of opium eradication combined with interdiction efforts within Afghanistan and the destruction of laboratories — while Washington wanted to pursue a lighter touch campaign focused on drug interdiction in order not to further aggravate the Afghan population.

With the ongoing deterioration of Russia-West relations, the cooperation could potentially snap to a complete halt, although the U.S.-Russian working group does not seem to think this is likely. They offer a set of recommendations for Afghan, U.S., and Russian policymakers to consider. Here is a selection:

  •  Encourage Afghanistan to cooperate more actively with Iran to improve interdiction along the Afghan-Iranian border. (…)
  • Speak with a common voice in matters of counternarcotics and border security in Central and South Asia and demand that Central Asian officials live up to the obligations of the counternarcotics and border management assistance that they have received. (…)
  • Push Afghanistan and Pakistan to finalize the status of their frontier.(…)
  • Deepen formal and informal cooperation across the FSKN and DEA field offices in Afghanistan and Central Asia.(…)
  • Jointly expand multilateral training of Central Asian and Afghan border police, customs authorities and counternarcotics officers. (…)
  • Establish joint positions on counternarcotics and border control at international bodies where these issues are discussed (…)

According to the EastWest Institute, “The State of Afghanistan’s Borders” will be followed by three more reports in 2015 and 2016: two that will offer specific policy suggestions on alternative livelihood in Afghanistan and narco-financing and a final report presenting a compendium of all recommendations.

Full disclosure: I am a senior fellow with the EastWest Institute.

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