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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. 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.



1. Consolidate agencies dealing with drugs to ensure consistent policies and develop a wider range of anti-drug strategies, including harm reduction and anti-poverty programs.

2. Empower and instruct law enforcement agencies to cooperate with their counterparts in neighbouring states.

3. Cease treating drug users and HIV-infected individuals as criminals, pass anti-discrimination laws, and carry out public education programs to change attitudes.

4. Make harm reduction measures such as needle exchanges and methadone therapy a top priority to reduce the threat of HIV.


5. Develop, as an essential component of efforts to stabilise Afghanistan and the region, a comprehensive, long-term, well-funded program that moves beyond interdiction to tackle all problems associated with drug production and trafficking including both the general problems of poverty and conflict and the more specific ones of crop substitution, corruption, and HIV/AIDS.

6. Provide longer-term funding for United Nations drug control bodies and strengthen their efforts to expand regional cooperation.

7. Encourage Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian nations to step up regional cooperation by making it clear that combating drugs is an essential component of the fight against terrorism and a vital part of efforts to stabilise the region.

8. Consider, when designing anti-drugs programs, the impact on human rights, the repressive capacity of regimes, the impact on women and the poor and the risks to minorities.


9. Increase funding for fighting drugs in the region and in allocating priorities follow intra-EU guidelines that emphasise harm reduction.

Osh/Brussels, 26 November 2001


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