Russia, Plagued by Heroin Use, to Press U.S. on Destroying Afghan Poppy Crops
MOSCOW — During talks this week with his American counterpart, Russia’s top drug enforcement official, Viktor P. Ivanov, will press the United States to step up efforts to destroy Afghan poppy cultivation, which he said was feeding a devastating drug problem in Russia.
The request comes just as American policy makers have swung sharply away from Bush-era programs to eradicate the opium poppy crop, which is used to produce heroin. After a visit to Afghanistan in July, the Obama administration’s special envoy for the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, said poppy eradication had alienated poor farmers and was “driving people into the hands of the Taliban.”
Mr. Ivanov, head of the federal drug control service and a trusted adviser to Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin, said Tuesday that eradication programs had failed in Afghanistan because they were too weak, and that the United States should apply the more muscular methods it used recently in Colombia, where vast coca fields were sprayed aerially with the herbicide glyphosate.
“I would call on the United States to use defoliation from the air,” Mr. Ivanov said, citing the work of Thomas Schweich, who served as ambassador for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan under President George W. Bush.
“There are people who support this method in the United States,” Mr. Ivanov said. “The debate is going on, which is important.”
Afghanistan is seen as a crucial area of cooperation for the United States and Russia, in large part because of Russia’s crippling heroin problem. The authorities here estimate that 30,000 young Russians die every year from drug use. Mr. Ivanov said that 90 percent of Russian addicts used Afghan heroin, which flows into the country freely over the “virtual borders” it shares with central Asian neighbors.
The flow of drugs from Afghanistan may seem abstract in Washington, he said, but it is developing into a global security risk, providing funds to militant groups, and tainting the United States’ image.
“I do not back anti-Americanism, but this cannot but affect our relations with third countries,” Mr. Ivanov added. “The problem has to be solved somehow. There is a decision to increase the military contingent in Afghanistan, but this idea does not enjoy much support. Arms could be twisted and new forces sent there, but does this solve the problem? We can see that the poppy plantations are not shrinking.”
By advising aerial eradication, Mr. Ivanov is stepping into a longstanding policy debate. Several years into the current war, when efforts to manually eradicate the poppy crop began, some Bush officials began arguing for aerial spraying, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a counternarcotics expert at the Brookings Institution.
But others warned that the tactic would have devastating social and economic consequences, depriving farmers of their livelihood and potentially turning them toward the insurgency. Members of President Obama’s policy team were so compelled by these arguments that they rejected the eradication program undertaken by the last administration and shifted their efforts to interdicting opium supplies and cultivating alternative crops.
“It’s a dramatic change, not just in Afghanistan — it’s a dramatic change in the history of U.S. narcotics policy,” Ms. Felbab-Brown said, adding that if Russian negotiators are not aware of the shift, “either there is some real breakdown in communications, or they didn’t do their homework.”
Afghanistan’s opium crop shrank last year for the second year running, and prices fell to their lowest point in 10 years, the United Nations reported this month. Some observers attributed the drop to successful eradication and interdiction programs, others to market dynamics.
Afghanistan still produces more opium every year than users worldwide consume, and illicit stockpiles may have grown to 10,000 tons, a two-year world supply, the report said.
Mr. Ivanov, whose visit is being cast as a kickoff to “reset” talks between Russian and American officials, said he would not present the eradication idea as an ultimatum. But he was clearly prepared to make his case, suggesting, for instance, that, the United States eradicate the poppy fields and then use some of the money it spends on antidrug programs to plant wheat for Afghan farmers.
“The Afghan government is against it,” he said of aerial eradication. “But they are not able to defeat this monster alone. It is too strong. If they cannot deal with terrorism alone, and need help from outside, they cannot fight this monster, which is much stronger.”
By ELLEN BARRY
Published: September 22, 2009