Crossroads Asia

How the War on Drugs Is Making Tajikistan More Authoritarian

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Crossroads Asia

How the War on Drugs Is Making Tajikistan More Authoritarian

Counternarcotics assistance to Tajikistan is one area in which the U.S. might rightfully rethink its approach.

How the War on Drugs Is Making Tajikistan More Authoritarian
Credit: Sgt. Katryn McCalment

According to a recent study by a leading U.S. government oversight body, 17 years of U.S. counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan have yielded “negligible” results. Despite the United States spending nearly $8.6 billion to curb the production and sale of poppies since 2001, poppy cultivation hit an all-time high in 2017, with the trend showing few signs of slowing.

Yet while there has been growing recognition of the limits of U.S. counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan, comparatively little attention has been paid to Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s neighbor to the north. Tajikistan is a major drug transit state, with 30 percent of Afghan opiates passing through en route to Russia and Europe according to a 2012 estimate. Since 2005, the United States has provided $125 million in military assistance to Tajikistan to help curb the flow of narcotics, including the provision of training, equipment, vehicles, and security infrastructure to Tajik border troops.

After over a decade of assistance, however, the program has failed to make a dent in the drug trade through Central Asia. Instead, U.S. military assistance has served primarily to promote authoritarian consolidation by President Emomali Rahmon, the strongman leader since the civil war of the 1990s. Rahmon and his inner circle have used the infusion of aid to tighten their grip on the drug trade, fund repressive ministries, and eliminate political rivals under the guise of the war on drugs.

Drug trafficking through Tajikistan was estimated to generate $2.7 billion per year in 2011, possibly surpassing any legitimate source of wealth in the country. This has created a profitable source of rent for Tajik warlords and politicians, including state officials, which they access through protection rackets and smuggling. During the Tajik Civil War, the drug trade was one of the major sources of income for both government and opposition commanders. After the war ended in 1997, drug trafficking became a shadow part of the peace process, with commanders on both sides of the conflict receiving positions in the government and cooperating to extract rent through personal criminal networks.

One of the effects of U.S. military assistance has been, ironically, to strengthen these state-crime ties. Prior to 2004, the Tajik state had only limited ability to interdict drugs along its porous southern border with Afghanistan. However, the provision of vehicles and specialized equipment, the construction of border outposts, and the creation of special anti-drug squads have greatly increased the government’s control of the border region. Better security in the form of more barriers to the movement of goods and people has meant more extraction opportunities for government officials. The shift from mobile to fixed border outposts, for example, has been integral to institutionalized corruption, as the latter provide points for the collection of bribes.

Thus, a paradox: outside efforts to improve interdiction have also increased the state’s ability to extract rents from the drug trade. As a result, despite Tajikistan’s interdiction capabilities increasing over the last decade, interdiction rates have actually dropped since 2001 while government revenues from narcotics have gone up.

The enhancement of narcotics-interdiction capabilities has also favored the formation of strategic alliances between criminals and state officials. On the one hand, traffickers seek government protection to minimize risks. On the other, state officials have an interest in getting access to the growing profits from the drug trade. The result is increasingly efficient arrangements between the state and organized crime for the trafficking of narcotics. One source notes how state officials use vehicles provided by Western donors to help transport drugs across the country. These arrangements increase both the profitability of criminal enterprises and the state’s ability to extract rent. Easy access to rent has, in turn, allowed the Rahmon regime to remain in power without making meaningful concessions to the Tajik people.

Aid has also directly strengthened repressive ministries. After 2006, Tajik border guards were reorganized and placed under the control of the State Committee for National Security. Border troops are one of the major beneficiaries of international assistance. Thus, a substantial portion of the funds allocated by Western donors has been administered directly to the secret services of Tajikistan. Once funds enter the coffers of the secret services, it is nearly impossible to verify they are being used as intended, since security agencies are notoriously opaque and requests for information are systematically denied on national security grounds.

Finally, the rhetoric around counternarcotics has provided cover for the regime to consolidate power by taking out its political rivals. Many high-ranking Tajik state officials sit atop kinship-based criminal networks centered on protection racketeering and drug trafficking; this is true whether they are aligned with Rahmon’s inner circle or the opposition coalition. However because the former determines who gets prosecuted for drug crimes, most of the cases of big traffickers brought to trial have involved former opposition commanders or allies of the president who grew too powerful.

In 2004, for example, former opposition commander Akhmad Safarov was accused of drug dealing and fleeing the country after a police siege. In 2008 Nurmahmad Safarov and Suhrob Lagariev, relatives of prominent Popular Front commanders, were arrested in a major drug raid in the southern city of Kulob. Of the 60 opposition figures involved in the post-war power-sharing deal, only about one-third have retained their positions in the government, with the rest either dead, in exile, or imprisoned.  

Counternarcotics policies have thus been the tools with which Rahmon has dismantled the post-civil war political bargain, centralizing power around his clan-based inner circle while further consolidating control of the drug trade. U.S. assistance has both funded and legitimized this process by allowing the regime to couch its repression in terms of the war on drugs. Indeed, foreign observers too often view Rahmon’s crackdown as an imperfect but promising effort to break narco-terror links, rather than part of a calculated strategy to strengthen state-crime links.

Taken together, these arguments suggest that the U.S. counternarcotics intervention has misidentified the problem. Worried about the ties between drug traffickers and insurgents in Afghanistan, the United States has largely ignored the ties between those same traffickers and the Tajik state. As a result, military assistance to the Tajik government is likely to make the problem worse, not better. Nevertheless, Washington plans to continue its military assistance to Tajikistan in 2018 and 2019. While there has been concern – much of it justified – over the Trump administration’s antipathy toward foreign aid, counternarcotics assistance to Tajikistan is one area in which the U.S. might rightfully rethink its approach.

Bardia Rahmani is an international advisor on security sector issues currently based in Dili, East Timor.