While the current occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq look to be part of an ambitious plan of US domination of the Muslim world, both are proving to be a much greater problem than their shadowy planners supposed. And whatever conspiracy jigsaw puzzle Afghanistan forms a key piece in, it is certainly not one made in Russia, despite current US attempts to paint Russia, formerly enemy number one, as enemy number two, after the current enemy du jour — Islam.
So what is the current relationship between the heir to the Soviet Union and its nemesis?
The overwhelming legacy of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan for Russia can be summed up in one phrase — drug addiction — something almost unknown to the Soviet Union, but which rapidly spread with Soviet soldiers returning in the 1980s from this culture where hashish is far cheaper and more readily smoked than tobacco, and opium poppies have long been cultivated uncontrolled. Hashish is widely used by Afghans, though not opium, which is for export or used medicinally. But when added to the chronic overuse of alcohol in Russia, drug use there soon became a crisis.
The disintegration of the Soviet Union in December 1991 meant the rigorous border controls for one-sixth of the globe vanished overnight, facilitating drug trafficking from Afghanistan across Central Asia to Russia and further west to Europe . Afghanistan ’s narcotics struck Russia like a tsunami, threatening to decimate its already shrinking population. Russia today has about six million drug-users — a 20-fold increase since the collapse of the Soviet Union and a huge figure for a country of 142 million.
Russia today is a pale reflection of what the SU was as a world power. Its foreign politics have veered sharply from the cautious anti-imperialism of Soviet days, first seemingly embracing the former enemy under Gorbachev, Yeltsin, and even during the first term of President Vladimir Putin. He strongly backed the US attempt to overthrow the Taleban prior to and following 9/11, and put up no resistance to the US as it began snapping up bases in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
However, as Russia began to recover from the collapse of the 1990s, as NATO expanded eastward, and the US under President George W Bush began to wreak more and more havoc, seemingly oblivious to Russian concerns, trust in the Cold War enemy evaporated and the Soviet heritage began to look better and better. The threshold was in 2004 when Putin called the collapse of the Soviet Union “a national tragedy on an enormous scale” and reached a zenith in 2007 when he criticised the US at the 8 May Victory Day celebration for “disrespect for human life, claims to global exclusiveness and dictate, just as in the times of the Third Reich.”
The crisis of drug addiction in Russia, now compounded by the post-2001 explosion of opium and hashish flooding the federation courtesy of US/NATO-occupied Afghanistan, was in no small measure inspiration for this lashing out. The last thing Russia expected when it opened its arms to America was to see the Taleban’s zero-tolerance policy towards opium give way to a huge explosion of opium production and smuggling, presided over by US/NATO forces.
This is surely the most creative of all the US’s innovations over the Soviets in Afghanistan, as it loudly denounces narcotics, condemns the Taleban for tithing farmers who produce opium, and convinces a credulous world that it is doing its damnedest to stamp this phenomenon out. There are more BBC/CNN documentaries than you can shake a stick at showing heavily armed troops trying to wean the nasty Afghans from their perverse insistence on producing opium.
The facts speak for themselves, however. The Taleban wiped out heroin production entirely by 2001. Three years later, there were once again bumper opium crops, accounting for over half Afghanistan’s GNP, and ninety percent of the world’s heroin. And not only turning a blind eye, but actively engaging in drug smuggling, according to many observers, including Russian Ambassador Zamir Kabulov.
Commenting on widespread reports that US military transport planes are used for shipping narcotics out of Afghanistan, Kabulov told the Russian Vesti news channel, “If such actions do take place they cannot be undertaken without contact with Afghans, and if one Afghan man knows this, at least a half of Afghanistan will know about this sooner or later. That is why I think this is possible, but cannot prove it.” The Vesti report said drugs from Afghanistan are flown by US transport aircraft to bases Ganci in Kyrgyzstan and Incirlik in Turkey.
Russian journalist Arkadi Dubnov quotes Afghan sources as saying that “85 per cent of all drugs produced in southern and southeastern provinces are shipped abroad by US aviation.” A source in Afghanistan’s security services told Dubnov that the American military buy drugs from local Afghan officials who deal with field commanders overseeing eradication of drug production. Dubnov claimed in Vesti Novostei that the administration of President Hamid Karzai, including his two brothers, Kajum Karzai and Akhmed Vali Karzai, are involved in the narcotics trade.
A US expert on Afghanistan, Barnett Rubin, told an anti-narcotics conference in Kabul last October that “drug dealers had infiltrated Afghani state structures to such an extent that they could easily paralyse the work of the government if the decision to arrest one of them was ever made.” Former UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke said in January that “government officials, including some with close ties to the presidency, are protecting the drug trade and profiting from it. He described the $1-billion-a-year US counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan in The Washington Post in January as “the single most ineffective programme in the history of American foreign policy. It’s not just a waste of money. It actually strengthens the Taleban and Al-Qaeda, as well as criminal elements within Afghanistan.”
According to Vladimir Radyuhin at globalresearch.ca, the US and NATO have stonewalled numerous offers of cooperation to deal with the problem from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)and the Moscow-led Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO). A Pentagon general told Nikolai Bordyuzha, CSTO Secretary-General, “We are not fighting narcotics because this is not our task in Afghanistan .” Russian border guards on the Tajik-Afghan border were asked to leave by Tajik President Imomali Rakhmon in 2005, under US pressure, resulting in a sharp increase in cross-border drug trafficking.
Bordyuzha explained that the US was trying to set up rival security structures in the region, to “drive a geopolitical wedge between Central Asian countries and Russia and to reorient the region towards the US.” “Unfortunately, they [NATO] are doing nothing to reduce the narcotic threat from Afghanistan even a tiny bit,” Putin angrily remarked three years ago. He accused the coalition forces of “sitting back and watching caravans haul drugs across Afghanistan to the former Soviet Union and Europe.” Last year he bluntly stated that Russia and Europe had been victims of “narco-aggression”. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Afghanistan was on the brink of becoming a “narco state”. Interestingly, the cultivation of opium poppies is spreading rapidly in Iraq too.
Russia and the CSTO continue to confront US indifference to this nightmare, and have initiated an aid and military assistance programme for Afghanistan, which includes training Afghan anti-narcotics police. At the SCO summit in Kyrgyzstan last August, a draft plan was unveiled to work with the CSTO to create an “anti-narcotics belt” around Afghanistan.
Is all this part of some conspiracy by the US? From the Russians’ point of view, it certainly looks that way. US refusal to address the Russians’ complaints seriously just might be because Afghanistan’s opium requires secure routes to markets in Europe. A few conversations with US troops and/or mercenaries there strongly suggest they are not there for altruistic reasons. Cui bono?
No wonder Putin has reacted more and more as Russia wakes up the the reality of what the US is up to. The Russians might have been wise to take their Soviet-era propaganda a bit more seriously before it was too late. “The Americans are working hard to keep narco business flourishing in both countries,” says Mikhail Khazin, president of the consultancy firm Niakon. “They consistently destroy the local infrastructure, pushing the local population to look for illegal means of subsistence. And the CIA provides protection to drug trafficking.” In March 2002 he told NewsMax.com, “The CIA did almost the identical thing during the Vietnam War, which had catastrophic consequences — the increase in the heroin trade in the USA beginning in the 1970s is directly attributable to the CIA.”
While originally backing the Tajik Northern Alliance that the US used to oust the Taleban and install Hamid Karzai as president, Russia soon began to regret allowing it to secure such a strong political foothold in what is clearly its own geopolitical backyard. When US-inspired “colour revolutions” brought down governments in Kyrgyzstan, Georgia and Ukraine, and as eastern Europe and the Baltics flocked to join NATO, the backlash against the US strengthened.
So the Russians are in a very different position with respect to Afghanistan a quarter century on, a much, much worse one. All but the most die-hard Stalinists now regret the attempt to prop up the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in its fantasy of turning Afghanistan into a “soviet socialist republic”, though it’s hard to see what option the aging Politbureau members had. The alternative — to let it collapse — would have opened the door to a takeover by US-armed Islamists. It should be remember that this was at the height of the Cold War, and would have meant a friendly, if feudal, Afghanistan now joining forces with a hostile China, Pakistan and Iran as the SU’s neighbours to the south and east of its own Muslim Turkestan. The starry-eyed Afghan revolutionaries led by Nur Muhammad Taraki clearly did not have broader Soviet concerns in mind when they carried out their coup in 1978. The decision to cut short the campaign of terror of his successor, President Hafizullah Amin, in December 1979 — he had murdered President Taraki and began an anti-religious campaign in the countryside — was not taken lightly, and turned out to be the beginning of the end for both the SU and Afghanistan.
Clearly the Soviets were tripped up by the US, getting their own back for Vietnam, so to speak. What is surprising is not how “unpredictable and hostile” the Russians are with regards the West these days, but how forgiving and conciliatory they have been. It is hardly surprising that their relations with the US and NATO have soured considerably since 9/11, though they are still leaving open the possibility of working together to stabilise Afghanistan and facilitate reconstruction — the Soviet debt was cancelled this year, leading the way for greater assistance, and at the NATO conference in Bucharest in April, Russia’s new ambassador to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, offered to accelerate transport of materiel to Afghanistan from Europe.
According to Moscow-based political analyst Fred Weir, Russia is eking out a niche in the world order as a kind of good cop to the US’s bad cop, as seen in its positions on Iran, North Korea and the Middle East. However, its raison d’etre is not just to placate the US, but to deal with its neighbours sensibly. It has been negotiating a rail route through Afghanistan to Iran and the Persian Gulf. President Dmitri Medvedev’s first official visit was to China. Ambassador Kabulov warned in a BBC Persian language service interview: “We see the military presence of armed forces of the United States of America and NATO in Afghanistan just in the framework of our common campaign against terrorism. As long as this presence goes on for this end, we have no concern. But if the military presence is for other political or economic gains in Afghanistan and in the region, this certainly and definitely will cause special concerns.”
ERIC WALBERG writes for Al-Ahram Weekly. You can reach him at www.geocities.com/walberg2002/