A member of the New York Army National Guard stands in an opium field with his interpreter. Via New York Army National Guard
The US has spent more than a decade battling the Taliban in Afghanistan, and during that time Afghanistan's opium harvest has boomed. The Taliban has been blamed for running the opium trade, which isn't entirely true; in fact, the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001 helped fuel the boom in the opium market which led to a corresponding heroin boom in Russia.
Now, according to a report from the EastWest Institute, the US's withdrawal will likely lead to even more Afghani opiates headed into Russia. NATO presence in the country is expected to end in December of next year, which EastWest Institute analysts argue will mean that what poppy eradication efforts that are going on now, which already are finding limited success, are likely to end.
According to the report, "although Governor-led Eradication (GLE) increased by some 154 percent from 2012 over 2011, there was 18 percent more land under poppy cultivation in 2012 than in 2011." That poppy cultivation increase were largely centered in southern Afghanistan, which is one of the least secure parts of the country. The thought then is that as NATO forces leave, there will be more room for similar growth in other parts of Afghanistan.
That's not good for Russia, which is now the world's largest consumer of heroin. As the EastWest report authors write, "Russia is justifiably concerned that the shift of security responsibilities to the still weak or fledging Afghan structures, coupled with increasing freedom of trade and movement in parts of Central Asia, may further aggravate the threat posed by the inflows of Afghan opiates into Russia."
The upshot of the report is that the US and Russia both have an interest in quelling the opium trade, and the EastWest Institute recommends they put their resources together to do so. A resurgence in Afghan and Golden Triangle opium has helped fund all the typical bad guys you can think of: narco traffickers, criminal conglomerates, terrorists, and anyone else that might show up at Genghis Khan's birthday bash.
That's not the mention the fact that heroin and offshoots like krokodil have turned swathes of Russia into junkie wastelands. The US has a healthy opiate problem of its own, although its heroin problem is far less severe than Russia's. Regardless, the report hammers home a point that rings true in any type of trafficking: fighting a global drug trade, trying to capture traffickers and arrest users, is one thing.
But when opium production is so centralized, the authors write, "no sustainable progress can be achieved until the problem is systematically addressed at the source—Afghanistan." The problem, of course, is that with NATO forces leaving next year—and with both Russia and the US having long, awkward histories in Afghanistan—replacing the terror war with the drug war is going to be a rather difficult task.