Geostrategy in Central Asia - Drug Trafficking

Drug Trafficking

The Silk Road which once brought prosperity to Central Asia in the silk trade is now a highway for drugs from Afghanistan to Russia that has contributed to economic, political and social problems in the region. The drug trade is proliferating in Central Asia because of its weak states and geo-strategic location. The low volume of drug seizures (about 4 percent of the estimated total opiate flows) indicates the lack of state power to regulate Central Asian borders as well as the corruption of its officials. The propagation of the drug trade perpetuates the weakness of Central Asian states by destabilizing the region through financing militant Islamic groups’ campaigns, increasing drug abuse, and the spread of AIDS/HIV.

A large factor in the development of the drug trade in Central Asia is due to the region’s geography. Three of Central Asia’s southern states, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, share a collective border of about 3,000 km with Afghanistan, which produces about 70 percent of the world’s heroin. An estimated 99 percent of Central Asia’s opiates originate from Afghanistan. Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan share a border with the Chinese province, Xinjiang, through which drug traffickers access major opiate producers such as Laos, Thailand and Myanmar. Central Asia’s proximity to these states makes the region a hub for the drug trade throughout the world.

During the Soviet era, Central Asia’s border to Afghanistan was mostly blocked off with little cross-border trade or travel. When Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the border began to open up. Veterans from the war started to bring back heroin in small quantities, but as soon as its potential large profits were realized, criminal groups took over the trade. Soviet Union created Central Asian states, often without ethnic or topographical considerations, causing them to be notoriously weak. With the downfall of the Soviet Union’s, poor border delimitations, transition to a capitalist economy and absence of historical statehood, led the Central Asian economy to collapse and political situation to become chaotic. Disadvantaged people in the region turned to the drug trade for profit and took advantage of the lack of boarder controls. Drugs became and continue to be a major source of funding for Islamic militant groups and warlords trying to gain control in the region.

These militant groups, which the international community often deem as terrorist groups, use drugs to finance their campaigns. As Abdurahim Kakharov, a deputy interior minister of Tajikistan said in 2000 "terrorism, organized crime and the illegal drug trade are one interrelated problem.” The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), classified as a terrorist organization by the Clinton administration in 2000, is deeply involved with drug trafficking. Although the IMU, whose power was at its peak in the late 1990s, claimed to fight against the region’s civil government in the name of the caliphate, it also appeared to be highly motivated by the drug trade. The IMU had alliances with the Taliban government and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan along with members of Tajik government from fighting together in the Tajik civil war. This allowed the IMU to easily transport drugs from Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Before the U.S military dismantled it in 2001, the IMU frequently made small incursions in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan around August, after the harvest of heroin. Arguably, the IMU used incursions to create instability in the states and distract law enforcement to more easily transport the new heroin harvests. The UNODC estimates that the IMU brought in 60 percent of the heroin traffic in the region. The IMU’s deep involvement in the drug trade indicates that it may have focused more on criminal activities than political and religious aims.

Aside from militant groups, government officials at all levels are involved in the illicit drug trade in Central Asia. The collapse of economies post-Soviet Union leads many low-paid government authorities to corruption. They are often given bribes to look the other way as smugglers transport drugs through the border. Fear of retaliating violence from drug lords also factors in the corruption of low-level officials. Corruption in the region, however, has evolved from passive low-level bribing to the direct involvement of state institutions and senior government officials. In 2001, the secretary of Tajikistan’s Security Council admitted that many of its government’s representatives are involved in the drug trade. Also pointing to high-level government corruption in the drug trade, Turkmenistan’s president, Saparmurat Niyazov, publicly declared that smoking opium was healthy. Central Asian state governments tend to have low drug confiscation levels, as officials only use the arrests to provide an appearance of fighting drugs and to ensure a state monopoly on the trade. For instance, although trafficking has increased since 2001, the number of opiate seizures in Uzbekistan fell from 3,617 kg in 2001 to 1,298 kg in 2008, while heroin confiscations remain constant.

The illicit drug trade has created adverse social effects in Central Asia. The number of registered drug users in the region has increased dramatically since 1990 as the drug trafficking has made drugs more widely available, which in turn lowers the cost, promoting abuse. In 1996 there were about 40,000 registered drug users, while in 2006 there were over 100,000 registered users. This rapid increase in drug users is fueling the spread of HIV/AIDS in the region as users share needles and perform unprotected sex. It is estimated that 60-70 percent of newly registered HIV/AIDS cases are a result of using shared needles. The UNODC maintains that there has been a six-fold increase in HIV/AIDS cases since 2000 in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

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