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IVANOV: Breaking the heroin-terror connection

Joint Russia-U.S. initiative can eradicate opium that funds extremists

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Stabilization and peace in Afghanistan can only be achieved through efforts that include a decisive fight against the production and trafficking of Afghan heroin.

Drug money is seriously undermining international efforts to restore order in Afghanistan and fueling terrorism elsewhere. Drug money pays for improvised explosive devices and weapons that kill U.S. and NATO troops and wreak terror on the civilian population.

At the same time, the spread of heroin outside Afghan borders brings even more damage worldwide. Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's heroin. In Russia alone, Afghan heroin kills about 30,000 young people each year. Among NATO countries, civilian deaths from a heroin overdose are 50 times the number of military casualties in the alliance operation in Afghanistan. Afghan heroin eventually ends up in the United States - ruining lives, devastating American families.

The Afghan drug economy yields more than $65 billion annually. Opium fields must be destroyed and the drug-supply chain broken to cut financial support for al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Early on in their Afghan campaign, the United States and NATO made a decision not to use aerial spraying to eradicate opium plantations. That was based on the assumption that it would alienate the local population. We cannot consider the argument - that the poppy fields are a vital economic alternative for Afghan farmers, who otherwise would remain without means of livelihood and would fall easy prey to extremists - to be convincing, moral or even accurate.

Recent reports by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime indicate the vast majority of Afghan farmers grow something other than poppies. Just 6.4 percent of the total population of Afghanistan, or 12.9 percent of its rural population, is involved in poppy cultivation. However, although opium production in Afghanistan dropped in 2009, farmers extracted more opium per bulb. Poppy farmers in Afghanistan obtain yields five times more per hectare (2.47 acres) than those in the countries of Southeast Asia.

It is clear that many landowners and drug lords would not willingly choose to forfeit huge sources of income from heroin or willingly end their connections with the transborder criminal networks that maintain the drug trade. Nor will terrorist groups give up the narcotics trade, which provides a steady flow of income and new recruits for terrorist and extremist networks.

Russia, which is very well aware of the menace posed by Afghan drug trafficking, has long called on the international community to take more rigorous measures against opium. We cannot sit by idly while it takes place within the borders of Afghanistan, to the detriment of that country and the world.

Russia is taking an active part in helping stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. We facilitate transit of supplies for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan and exchange intelligence and information. Russia is actively fighting against the flows of Afghan heroin across our borders with neighboring countries, especially Kazakhstan and Tajikistan, and within Russia.

Recognizing the need to make a fresh start in relations between the United States and Russia, President Dmitry Medvedev and President Obama created the U.S.-Russia Presidential Commission to address shared challenges and explore new opportunities for partnership. The Counternarcotics Working Group that I co-chair with Gil Kerlikowske, director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, already has achieved several important results. This summer, we provided our U.S. counterparts with intelligence on the whereabouts of Afghan drug lords and the locations of 175 heroin labs inside Afghanistan. But we still need to address the core of the problem: opium plantations. Aerial spray eradication in Colombia is being used to destroy about 75 percent of the coca plantations in that country, an impressive success significantly decreasing the production of the drug. A similar approach must be applied in Afghanistan.

Eradication would not solve all of the complex problems in the Afghan heroin trade, but it would be a major game-changing move. The drug threat is global; no nation can deal with the issue of drug production alone. The time has come to agree upon a tough, common struggle against the scourge of the heroin trade in Afghanistan, to elevate the problem to an international level, and to grant the U.N. Security Council a mandate to deal with it.

In addition to commencement of eradication - we suggest destroying not less than 25 percent of the crop - we should consider conducting a registration of land ownership in southern and southwestern Afghanistan and then turning over to the U.N. for sanctions a list of those landlords offering their land for poppy cultivation.

The mandate of the International Security Assistance Force should be expanded to include the duty to destroy opium fields. Finally, we must continue to improve the level of operational confidence between Russia and the United States through continued exchange of intelligence information, including the location of drug labs and information on shipments of heroin precursors.

Russia is extremely interested in and supportive of the efforts of the international community to deal comprehensively with the Afghan heroin problem, and we are determined to carry out our part of the job responsibly to help to bring peace, health and safety to its people and the entire global community.

Victor Ivanov is director of Russia's Federal Anti-Narcotics Committee.

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