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Russia Says U.S.-Led Forces Should Stem Afghan Heroin

U.S. soldiers with Afghan children during a counternarcotics patrol in February 2009
MOSCOW (Reuters) -- A top Russian drugs official has said Moscow should stop the transport of cargo across its territory to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan if they do not do more to cut the flow of heroin to Russia.

Earlier this year, Russia and its former Soviet allies in Central Asia established a transit route for nonlethal supplies to the international forces in Afghanistan to complement a dangerous route via Pakistan.

Russia and its allies have become increasingly concerned at the growth in drug traffic from Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban.

They say it poses a grave regional security threat and has caused a heroin epidemic in Russia, which now ranks as the world's No.1 consumer of Afghan heroin.

"The granting of transport corridors to NATO forces in Afghanistan should be conditioned on a commitment to destroy sown areas, laboratories, stocks, and other infrastructure of the Afghan drug business," Russia's drug enforcement chief Viktor Ivanov told a meeting with ministers and parliamentarians.

"This would...start the real process of improving the drug situation in Russia as well as in Central Asian and European countries."

Citing United Nations data, Ivanov said Afghanistan's output of opiates had grown more than 40-fold since 2001 when the U.S.-led coalition launched its assault on the Taliban.

He said the 2008 raw opium crop totaled over 7,000 tons.

"The UN program on fighting drugs has been a failure. Today Afghanistan produces twice as much opiates as the whole world 10 years ago," Ivanov said.

Heroin Epidemic

The drug enforcement official said 90 percent of drug addicts in the country were using Afghan heroin. He estimated Russia has up to 2.5 million drug addicts, mainly aged between 18 and 39, with their numbers swelling by 80,000 a year.

"Today it is self-evident to everyone that the state should take decisive emergency measures to prevent an approaching national catastrophe," he said.

Some 30,000 drug users, aged an average 28 years, die in Russia each year. This compares to around 15,000 the Soviet Union lost during its Afghan war in 1979-89. Drugs from Afghanistan make their way to Russia and further on to Europe via the porous borders of sparsely populated Central Asia. Ivanov said Russia could hardly control its giant, 7,591-kilometer border with Kazakhstan.

The share of Russia's population using opiates -- mainly heroin -- is five to eight times higher than the European Union's average, and 20 times higher than in Germany, Ivanov said.

He cited expert estimates of giant opiate reserves held in Afghanistan, saying they were equal to one trillion single doses, enough for Russia "to be on the needle" for a century.

The cash-strapped Afghan government, managing a budget worth a few hundred million dollars can hardly fight alone against the drug business estimated at $100 billion a year, Ivanov said.

"The international security forces are deployed in Afghanistan in line with a UN mandate," Ivanov said. "It would only be include in their mandate tasks and responsibility for destroying Afghanistan's drug production infrastructure."