Policy Memos

Drug Trafficking in Central Asia: A Poorly Considered Fight?

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As strategizing for the “post-2014” regional order in Central Asia picks up speed, the fight against drug trafficking from Afghanistan is evolving as a key objective of international donor involvement in the region. It is also a major area of cooperation among key actors. The United Nations Organization for Drug Control (UNODC) wants to strengthen its role in Central Asia; the European Union will continue to finance the Border Management in Central Asia (BOMCA) program; the United States has launched a Central Asia Counternarcotics Initiative (CACI); and Russia wants to assume the head of a new international anti-drug campaign, if possible in cooperation with NATO.

This new attention on drug trafficking through Central Asia, however, is far from groundbreaking. Calls for the in-depth rethinking of regional security tools and innovative mechanisms are essentially rhetorical. Thus far, the strategy international actors have adopted is the same that was decided on in the 2000s, a decade marked by the widespread failure to combat drug trafficking from Afghanistan. To take but one example, heroin seizures in Tajikistan amounted to 4,794 kilograms in 2004 but only 1,132 kilograms in 2009, despite rising production in Afghanistan and an increase in transit along the so-called “northern route” through Central Asia. The fear of “spillover from Afghanistan,” often mentioned but never precisely identified, has appeared to paralyze implementation of innovative strategies and bolstered classic mechanisms related to border security.

This memo addresses three factors to help explain the uninspired start of the fight against drug trafficking in Central Asia. The first is an erroneous conflation of Islamic insurgency with drug-fueled shadow economies that primarily serve the interests of the ruling elites. Second is the implicit assumption that physical border checkpoints between Central Asia and Afghanistan can resolve the drug trade in the absence of a political will to fight corruption. The third is an excessive focus on security as opposed to demand reduction and treatment. [...]

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About the author

Research Professor, The Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies
George Washington University