Moscow furious, says US not pushing drug war in Afghanistan

Moscow's new drug czar, Viktor Ivanov, claims Russia is being flooded with cheap heroin and charges that the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan are reluctant to pursue a drug war that could drive poppy farmers into the arms of the Taliban.

By , Correspondent

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    A village Mullah walks through a poppy field on April 27, in the Maiwand District of Kandahar Province. Moscow's drug czar, Viktor Ivanov, is upset that the US is not pursuing a drug war in Afghanistan.
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Russia's new drug czar, Viktor Ivanov, is spitting mad at NATO.

A gruff and graying veteran of the Soviet Union's disastrous military intervention in Afghanistan, he recently made his first return visit to that country. When he came back to Moscow, he had harsh words for the Western alliance, charging that it is enabling a drug-fueled hurricane of destabilization that is now sweeping across former Soviet Central Asia and Russia.

He wants the war in Afghanistan to be a proper drug war. Why?

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Mr. Ivanov says the flow of narcotics from the fields of Afghanistan into Russia has increased by 16 percent in the past three years alone, spiking urban drug addiction. He alleged in a March press conference that drug barons are uniting with Islamist militants to seize power in vulnerable Central Asian states – and that the North Atlan­tic Treaty Org­ani­zation's (NATO) failure to deal with Afghan­istan's burgeoning drug production threatens to create a security nightmare for Russia and its regional allies.

"We do not believe the principal aims of the NATO security operation in Afghanistan have been achieved," Ivanov said at a press conference. "Of course the struggle against terrorism should take precedence, but what about liquidating drug production? How does it happen that almost 10 years after NATO occupied this country, Afghanistan is not only the world's largest producer of opium, but also of hashish, surpassing the traditional global leader, Morocco?"

In recent years, Russia and NATO have run a school for Afghan antidrug police in the Moscow-region town of Domodedovo, turning out hundreds of graduates. But despite that cooperation, experts say Moscow is increasingly dubious about NATO's ability to impose order in Afghanistan, and may be seeking ways to expand its influence in Central Asia against the day the United States decides to leave. Some analysts suggest that the Kremlin's recent backing of a coup in Kyrgyzstan could be a sign of more assertive behavior to come.

"The former Soviet states of central Asia are our own backyard," says Tatiana Parkhalina, director of the independent Center for European Security in Moscow. "Moscow doesn't want to stand by while the Taliban and terrorist networks convert the financial resources from drug trafficking into arms and political influence... There is a practical alliance taking shape between drug traffickers and terrorists, and it is a very big threat."

More heroin addicts?

Ivanov says there are now at least 2 million heroin addicts in Russia, but other experts claim the number is higher. "The inflow of drugs from Afghanistan via Central Asia into Russia is increasing exponentially, as is consumption," says Stanislav Belkovsky, president of the Kremlin-connected Institute of National Strategy. "The only thing Ivanov exaggerates is the will and ability of the state to struggle against this threat."

Yevgeny Roizman, a former Duma deputy who founded an independent drug treatment center in his Ural hometown of Yekaterinburg, claims Russia has as many as 6 million drug addicts. "Drugs are coming into the country in huge bulk, from Afghanistan via the gateway states of Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan which, to this day, have no visa regime with Russia. I have the deepest sympathy for the US and its goals in Afghanistan, but there is no doubt this problem for us has multiplied ... since they arrived" in the region, he says.

Russian analysts allege that NATO turns a blind eye to Afghan poppy production as part of a strategy to keep the loyalty of local warlords and win over peasants who depend on the crop for income.

US destroys coca, not poppies?

"We have sent requests to the US, asking them to intensify the struggle against drug production, but they respond that they are still analyzing their options and worry about driving the peasants into the arms of the Taliban," says Viktor Ilyukhin, deputy chair of the State Duma's security commission. "Their excuses are very slim indeed."

Ivanov told journalists that he can't understand why the US advocates destruction of coca plantations in Colombia, but seems reluctant to take the same measures in Afghanistan.

"OK, we differ over whether to destroy poppy plantations," Ivanov says, "but why doesn't NATO target the laboratories? There are more than 200 giant laboratories in the Afghan mountains, which produce more and more concentrated drugs, and they are not touched. Our conclusion is that there is no struggle against drug production going on at all."

The issue could portend trouble for the fledgling "reset" in US-Russia relations, say some analysts. "There is a suspicion in Moscow that the lack of interest in fighting drugs in Afghanistan is connected with the US strategy of creating safe conditions for withdrawal from the country before the next US presidential elections in 2012, and not in permanently resolving the problems," says Dmitry Suslov, who is with the Council on Foreign and Defense Policies, an independent Moscow think tank. "This naturally creates anxiety over what kind of Afghanistan NATO will leave behind, and how big a problem it is going to be for Russia."

But a few Russian experts say the Kremlin is hyping the drug issue as a pretext for becoming more assertive in Central Asia.

"The Russian state drug service tends to overestimate drug consumption in Russia; there is no independent confirmation," says Andrei Sol­da­tov, editor of Agentura.ru, an on­line journal about security issues. "All of a sudden we hear a lot of declarations about how the threat is dire, and growing, and something has to be done. But it looks to me like conven­ient political theater, and I find it very difficult to trust all these claims."

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