Viktor Ivanov: The real price of Afghanistan

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As Nato gears up for a landmark offensive in Kandahar later this month, the alliance's members are forced to consider their original purpose for being there. Afghanistan is a strategic priority not only for Nato but equally, if not more so, for Russia. In the 1990s, Afghanistan was a breeding ground for international terrorism and the consequences have been felt sharply, from New York to Moscow. It is in our common interest to fight terrorism wherever we can. This is why Russia actively supports the Nato mission in Afghanistan.

Yet Russia bears the brunt of one particular aspect of the instability in Afghanistan far more acutely than any other Nato member: the narcotics trade. In recent years heroin has engulfed Russia like a silent tsunami. We are now the world's biggest consumer of the narcotic and home to a staggering 2.5 million drug addicts. If the trend persists the future is bleak: each year 30,000 drug-users die in Russia, while 80,000 more try narcotics for the first time.

The knock-on effects of this are clear. HIV and hepatitis – the constant companions of drug addicts – are increasingly becoming a reality for many of our young people. With most addicts aged between 18 and 39, Russia is in danger of losing an entire generation. Nato countries know the devastating cost of the drug trade all too well. But not on the same scale. The number of addicts in Europe and the US lies in the hundreds of thousands but not in millions as it is in Russia.

The reasons for these disproportionate figures have everything to do with the conflict in Afghanistan, where Nato demonstrates both a lack of will and a lack of capability to effectively tackle the drug trade. UN data shows that worldwide production of opium-based drugs has doubled over the past decade, with Afghanistan now accounting for over 90 per cent of global opium output.

Russia has pursued an aggressive counter-narcotics programme domestically, putting 91,000 people convicted of drug crimes behind bars and increasing seizures of drug shipments. Twenty-five per cent of all court rulings have been for crimes related to drug trafficking. But the porous borders in Central Asia, through which Afghan heroin is trafficked to Russia, present an insurmountable obstacle. The only realistic way to properly tackle the problem is to go straight to the source: Afghanistan.

Nato has justified its kid-glove approach so far with the argument that eradicating the poppy crop will undermine the livelihood of ordinary Afghans, driving them into the arms of the Taliban. We must explore opportunities for farmers to grow alternative crops and find legal incomes, but it is illogical and dangerous to allow drug production to continue unabated in the meantime. It is also naive to equate the drug trade with the innocence of the local poppy farmer, providing for his family. The narcotics trade rests firmly in the hands of the warlords, funnelling the proceeds directly to the insurgency. The US Drug Enforcement Administration has acknowledged that al-Qa'ida is heavily involved in Afghan opium trafficking. President Obama himself noted last year that Afghanistan's economy "is undercut by a booming narcotics trade that encourages criminality and funds the insurgency".

Eradicating poppy production is a key step to ensuring Afghanistan's long-term stability, which in turn will clear the way for sustainable economic development. Now is not a time to mince words. Later this week, at an international forum in Moscow to discuss this problem, President Medvedev will use frank language on the urgent need to act.

Russia has repeatedly stated its readiness for meaningful international cooperation in fighting this scourge. And we are well placed to help. But too often we find the door closed. The US advocates the destruction of coca plants in Colombia, and rightly so. There is now a responsibility for Nato to take similar action in Afghanistan. We should be looking to eradicate the poppy harvest by at least 25 per cent this year. Anything less would be to admit defeat. Neither Russia nor Afghanistan can go on paying the price of failure.

Viktor Ivanov is the director of Russia's Federal Service for the Control of Narcotics

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