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Why Is It So Hard To Stop Central Asia's Drug Trade?

Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, Tajikistan President Emomali Rahmon, and U. S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez at a ceremony at the opening of a U.S.-funded bridge connecting Afghanistan and Tajikistan in 2007

An underreported and underappreciated aspect of international security in Central Asia is the fight against drug trafficking. As everyone knows, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, and it reaches world markets through Central Asia and Russia. Central Asian countries' western partners have been increasingly focusing on drug trafficking in their security assistance to the region, but thus far to little effect.

In a paper presented on Friday at a conference at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at George Washington University, Sebastien Peyrouse divided the Central Asian drug trade into three types: "green" refers to trade by Islamist networks to raise money for militant activities, "black" refers to small-time criminals who smuggle drugs on their person to supply local markets, and "red" describes the trade by large, organized crime networks, with the collaboration of government officials. Peyrouse notes that Central Asian governments, in their rhetoric to the international community, focuses on the green and black drug trade, while by far the greatest amount of trafficking is red. But the international (US, European, UN) efforts tend to follow the lead of the Central Asian governments, focusing on the small-scale trafficking while ignoring -- and even unintentionally abetting -- the red trade.

Defining drug trafficking as a “spillover” effect from Afghanistan also leads to a poor assessment of the mechanisms that are needed to counter it. International institutions are focused on improving border security, principally its material aspects (like buildings, infrastructure, and equipment), again in accordance with the needs that local authorities express.... It is, of course, true that Central Asian states need better border security. Their border guards require better material conditions and training in new technologies and best practices. And as new states on the international scene, they require foreign assistance to rise to international standards.

However, it is naïve to assume that the fight against drug trafficking can be waged successfully with such measures. To secure a border with checkpoints, barbed wire, and watchtowers is not enough to make the frontier impermeable, as the recurrent failure of the United States to “close” its southern border with Mexico has shown. In Central Asia, all border points, even those that the international community has best equipped, are open borders, as corruption has rendered them permeable. Every entry into Central Asian territory can be negotiated (by buying a false passport, bribing a border guard to forego a document check, and so on). The smaller-scale “black” and “green” drug traffickers are the only ones that try to get across borders by avoiding checkpoints, through mountain passes or across rivers. The “red” traffic, on the other hand, utilizes the main roads and official checkpoints, recently upgraded with the international community’s assistance.

Central Asian borders with Afghanistan cannot be made secure by physical means alone. It requires the political will to fight against corruption, and for the longterm. To be effective, efforts to combat drug trafficking in Central Asia must therefore be first political in nature.

I have talked with U.S. officials about this, and they say they recognize the issue, but operate under the hope that if they train border guards in correct practices, provide material support, and so on, that will bear fruit when there is actually political will to take on serious trafficking. And of course, this is the only sort of help that Central Asian governments allow, and when the default practice is to do something rather than to do nothing, you have to accept the host government's terms.

Peyrouse's analysis focuses on Western efforts, but Russia also has a keen interest in fighting Central Asian drug trade, as it is suffering a serious heroin epidemic as a result of Afghan drug exports. Moscow tries to press the U.S. and NATO to eradicate poppies at the source in Afghanistan, which the coalition is unwilling to do because it would alienate the large numbers of ordinary farmers who make their livelihood in opium farming. But Russia, too, has its own problems that keep it from effectively combating drugs in Central Asia. For one, suspicion of U.S. presence in Central Asia has led Moscow to shun cooperation with Western drug combating efforts. Secondly, when Russia has been more seriously involved in policing the border with Afghanistan, when it had border guards in Tajikistan, its officers got involved themselves in the drug trade, as Tajikistan's president Emomali Rahmon once complained to U.S. officials:

Rahmonov said, “This constant propaganda in the Russian media about how Tajikistan is failing to control its borders now that the Russians have left - you know where that comes from? From the Russian generals who want to come back here with their mafia buddies. Look what they got here - they put in two-year tours, and then went back to Moscow and bought Mercedes 600s and elite apartments. You think they did that on their salaries? Why do you think the generals lined up in Moscow all the way across Red Square and paid enormous bribes to be assigned here - just so they could do their patriotic duty?”

So with feckless Western and Russian responses, it looks like the fight against drug trafficking depends on the Central Asians themselves.

Why Is It So Hard To Stop Central Asia's Drug Trade?

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