The major Moscow forum Drug Production in Afghanistan - a Challenge to the International Community from June 9-10 will be a good opportunity to determine which is worse in Afghanistan: heroin or the Taliban? Can one overcome the latter without eradicating the former?
The biggest problem facing us is that, having started the "reset" process with the United States in the nuclear field, we are very far from doing the same in our shared struggle with drug production and trafficking (and without America nothing can be done in Afghanistan). Moreover, we are moving ever further away from this "reset button." The opium doctrine of U.S. President Barack Obama is very different from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. The latter argued with Moscow on many issues but agreed that anti-drug efforts should focus on the destruction of opium crops in Afghanistan.
Obama's "anti-opium course" is aimed at countering smugglers and drug producers and reimbursing farmers for planting alternative crops. At first glance, it seems to be bearing fruit. Last year, opium crops across Afghanistan decreased by 22% but they are still bigger than they were in 2006. According to the most optimistic estimates, raw opium production fell by 10%. British experts have established that Afghan farmers contrive to get more opium juice (opium poppy latex) per flower than before. In their estimate the farmers get 56 kg of opium per hectare of opium fields. This is 15% more than last year.
In May Gil Kerlikowske, the director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, published the new U.S. anti-drug strategy for the next five years. It lays emphasis on preventing and treating drug addiction, reducing the demand for drugs, protecting the U.S. borders and curbing drug trafficking on U.S. borders. This will benefit America.
About 15% of the anti-drug budget is devoted to the problem's international components. Compared with last year's allocations, this is an increase of one percent, or more than $100 million in value terms. The total funds allocated to fight drugs will increase to $15.5 billion (compared with 13.7 billion in 2008 and about $70 million in 1969).
Not a single other country devotes so much money to fighting drugs. But then no other country has such a high level of drug use.
Peter Reuter, former director of the influential Rand Corporation's Drug Policy Research Center, said of the strategy: "We have lots of reasons to be skeptical about the eradication effort in Afghanistan. It's hard to make programs work in a country where our knowledge of local realities is very limited. In general, the strategy is far too optimistic on international programs. We can push the drug trade around but we can't reduce it substantially."
Moscow has always supported the tactic of eliminating opium crops. The head of the Federal Anti-Drug Committee (FSKN), Viktor Ivanov, has proposed a more effective measure: targeting the landowners rather than the peasants who work the opium plantations. While the farmers have nothing, the landowners can be taken to task because they own property that could be confiscated. Russian specialists estimate that about $500 million of the annual EU and U.S. subsidies for alternative crops in Afghanistan are doing little to help cut the number and size of opium fields. In Columbia, annual anti-drug allocations of about $50 million work wonders.
In general, Moscow is not demanding that the United States and NATO resume the destruction of opium fields and stop subsidising alternative crops. Russia is convinced that it is only by combining these two methods can drug trafficking be stopped.
According to a report by the U.S. Department of State, opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has grown by an incredible 4,400% since 2001. At the end of last year Afghanistan was already producing up to 90% of all the heroin in the world.
There are reasons to justify NATO's approach. Charging the troops with spraying opium fields with chemicals is too wasteful. The army has always pursued other missions and it is not appropriate to deploy it in the fields. Using civilian contractors or anti-drug agents for this job is equally expensive because they would have to be protected by troops or else the human losses would be enormous. But spending hundreds of millions of dollars on "alternative agriculture" is no less extravagant.
NATO claims that it has already tried to destroy the fields but to little effect. Now ISAF Commander U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has announced the bloc is pursuing a new policy of winning the hearts and minds of the population and is therefore not planning to destroy these crops. From NATO's perspective eradicating them is pointless because the Taliban has already stockpiled enough opium for several years of continuous trade, even if no more opium is grown.
But more opium is still being grown.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW (RIA Novosti political commentator Andrei Fedyashin)