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Counternarcotics In Afghanistan As A Spectator Sport

U.S. Marines talk to villagers during a patrol of poppy fields in Helmand Province.
U.S. Marines talk to villagers during a patrol of poppy fields in Helmand Province.
If you blinked, you missed it: the unveiling of the ‘EU-Russia initiative on the elimination of narcotics crops in Afghanistan’ in Brussels this week. To be frank, as strategies go, this one was a nonstarter (or worse, if there is such a thing).

Representing the EU was Pino Arlacchi, a worthy member of the European Parliament (MEP), no doubt, and a rapporteur on Afghanistan, but one whose policy-making powers within the EU amount to nothing. His report, to be adopted in May, will be nonbinding. In compiling it, Arlacchi's ex officio access to the EU's powers-that-be does not exceed that of a well-connected correspondent. (To be fair, this applies to all MEPs dealing with sensitive foreign-policy issues.)

What interest the event held was confined to Viktor Ivanov, the chairman of the Russian Federal Antinarcotics Service. That he showed up in Brussels for the exclusive benefit of the European Parliament's third-largest faction -- the liberal ALDE Group -- with no other meetings on his itinerary suggests Russia is either desperate, has yet to fathom the EU's modus operandi, or simply has boundless enthusiasm for the topic. Or possibly all three.

Which is not to say Ivanov did not have important things to say -- albeit rather in the manner that beholding the mote in someone else's eye with a beam in your own can be useful for that someone else. Or, to employ a trope once familiar to every Soviet child, your harshest critic is your best friend. Or should be.

The war in Afghanistan, Ivanov said, could come to rival in the 21st century the significance of World War II in the 20th. It already involves more than half a million "armed people." Afghan heroin kills on the order of 100,000 people every year -- a million in the first decade of the century. International forces in Afghanistan are failing.

'Phenomenal' Problem

Production of heroin -- "phenomenal" today -- has gone up 40-fold since 2001. It now nets international crime syndicates $65 billion a year. The entire Central Asian region is becoming increasingly militarized.

Meanwhile, security in Afghanistan is ever more elusive. The money poured into Afghanistan by the international community feeds corruption and, indirectly, the drug trade.

Ivanov said European countries end up consuming some 750 tons of Afghan heroin a year, and Russia, 550 tons.

He did not once allude to the Soviet Union's (and thus Russia's) own contribution to the mess that is today's Afghanistan. Some of his statistics appeared dodgy and some of the inferences spurious. The seven-point action plan for eliminating poppy cultivation in Afghanistan that Ivanov handed out in Brussels could be seen as a crude attempt to get ISAF to do Russia's bidding by remote control. It certainly combines the incendiary (recommending wholesale eradication of poppy crops within four years) with the fantastic (suggestions that the energy and electricity industries be revived forthwith and 2 million jobs created for Afghan citizens).

But Russia is worried. And, Ivanov says, so should be the EU and the rest of the international community. And in this he is surely right and at the very least should get a serious hearing.

All the more worrying, then, to learn that Ivanov struggles for attention at EU and NATO headquarters. He had no meetings lined up with anyone at either the EU Council (representing the member states) or the European Commission (essentially the bloc's executive arm).

But he wouldn't necessarily have a lot to talk about with EU types at this point.

Empty Words

The EU adopted an Afghan-Pakistan "strategy" in October 2009, largely as a result of pressure from the United States. It mentions the word "drugs" (or "narcotics") four times, and the single apposite paragraph reads: "The EU supports Afghanistan’s efforts to reduce the illegal cultivation and production of narcotic substances, through its law enforcement, public health, and rural development programs. The EU supports the National Drug Control Strategy and will maintain the counternarcotics dialogue with Afghanistan."

The vacuity of these words is hardly Ivanov's or Russia's fault.

The EU does operate a counternarcotics program in cooperation with the Central Asian countries -- the main heroin transit route to Russia -- but seems to have quietly buried it, with officials keeping mum about it in public at least since 2006.

A month ago, Ivanov visited NATO headquarters in Brussels -- but only for informal chats with a deputy secretary-general and a couple of senior military representatives. Meanwhile, NATO continues to reject out of hand the key premise of the Russian counternarcotics strategy -- merciless eradication. This clearly riles Ivanov, who argues that the very idea that international forces tolerate the drug trade within their jurisdiction is "immoral."

Ivanov also said ISAF's military personnel have told him they would carry out an eradication order without qualms. This last assertion sounds questionable, however, as most ISAF governments are clearly keen to antagonize the local population as little as possible.

And, in the end, the decision to eradicate -- or not -- rests with the governments supplying the bulk of ISAF's forces in poppy-growing regions.

If nothing else, Ivanov's cap-in-hand forays to Brussels a little more than 20 years after the Soviet Union pulled out of the country after a 10-year occupation mark one of the pithier ironies of history in the early years of this century.

Ahto Lobjakas is RFE/RL’s Brussels correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.