Russia’s counter-narcotics chief criticized U.S. and NATO anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan, calling them inadequate and asking for joint action against the Afghan heroin flooding into the former Soviet Union.
In an interview with the Associated Press Wednesday, Viktor Ivanov, head of Russia’s drug control agency, said he recently urged the Obama administration’s drug czar to begin a program of spraying herbicide from the air to eradicate Afghanistan’s fields of opium poppies.
“I hope that our open-minded dialogue will encourage the U.S. to take more adequate measures,” Ivanov said.
Russian-U.S. counter-drug efforts are considered a key area of cooperation as both countries try to improve relations following years of tensions.
The problem of drug abuse is of vital concern for Russia, where cheap Afghan heroin has helped fuel a surge in addiction rates and injection drug use has been a key factor in the spread of the virus that causes AIDS.
Authorities say that there are between 2 million and 2.5 million addicts in Russia, and that about 30,000 die each year of drug overdoses.
Afghanistan provides more than 90 percent of the heroin consumed in the world, and most of it flows through ex-Soviet Central Asia and Russia.
Ivanov voiced concern that the administration of President Barack Obama has abandoned the Bush-era policy of large-scale eradication of opium crops in Afghanistan.
Some U.S. officials have called the tactic ineffective in curbing cultivation and claimed that it boosted support for the Taliban. Instead, the Obama administration has focused on targeting drug labs and encouraging farmers to raise alternative crops.
Ivanov, a former KGB officer who served in Afghanistan during the Soviet war there in the 1980s, told the Associated Press that growing wheat and other legal crops isn’t practical in the midst of the escalating conflict.
“As long as the situation remains tense and the confrontation continues, no one will engage in agriculture,” he said. “They won’t be able to cultivate grain even if they want to.”
He insisted that the aerial spraying of herbicides is the only efficient way to stem the drug trade, and pointed out that the U.S. has used the tactic against the illicit coca crop—the source of cocaine—in Colombia.
Efforts to chop down and bulldoze poppy fields on the ground in Afghanistan have brought few results, he said. He also said the Western decision to leave the fight against drugs to the Afghan government was a mistake because local authorities lack the clout to accomplish the goal.
Ivanov said he met with Gil Kerlikowske, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, and State Department officials during a September visit to Washington, and both sides agreed to continue discussions on aerial spraying.
A recent U.N. report found that the amount of land planted with opium poppies in Afghanistan dropped 36 percent between 2007 and 2008. But the same report said the amount of opium produced fell by only 10 percent, due to improved growing techniques.
While Moscow is leery of the presence of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, Russia is counting on those troops to stem the flow of Muslim militants and Afghan heroin into the former Soviet Union.
Earlier this year, the Kremlin allowed the shipment of supplies for U.S. forces in Afghanistan across the Russian territory, a route that could become an increasingly important alternative to Pakistan, where supply convoys are sometimes attacked.
Ivanov said that the U.S. may not see Afghan heroin as an urgent problem because little of it finds its way into the United States. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says most heroin consumed in the U.S. comes from Mexico and South America.
Despite U.S.-Russian differences on how to solve the Afghan drug problem, Ivanov vowed to expand joint anti-narcotics efforts with Washington. “We are interested in cooperation,” Ivanov said.