WASHINGTON -- Counternarcotics officials in Washington have unveiled a plan to help combat the flow of drugs from Afghanistan, through Central Asia, and into Russia -- and in doing so, ease fears that the impending withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan could play into the hands of drug traffickers.
The plan, still in draft form, is known as “The Central Asian Counternarcotics Initiative” (CACI). It envisions the establishment of counternarcotics task forces in the five Central Asian countries -- Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan -- which would communicate with similar existing units in Afghanistan and Russia.
The seven groups would share sensitive information, improve coordination on joint and cross-border operations, and help build cases against wanted or arrested traffickers.
William Brownfield, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, told RFE/RL that by developing the CACI, Washington is attempting to get around what he called an “insufficient level of confidence” among the governments and law enforcement agencies of the seven countries:
“It is a means by which [the Central Asian republics] can get important and sensitive information emanating from Afghanistan related to [drug] production, to interdiction operations, and to law enforcement efforts against traffickers in Afghanistan itself," he said, adding that for the Russian Federation "it is a means by which they can link into the efforts both in the source country, Afghanistan, and transit countries, the Central Asian five, in a way that they currently cannot do."
U.S. State Department dollars would fund training and the purchase of equipment to help develop the task forces.
Brownfield traveled throughout Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Russia in late June and early July to preview the initiative and solicit feedback from counternarcotics officials. Along the way, he met with Kyrgyz President Roza Otunbaeva and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon.
He said he heard concerns voiced “several times” during his trip that the coming withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan -- including 10,000 by the end of this year -- could boost the flow of opium poppy from the country.
Despite U.S.-supported eradication initiatives and alternative livelihood programs for farmers, Afghanistan remains the world’s primary source of opium. It is then processed into heroin and other drugs in a multibillion dollar illegal trade, funding extremist groups and creating legions of addicts along the way.
Top U.S. international narcotics official William Brownfield believes the proposed Central Asian antidrugs initiative should “rise above” any perceived battle for influence between Washington and Moscow.
But Brownfield maintains that the withdrawal of U.S. troops won't exacerbate the problem because force reductions won't translate into reduced support for Afghan law enforcement:
“I believe we've making progress in Afghanistan and I believe that hand-in-hand with [the] U.S. and NATO drawdown from Afghanistan, we're going to see an increase in the capabilities of Afghan law enforcement and the international community's support for Afghan law enforcement," he said.
"There is no plan to draw down law enforcement support in Afghanistan. The projection is to reduce our security and armed forces presence," he added.
Full-Fledged Commitment Needed
Brownfield, who became the State Department’s top international narcotics official in January, previously served as U.S. Ambassador to Colombia, a country where drug interests often co-opt or overwhelm official resistance.
While maintaining that “Colombia is not Central Asia,” Brownfield said one important reality from the South American country does apply: along with supporting regional initiatives, such as the new U.S. plan, he said each country's leader must make a full-fledged commitment to fight the drug trade, even if it's a difficult decision to do so.
“They must decide that they are willing to pay the political price -- because there is a political price," he said. "Breaking down the penetration of narcotics trafficking organizations is expensive in terms of money, it is expensive in terms of human life, it requires giving great priority to law enforcement, and security matters for a period of time, and during that time, those that require assistance from the state for other areas are likely to be disappointed. And at times it involves having to make difficult decisions about specific individuals."
In deciding whether to sign onto the U.S.-organized plan, Central Asian leaders are likely to weigh Russia's reaction.
Increased cooperation between Washington and Moscow on counternarcotics was identified as an early goal in the “reset” of bilateral relations under U.S. President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitry Medvedev.
But the July 9 edition of the official paper of the Russian Defense Ministry, “Krasnaya Zvezda,” hinted at Moscow’s concern over U.S. forays into the region.
In an article about a U.S.-funded guard post on the Tajik-Afghan border, which Brownfield had opened the week before, the paper commented, “Of course, this is not a full [U.S.] military presence, but as they say, it all starts with the small.”
Russia has also expressed interest in returning to the Tajik-Afghan border, where its troops patrolled until 2005.
Brownfield, who did not meet with defense ministry officials on his trip to Moscow, said the United States and Russia have the “same objective” of reducing the flow of narcotics through the region.
He also said that the Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative “does not require massive presence by either the United States or the Russian Federation to support or pursue the idea.”
Allowing each Central Asian country to build their own task force according to their preferred structure, he added, would allow the proposed initiative to “rise above” any perceived battle for influence between Washington and Moscow.