Asia Confronts Drug Problem

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Asia Confronts Drug Problem

The problem of narcotics flowing from Afghanistan to Europe is well-known. But the issue also has China and the SCO worried.

Asian governments’ concern about the trafficking of Afghan narcotics—and the crime and terrorism it supports—was underscored at two major multinational meetings last week.

The first, ‘Drug Production in Afghanistan: A Challenge for the International Community,’ took place in Moscow on June 9-10 and was sponsored by Russian news agency RIA Novosti, with support from the Russian State Anti-Narcotics Committee, independent Russian think tank Council for Foreign and Defense Policy, and the Institute for Demography, Migration and Regional Development.

The second event, the annual leadership summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, took place on June 10-11 in Tashkent, where Chinese President Hu Jintao joined the leaders of Russia and other Central Asian governments in making clear Beijing’s own alarm over the Afghan drug problem. About 90 percent of the world’s opium supply originates in Afghanistan, and although the flow of illicit Afghan drugs to Russia and European countries is well reported, much of Afghanistan’s narcotics exports also flow eastward to Asian countries.

The heroin-producing zone known as the ‘Golden Crescent’ comprises the mountain valleys of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan, with Iran having one of the highest proportions of adults addicted to Afghan opium and heroin in the world. The Iranian government has spent $1 billion to fortify its porous 1,000-kilometre border with Afghanistan, and its 600-kilometre frontier with Pakistan, against drug traffickers. It has also deployed tens of thousands of counter-narcotic police and border guards to man the barrier and the head of Iran’s drug control agency confirmed last week that thousands of Iranian counternarcotics personnel have been killed or wounded in combat with Afghan drug dealers and their foreign partners.

Pakistan and Tajikistan also have lengthy borders with Afghanistan that, due to the rugged terrain among other obstacles, is difficult to control. Most of the Afghan narcotics that flow northward and eastward pass through these two countries, where the barriers are generally weaker than along the frontier with Iran. Unfortunately, large numbers of Pakistan and Tajik citizens are also addicted to Afghan drugs, which encourages them to engage in drug trafficking to share in the deliveries, as well as other crimes, to pay for their own fixes.

Shortly before the 10th meeting of the Council of SCO Heads of State, Zhang Xiao, deputy director general of the Department of European and Central Asian Affairs of the Foreign Ministry, listed drug trafficking, as well as terrorism and transnational crime, as major SCO concerns regarding Afghanistan.

During his main speech on June 11, Hu went as far as to equate narcotics trafficking with the ‘three evil forces’ of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism that have traditionally preoccupied the People’s Republic of China and the other SCO member governments, which includes China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as four official observer countries—India, Iran, Mongolia and Pakistan. In laying out his agenda for the SCO’s future development, Hu called for enhanced intelligence sharing, stronger border controls, increased joint law enforcement efforts and other cooperative measures to combat drug trafficking and other transnational crimes within Eurasia.

In his meeting with Islam Karimov, president of summit host Uzbekistan, Hu agreed with Karimov to strengthen bilateral China-Uzbek cooperation against narcotics trafficking. Chinese and Russian officials also expressed their concern about Afghan narcoterrorism in their bilateral exchanges before the summit. When he visited Beijing late last month, Viktor Ivanov, the director of Russia’s Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics, told the media that his Chinese interlocutors, including Public Security Minister Meng Jianzhu and Deputy Foreign Minister Cheng Guoping, had also expressed ‘particular concern’ about narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan.

According to Ivanov, the Chinese officials told him that the Afghan narcotics problem ‘escalates tensions’ in the volatile Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. This restless province of China, the recent scene of vicious ethnic strife between ethnic Uyghurs and Hans, borders Afghanistan and seven other countries, making it a popular transit route for drug traffickers as well as a destination point in its own right. Meng reportedly said the volume of Afghan heroin entering China has soared from 4.3 metric tons during all of last year to 6 metric tons during the first 5 months of 2010 alone. Approximately one-fifth of the heroin used in China originates from Afghanistan and the extensive and ill-regulated China-Tajikistan border presents smugglers with ample opportunity to transit narcotics into China.

The growth in the supply of Afghan hard drugs entering China has corresponded with an increase in Chinese demand for narcotics. According to official statistics, cases of narcotics use across China increased by more than 9 percent in 2008, while a marked increase in drug abuse and drug-related HIV/AIDS cases have been reported in Xinjiang and other regions due to the influx of narcotics from the Golden Crescent region.

While reliable statistics are difficult to obtain, Xinjiang appears to have surpassed Yunnan and the Golden Triangle as the main narcotics entry point into China. In 2008, local police in Xinjiang prosecuted 1,563 drug-related cases, arrested almost 2000 suspects and seized 144 kilograms of imported heroin. According to some observers, the surge in heroin use in Xinjiang has contributed to the breakdown of societal cohesion there and Hu reportedly even circulated an internal memo calling for security mobilization in Xinjiang to combat narcotics growth. Chinese officials worry that Afghan drug trafficking will help provide the Taliban and other Eurasian terrorist groups a chance to earn revenue to purchase weapons, fund training and buy support. The specific fear in Beijing is that Uighur militants opposed to Chinese control of Xinjiang will gain access to this revenue stream and use it to finance their operations.

To counter the interrelated threats of narcotics trafficking, terrorism and transnational crime, Chinese have engaged in bilateral anti-narcotics operations with neighbouring Kazakhstan. The Chinese government also shares intelligence on drug trafficking with its neighbours Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan as well as with Kazakhstan and Beijing might eventually follow Moscow’s example and combine these bilateral programs into a multilateral operation under Chinese leadership.

Nonetheless, China, Russia and the other Central Asian governments have relied most heavily on the multilateral SCO framework to coordinate with and support the Afghan government’s programs to counter narcotics trafficking and regional terrorism.

In 2006, SCO member governments established an SCO-Afghan Contact Group to provide a coordinating mechanism for SCO initiatives concerning that country. Indeed, in their 2007 Bishkek Declaration on international security, SCO members expressed alarm about ‘the threat of narcotics coming from Afghanistan and its negative effect on Central Asia,’ and called for ‘combining international efforts on the creation of anti-narcotics belts around Afghanistan.’ The heads of state also affirmed their readiness ‘to participate in the efforts to normalize the political situation in Afghanistan’ and ‘develop economic cooperation with the country.’

In addition, the communiqué issued by the heads of state called for greater use of the SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group ‘as well as other mutually acceptable formats’ to manage Afghan-related security threats.  In his speech to the attendees of the Bishkek summit, then Russian President Vladimir Putin urged the foreign ministries of the SCO members to organize an international conference on Afghanistan, which occurred in March 2009. Putin also called on the SCO to create a counternarcotics security zone around Afghanistan and collectively monitor money laundering and other sources of terrorist financing associated with Afghan narcotics trafficking.

Meanwhile, SCO leaders have repeatedly criticized NATO for failing to more effectively eliminate or at least contain narcotics trafficking and terrorism in Afghanistan. At the March 2009 Moscow conference, the SCO and Afghan governments adopted a joint statement that notably failed to mention NATO explicitly, confining itself to expressing support for the efforts of ISAF (without mentioning NATO’s lead role in the force) to counter regional narcotics trafficking. SCO members indicated no interested in contributing troops to ISAF, but the declaration did encourage ‘other countries concerned to participate in the collective efforts’ of the SCO to combat regional terrorism as well as to ‘consider taking part in transiting non-military cargoes needed by ISAF.’

By adding that, ‘We consider it important that the UN Security Council takes this into account when discussing the ISAF mandate next time,’ the text warned that SCO members would condition their continuing support for NATO’s mission in Afghanistan on its progress in this area. The SCO plans to hold another international conference on Afghanistan this July in Kabul.

SCO governments, led by Russia, have raised strong objections to the decision of the US government to end NATO’s direct involvement in eradicating the Afghan poppy crop and instead rely on the Afghan government, with its still limited capabilities, to lead this effort. They’ve called on the United States and its allies to employ aerial spraying in the main opium poppy growing provinces of southern Afghanistan, proposals the Afghan government has strongly opposed (like most Western governments, Afghan authorities fear that aerial spraying will antagonize many of the affected small farmers and induce them, out of anger or a need to make a living, to join the Taliban-led insurgency).

From the perspective of its members, one advantage of using the SCO to resist narcoterrorism in Afghanistan is that all SCO governments agree on the importance of this objective, making it an obvious priority. It’s also a relatively low-cost objective, since the SCO has declined to contribute combat troops to ISAF and instead allowed NATO and other countries to do the fighting.

Central Asian governments have found that they can’t manage the narcotics and regional terrorist threats from Afghanistan by themselves and have turned to foreign powers, especially Russia and China, and international organizations, such as the SCO and NATO, to assist them. As a consequence, in addressing the issue so visibly, the SCO is reaffirming its relevance to meeting its members’ security needs even when they recognize that only NATO is now in a position to crack down on narcotics production in Afghanistan.