Central Asia: Drugs and Conflict
Central Asia: Drugs and Conflict
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri
Report 25 / Asia

Central Asia: Drugs and Conflict

The problems associated with drugs in Afghanistan and Central Asia have steadily worsened over the past two decades. Opiates have fuelled conflict throughout the region and are likely to have been a significant source of financial support for terrorist organisations with a global reach.

Executive Summary

The problems associated with drugs in Afghanistan and Central Asia have steadily worsened over the past two decades. Opiates have fuelled conflict throughout the region and are likely to have been a significant source of financial support for terrorist organisations with a global reach. Afghanistan’s neighbours – Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian nations – all face serious security and social problems from trafficking and a vast expansion of drug use that represent serious impediments to peace and development.

Afghanistan is generally regarded as the world’s largest exporter of heroin. In its fragmented and unstable environment, there are direct links between the drug business, arms purchases for the country’s civil war and the activities of terrorists. Efforts to combat drug production, trafficking and use will have to be a major part of efforts to stabilise that country and the wider Central Asia region.

Limited attempts have been made to combat the problem over the past decade, mainly focusing on eradicating poppy fields and interdicting drugs before they leave Central Asia. There have been some successes, but Afghanistan continues to supply the world market, and drug use around the region itself is soaring.

Though opium had been grown in Afghanistan for many years, the scale of cultivation increased considerably during the Soviet-Afghan war. After the Soviet withdrawal and the cessation of military aid from the U.S. to the mujahedeen in 1991, there was a further dramatic increase in poppy cultivation. By the middle of the decade all the former Soviet Central Asian republics, as well as Iran and Pakistan, were seeing steep increases in the amount of narcotics confiscated along their borders.

With a cheap and plentiful supply of opiates on their doorstep, Iran and Pakistan now have the largest proportion of drug users in the world. However, Central Asia is catching up. Across the region the drug trade has produced both a health epidemic and a weakening of political and legal institutions that is an additional obstacle to vital economic and political reforms.

Expanded interdiction efforts have resulted in low intensity conflict with drug traffickers that have deepened human rights and legal abuses. Tighter border controls have hindered trade and weakened already fragile economies.

The impact has been felt farther afield: directly in that Russia’s new drug problem and Europe’s older one are now substantially fed from Afghanistan; indirectly in that Afghan instability, the global implications of which have become clearer since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 in the United States, owes much to the country’s drug problem.

Responses have mostly been limited in scope, funding and imagination. The U.S. has paid relatively little attention because it believes that Afghan drugs play only a small part in its own narcotics problem. The European Union and its member states have funded expanded interdiction programs through the United Nations but otherwise have done little to work with the countries of the region.

The concentration on interdiction has failed to stem the flow of drugs and may have worsened social problems in a region already fraught with ethnic and religious tensions, border problems and severe poverty.

Interdiction also has had unanticipated side effects. Greater police and judicial powers create new opportunities for corruption and pack jails with those too poor to buy their way out. Border controls divide communities and stifle economic opportunities.

Reduction in supply often forces addicts to choose injecting over more expensive methods of taking drugs and thus fuels HIV infection from dirty needles.

There has also been little coordination of anti-drug efforts.  Central Asian states, in particular Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, have often been unwilling even to seek regional solutions.  Official complicity in the drugs trade is an additional complication.

Donor efforts have likewise suffered from a lack of coordination and a short-term mentality. Donors have tended to view drugs almost entirely as a policing issue with little consideration of broader development and security angles. Considerations of human rights and the role of women in production and trafficking have generally been brushed aside.

Drug activity in Taliban areas of Afghanistan is heavily criticised, with cause, but the same criticism can be made, and rarely is, of the Northern Alliance. However it is clear that the drug problem will not disappear with the Taliban. Tackling drugs must be a vital part of efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and its neighbours.

Not only is it necessary to remove a major source of funds that fuel the civil conflict and terrorism but it is essential to get neighbouring countries to feel more secure about a new government in Kabul. Simply strengthening police forces and border guards risks enhancing the repressive capabilities and corruption of unaccountable regimes.

The drug problem throughout Central Asia can only be overcome with a comprehensive development plan that includes poppy eradication, crop substitution and assistance to rural areas, especially of Afghanistan.  But that development plan must be complemented by improved interdiction, security, judicial reform and cooperation, as well as greater efforts to tackle the poverty that fuels drug use. Otherwise, drugs will remain a grave source of instability.

Osh/Brussels, 26 November 2001

Podcast / Asia

The U.S. and the Taliban after the Killing of al-Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahiri

This week on Hold Your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s foreign relations and what the killing of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul says about the threat from transnational militants in Afghanistan a year into Taliban rule.

On 31 July, a U.S. drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in the Afghan capital Kabul. Zawahiri appears to have been living in a house maintained by the family of powerful Taliban Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani. His death came almost a year after U.S. troops pulled out of Afghanistan and the Taliban routed the former Afghan security forces and seized power. The Taliban’s uncompromising rule over the past year has seen girls denied their right to education, many other rights and freedoms curtailed and power tightly guarded within the Taliban movement. The Afghan economy has collapsed, owing in large part to the U.S. and other countries’ freezing Afghan Central Bank assets, keeping sanctions against the Taliban in place and denying the country non-humanitarian aid. Levels of violence across the country are mostly down, but Afghans’ plight is desperate, with a grave humanitarian crisis set to worsen over the winter. The Taliban’s apparent harbouring of Zawahiri seems unlikely to smooth relations between the new authorities in Kabul and the outside world. 

This week on Hold your Fire! Richard Atwood speaks with Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director Laurel Miller about U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s broader foreign relations after Zawahiri’s killing. They discuss what his presence and death in Kabul mean for U.S. policy and what they say about the threat posed by transnational militants sheltering in Afghanistan. They look into how countries in the region are seeking to protect their interests in Afghanistan, including by engaging with the de facto Taliban authorities, and how those countries – particularly Pakistan, which has faced an uptick of violence in the past year – view the danger from foreign militants in Afghanistan. They also look in depth at Washington’s goals in Afghanistan a year after the withdrawal and what balance it should strike between engaging the Taliban or seeking to isolate them. Just over a year after the U.S. withdrawal and Taliban takeover, they reflect back on Washington’s decision to pull out troops. 

Click here to listen on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

For more on the situation in Afghanistan, check out Crisis Group’s recent report Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban.

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