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Central Asia: Is Assistance Enough To Tackle Drug Trafficking?

James Callahan, from the UN agency for combating the trafficking of narcotics and organized crime, today ended a three-day visit to Tajikistan, where he has reviewed the implementation of counter-narcotics projects. RFE/RL spoke to Callahan and analysts about the international community's commitment to antitrafficking assistance to Central Asia, a major conduit for Afghan drugs destined for markets in Russia and Western Europe.

Prague, 23 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- James Callahan, the Central Asia representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) today ended a three-day familiarization visit to Tajikistan.

Callahan, who took up his post in the Uzbek capital Tashkent about three weeks ago, has been reviewing the implementation of three counternarcotics projects in Tajikistan launched by the UNODC in June. The projects, with a combined cost of more than $10 million, are aimed at helping the UN-supported Tajik Drug Control Agency lead and coordinate drug enforcement and provide equipment and training for customs and border-control agencies.

Callahan explained to RFE/RL the UNODC's strategy in combating drug trafficking in Central Asia: "Our view is to attempt to interdict what's going out of Afghanistan, particularly on the so-called northern routes. The capacities of the police organizations that are combating it need to be developed and strengthened. There's a need for more training. There's certainly a need for developing intelligence-led investigations that target the organized groups that are doing the trafficking."

Last week Callahan was in Kyrgyzstan, where the UNODC has provided more than $6 million of support for the creation of a Kyrgyz Drug Control Agency.

In Uzbekistan, a $2 million assistance project with the prosecutor-general will create a country-wide database for information sharing and access to cases and legislative data.

The massive opium production in Afghanistan - which in 2002 was estimated at about 3,400 tons, or around three-quarters of the world's total - has turned Central Asia into a hotspot for drug trafficking.

Almost 7 tons of drugs have reportedly been seized in Tajikistan in the first nine months of this year, nearly double the amount confiscated in the same period last year.

Acknowledging that these seizures represent only a small portion of the overall amount of narcotics being trafficked, Callahan said a growing commitment by the international community and continued efforts by Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan means the numbers may improve.

"Our projects in the recent years have seen a significant increase in funding. We can always use more commitment and more funding, but at this point there's certainly a feeling of urgency about the situation. And also it clearly relates to the concerns about security and terrorism because of the linkages between drug trafficking and organizations that are a threat to the security of some of these countries," Callahan said.

Putting a precise figure on foreign countries' antitrafficking aid is difficult because such programs tend to be intertwined with broader security-assistance packages.

Arabella Phillimore pointed out to RFE/RL that the international community's emphasis is on maintaining security in the region rather than on the fight against drug trafficking. Phillimore is an analyst at the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy in New York.

"As much as drug trafficking undermines [security], it really must take second or third place at the moment to establishing the new regime in Afghanistan, for example, or making sure that Islamist movements in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan don't take firmer root. So I think there is a prioritization going on and I don't think that drug trafficking is at the top of the list, regrettable as that is, and as integral as that is to achieving long-term security," Phillimore said.

Phillimore noted that any level of antitrafficking assistance is inadequate in the long term, given that trafficking is a multibillion-dollar industry.

Martha Brill Olcott, senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in New York, agrees. She stressed that corruption, poverty, and the surge in the production of Afghan opium -- which is expected to reach up to 4,000 tons this year - all combine to make security assistance alone insufficient to stem the flow of drugs across Central Asia.

"In the absence of a strong antidrug program in Afghanistan, it's going to be very difficult to control drug trafficking across Central Asia. Not only has cultivation of opium resumed in Afghanistan, but a larger percentage of the opium is being made into heroin in Afghanistan. The smuggling of heroin is much more lucrative than the smuggling of opium. And it's easier to secrete small packages of heroin than opium," Olcott said.

Olcott and Phillimore agree that the reconstruction of Afghanistan needs to be a greater priority. Phillimore suggested that the most crucial step is probably to provide an alternative source of income for the people who are currently using the trafficking trade to survive.

"That's a long and painful process, and I think there are several examples in Latin America where we've seen it's not a panacea. But certainly there are very tough economic conditions in Afghanistan and actually in neighboring countries. Until there's an investment level that actually affects the people at the bottom of the ladder and gives people the choice between making money on the drugs trade or actually through agricultural production of a legal nature or even other alternatives, then I don't think things will change," Phillimore said.

Observers say much more money is needed to support alternative-crop programs and funding for Afghanistan's antitrafficking authorities. After a September visit to Afghanistan, UNODC Director Antonio Maria Costa noted that the budget of the Afghan Counter Narcotics Directorate, the Afghan government's leading authority for drug and crime, is just $3 million, and the money has yet to disbursed.