Afghan opium production and trafficking continue to be a source of instability in Afghanistan and the surrounding region, with significant international implications. Victor P. Ivanov, director of the Federal Service for Narcotics Traffic Control of the Russian Federation, chairman of the State Anti-drug Committee, and co-chair of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission’s Counternarcotics Working Group, discussed Russia’s policies to eradicate drug production and trafficking. Carnegie’s Martha Olcott moderated. 

Cultivation, Production, and Trafficking

Afghanistan’s heroin production and trafficking have wide-ranging international implications, Ivanov asserted.

  • Ties to criminal groups: Opium cultivation—especially heroin production and trafficking—finances criminal and terrorist groups. In fact, according to UN estimates, drug revenues, rather than illegal arms trade or human trafficking and prostitution, are the primary source of income for criminal groups, Ivanov said. According to the UN, the Afghan opium crop yields an estimated $65 billion annually, with the primary beneficiaries located outside Afghanistan—a fact that speaks to the far-reaching influence of the drug trade.
  • Opium cultivation: Afghanistan accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s opium crop. Although the amount of opium harvested in 2010 is half of the amount produced the previous year, it is still twenty times higher than it was in 2001 under the Taliban. Ivanov attributed this year’s decline in production to climate factors and opium crop disease rather than eradication efforts, as the number of acres planted—123,000 acres—has not changed since last year. Nevertheless Afghan heroin production has also spiked.
  • Consumption: International opiate consumption has grown rapidly, as a result of the spike in production. An estimated 711 tons are consumed annually in Europe, 549 tons in Russia, and 212 tons in North America. High consumption levels are taking an enormous toll: an estimated 100,000 people die annually from consumption of Afghan opiates, Ivanov said. These figures suggest that an estimated 1 million opiate-related deaths have occurred worldwide since 2000, he noted.

A Shift in Perspective

Since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, drug production in the country has evolved from a peripheral concern and a byproduct of instability into one of the central problems facing the country today, Ivanov said. While the terrorist threat has receded in Afghanistan, opium cultivation and subsequent heroin production have contributed significantly to instability in the country and the surrounding region. 

  • Terrorism: Afghan drug production fuels global terrorism as criminal groups use drug revenues to fund their activities, Ivanov said. He asserted that the drug trade has become one of the driving factors behind the increasing instability in hotspots around the Caucasus, in Kosovo, Central Asia’s Fergana Valley, the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in China, and elsewhere.
  • An overlooked connection: The relationship between terrorism and the drug trade is often overlooked, Ivanov said. The consequences of terrorism are more noticeable, more localized, and more likely to be covered by the media, while the more significant effects of drug production and trafficking do not attract as much attention.
  • Income: Revenues from the Afghan drug trade enable a criminal network that transcends national boundaries, Ivanov said, though he admitted that the degree to which the various criminal groups in this network are interconnected is unclear. Recent data hint at a growing centralization of Eurasian drug cartels, with a possible unified command center, essentially creating an international corporation coordinating the activities of a family of drug cartels, Ivanov warned.

A New Approach

The international community is not placing enough emphasis on fighting Afghan drug production, Ivanov said, noting that Afghan opium production was only mentioned in passing at the 2010 International Conference on Afghanistan. The international coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan should reflect the changing realities on the ground, he contended. It is necessary to shift the emphasis of the international effort in Afghanistan from fighting terrorism to targeting Afghan drug production as the new threat.

Russia’s Position

The international coalition’s approach to targeting Afghan drug production has shifted from eradicating opium poppy fields to targeting the drug laboratories that manufacture heroin. Supporters of the new policy argue that, since opium poppy cultivation yields higher profits than growing agricultural crops like wheat, eradication deprives peasants of their income, therefore generating resentment toward the coalition forces and fueling further instability.

This new approach has been ineffective at addressing the problem of drug production, Ivanov argued, particularly because the network of drug laboratories has continued to expand. The failure to stem the production of Afghan opiates concerns Russia for several reasons. First, as Afghan opium production has spiked in recent years, the annual death toll in Russia from drug use has also increased. Second, Russia is concerned about the destabilizing nature of the international drug trade, which is fueling transnational criminal and terrorist groups.

Russia supports the complete eradication of opium poppy fields, Ivanov said. He argued that claims against eradication are unfounded: whereas the land owners profit from opium poppy cultivation, the peasants who work the land earn the same amount of money regardless of what they are growing.

International Cooperation

Ivanov expressed cautious optimism about the international effort against Afghan drug production, but stressed that much more needs to be done. He described Raduga-2 (Rainbow-2), Russia’s proposal for international efforts to eliminate Afghan drug production, which includes several steps to achieve its goal:

  • Legal assessment: Acknowledging that Afghan drug production is a threat to global peace and security would allow the international community to use existing security resources to address the threat that production poses to regional and international stability. 
  • Eradication and economic aid: Russia supports the elimination of opium cultivation through the eradication of poppy fields. This approach would be combined with economic aid and infrastructure development to decrease the appeal of opium cultivation for farmers.
  • Targeting landlords: An effective approach would also target landlords who use their fields for drug cultivation.
  • Existing resources: Finally, Ivanov advocated using existing security resources, including providing the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) with the mandate to eradicate opium poppy crops.