Sochi summit seeks to break curse of Afghan heroin

Published 18 August, 2010, 13:16

Edited 19 August, 2010, 02:03

President Dmitry Medvedev is hosting a summit on terrorism and drug trafficking in Russia's city of Sochi with the leaders of Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and analysts say a regional approach is the key to winning the global war on drugs.

It is the second four-nation meeting of its kind. The first one was held in Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe last year. Back then leaders focused on cross border projects, security issues and economic recovery of the region.

This year the event’s agenda remains the same. Russia is reluctant to get involved in military action in Afghanistan, but continues to seek a role in settling the conflict.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has met with his Afghan counterpart Hamid Karzai. Russia has been showing its commitment to financially assist the region and Afghanistan in particular. Just several months ago, Russia wrote off the last portion of Afghan debt – $12 billion overall.

In connection with this, Russia’s president announced today at the summit that “Russia firmly supports all efforts on the part of Afghanistan to restore peace in the country. We also support the Afghan government’s fight against terror and are ready to provide any help needed to tackle the problem,” Medvedev said.

For Russia, Central Asia is a traditional sphere of interest and it has always been sensitive to the instability of the region caused by the Afghan problem.

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Drug trafficking and Islamic radicalism spreading from Afghanistan are the main security threats. In addition, the drug trade is the main source of finance for Afghan militants.

Russia, which became the world’s largest consumer of heroin after the US-military alliance occupied Afghanistan, is striving to break up the drug channeling.

An estimated 30,000 people die in Russia annually due to drug abuse, a third of the total world drug death toll.

Opium and heroin are pouring into Russia and further into Europe by way of the northern route over the Afghan-Tajik border. Also, Tajiks need no visas to visit Russia, which eases the risk for drug traffickers.

Tightening security on the border is one of the central issues of the four-sided talks.

President Medvedev is also pushing energy and transportation projects to facilitate economic recovery in the region.

Last year Russia finished construction of a major hydroelectric power plant in Tajikistan which produces 12% of all the country’s energy needs.

Several other ambitious projects with multi-million investments are being discussed at the talks.

Sealing off Afghan’s heroin flow

Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan stretches 1,200 kilometres, which is approximately 750 miles.

Tajik border guards are being trained by the Russian Federal Security Service under a deal signed back in 2004.

The use of different weapons, physical education, combat tactics, and survival techniques are all part of the course.

Turning a boy into a soldier is a hard task in itself, but getting him ready to guard one of the trickiest borders in Central Asia is even more difficult.

Training sessions are held every day regardless of the time of year. Despite extreme summer heat the troops train in full combat harness to get accustomed to it since it is what they will have to wear on the job. Every six months trained soldiers are sent to guard the border while new conscripts arrive, continuing the cycle.

“Terrorism, drug and arms smuggling, and human trafficking have put this region in the global spotlight. That is why there are currently over 20 international organizations, including the UN and the OSCE working in Tajikistan alone,” informs representative of Russian Federal Security Service in Dushanbe Anatoly Mikheyev.

Afghanistan produces over 90% of all opium in the world. According to the UN, the death toll from opiates in NATO countries is five times more than all the NATO soldiers who died in Afghanistan since 2001.

In Russia, the government says Afghan heroin kills more people in just one year than the whole ten-year-long Soviet military campaign in Afghanistan did. The USSR’s decade in the country resulted in the loss of approximately 15,000 troops.

According to Rashid Abdullo, an independent political analyst and the author of dozens of articles about Tajikistan, the flow of drugs is unlikely to stop no matter how strong the border is.

“This problem may have various technical solutions. But it will never be fully solved while there is fighting in Afghanistan and global demand for opiates,” said Abdullo.

Afghan opium production has grown by a third since the US-led invasion in 2001.

It is thought the billion dollar black market brings more money than all foreign investments put together. That is why it is unlikely that even the most advanced border-control system possible would solve the problem completely; for the smugglers, business is simply too good.

However, according to former White House drugs policy spokesman Robert Weiner, such a strategy by the US military is a major mistake.

"The US military regrettably has determined that a policy should be had of not interdicting, not eradicating the drugs in Afghanistan because it would destabilize Afghanistan. What a mistake of a policy!”
he said. “It is the drugs that fund Al Qaeda, which is the reason that the United States went into Afghanistan in the first place. Drugs are as much as 70 percent of Al Qaeda and Taliban’s funding, according to senior Democratic Senator Charles Schumer.”

”What are we doing? Making happy farmers in Afghanistan? Or is our job to secure Afghanistan, stop the drug trafficking, create alternative economies and then stop the killing that goes around the world both by the terrorists and by the drugs themselves?” Weiner asked.

Watch the full interview with Robert Weiner