The Narco-Insurgent Nexus in Central Asia and Afghanistan

 In the wake of the successful intervention in Afghanistan , lessons can now be drawn as to the lasting impact of Central Asian and Afghan insurgencies on regional security.

 In the wake of the successful intervention in Afghanistan , lessons can now be drawn as to the lasting impact of Central Asian and Afghan insurgencies on regional security.  One of the most alarming issues that arises in this regard concerns the international drug trade, which has proven instrumental in determining the nature and conduct of many rebel movements in the region.   

Early optimism that the end of major insurgencies might diminish the drug trade and usher in effective counter-narcotics measures has been quickly shattered.  In 2000, Afghanistan was the source of 70 percent of global opium production and almost 100 percent of the opiates consumed in neighboring countries.  While many anticipated that the new, post-Taliban government in Afghanistan might actually be effective at reducing opium production, their efforts have been insufficient. In 2002, some 30,750 hectares were given over to poppy cultivation, again making Afghanistan the largest producer of opium in the world.  

Over the course of the 1990s, much of Afghanistan's opium increasingly began to be trafficked though the Central Asian states, each of which continues to be a major transit route to Russian and European markets (although Uzbekistan is more dangerous for traffickers due to an effective government-led counter-narcotics effort).  The impact of increased trafficking through Central Asia has been quite substantial, as Afghan heroin is now flooding Russian and European markets.  In fact, over 80 percent of the heroin seized in Europe is estimated to originate from poppies in Afghanistan .  In addition, Central Asia has become a major drug market, there is an alarming rise in heroin abuse, particularly in Tajikistan,  rampant corruption at all levels of government, the spread of HIV and a growth in human smuggling and other types of criminal activity.  

Insurgents have played a major role in many aspects of the narcotics problem emanating from the region, from the protection of opium cultivation and heroin production to the creation and protection of trafficking routes.  While Afghanistan was already rivaling Burma as the world's largest producer of opium in the mid-1990s, there was an increase in production by 25 percent, as the Taliban extended its control northward from 1996 to 1999, leading many to believe that the regime protected the drug trade and profited through a program of taxation.  In response to international pressure, Mullah Omar issued a ban on poppy cultivation in July 2000, but massive stockpiles allowed traffickers to continue trafficking in large quantities easily.  

A greater concern than the Taliban, whose few remaining members are now scattered throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan , is the U.S. 's 2001 wartime ally - the Northern Alliance .  Over the course of the Afghan civil war, the Northern Alliance also relied on drug trafficking as a key source of revenue. In fact, much of the flow of drugs through Tajikistan actually began in Northern Alliance-controlled areas.  However, in contrast to the Taliban, the Northern Alliance directly participated in much of the opium production and trafficking out of Afghanistan .  The situation did not improve following the U.S.-led invasion, leading many to speculate as to the ability of the transitional government, whose composition includes a number of members of the Northern Alliance , to effectively curb drug trafficking in the region, particularly in light of a 200 percent increase in poppy cultivation on their territories in 2001.    

Likewise, at its peak, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) actually controlled much of the heroin trade from Afghanistan through Central Asia to Russian and European markets, using its network of militants across the region as couriers.  In fact, many observers consider the IMU to be an example of an insurgent group that essentially transformed into a criminal organization, as many of its regional operations - such as incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 - appeared to be entirely drug related with the intent of opening new smuggling routes.  Consequently, the impact of the IMU on the regional drug trade has been quite substantial; in 2000, reports indicate that 60 percent of opium originating in Afghanistan was transported through Central Asia , with as much as 70 percent controlled by the IMU.  In addition, they played a major role in transporting large quantities of raw opium to Tajikistan to be refined into heroin.  

The IMU suffered a major blow with the defeat of one of its primary supporters - the Taliban - and the death of its leader, Juma Namangani, in late 2001.  However, there is a strong possibility that militants are likely to use routes and other logistical connections set up by the IMU to further profit from the drug trade.  Moreover, a resurgent IMU, a splinter group or even a coalition of radical groups, might further engage in narcotics trafficking as its primary ambition, thus leading to a situation in which a former politically-motivated organization develops into primarily a drug trafficking organization, such as the case of the FARC in Colombia, where violence is intended to create instability, increase the dependency of the local population on the group, and facilitate the movement of narcotics to neighboring markets. 

There is another aspect of the narco-insurgent nexus that merits discussion as well - the role of outside supporters for insurgencies, primarily diasporas and political refugees.  Significantly, analysts often overlook the role that migrants sometimes play in simultaneously supporting insurgencies and the drug trade.  For instance, refugee camps played a significant role in initially strengthening the IMU's criminal support structure.  Tajikistan's Islamic opposition and Pamiri population from 1992 to 1998 took refuge in Afghanistan, bringing them into closer contact with the opium production.