Countering Narcotics in Central Asia

Countering Narcotics in Central Asia


Regional governments address the spread of opium from Afghanistan


As the international community marked the United Nations International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on June 26, it is more important than ever for Central Asian governments to continue their fight against criminal networks involved in the drug trade. According to the United Nations, criminal groups from Central Asia made profits of $15.2 billion from the trafficking of opiates in 2015.

What’s more, a “symbiotic relationship” exists between the insurgency and organized narcotics trafficking, according to the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report (INCSR). Traffickers provide weapons, money and other material support to the insurgency in exchange for the protection of drug trade routes, cultivated fields, laboratories and trafficking organizations.

Afghan Soldiers patrol a hashish plantation near Siah Choy. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]

“Some insurgent commanders reportedly traffic drugs themselves to finance their operations,” the INCSR report noted. Nevertheless, drug trafficking is not limited to insurgent-controlled areas, and the narcotics trade “undermines governance and rule of law throughout the country.”

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimates that criminals earn about $90 billion to $100 billion per year from illicit sources, with narcotic production and trafficking topping the list. Yet a recent UNODC assessment noted that, despite the existence of “thriving networks of cross-border criminals,” a “fully operational framework on tackling cross-border crime does not exist.”


Despite these challenges, Afghanistan and its neighbors have taken steps to eliminate the menace of drug abuse and trafficking, as well as organized crime, throughout the region. The Afghan Ministry of the Interior created a community policing directorate as part of a larger plan to increase the Afghan National Police’s (ANP) focus on daily law enforcement and community policing. Part of the ANP’s 10-year strategic plan developed in early 2013, the new directorate aims to make the ANP “smaller in number, higher in quality, professional, impartial, capable, and less dependent on international assistance,” Minister of the Interior Omer Daudzai said in a speech.

The ANP “should be enjoying public trust and participation with a primary focus on rule of law without any discrimination,” he said.

Along the same lines, the Ministry of the Interior established new Emergency Services Call Centers in 2009 to eliminate corruption within the ANP and gain public trust. Thanks to this system, as well as effective marketing promoting its responsiveness, Afghans make several thousand calls to the center every month. Operating 24 hours day, the call centers have become a trusted medium for civilians to share tips with the ANP.


Uzbekistan, meanwhile, has worked to tighten key border crossings, partnering with the U.S. Central Command’s Interagency Group Counter Narcotics Division to complete a $2.8 million upgrade of the Lyavob Border Post in the summer of 2016. This was the first of several improvements along a strategically important border exploited by criminals to smuggle illegal drugs and contraband. With upgraded officer quarters, a horse stable, dog kennels and new living areas, the new facilities enable border guards to prevent the flow of drugs and the illegal movement of people across the border.

An Afghan Soldier destroys an illegal poppy crop in the Surkh Rod district of eastern Nangarhar province in 2017. [AFP/GETTY IMAGES]

To improve detection of drug smuggling across state borders, Uzbekistan has taken measures to improve the technical capacity of relevant authorities. A number of checkpoints have been equipped with modern technical control facilities, including large stationary and mobile scanners. In 2016, Uzbek law enforcement enhanced information analysis and technical capacity in the fight against trafficking. To improve the mechanism for exchanging, organizing and processing information, Uzbekistan developed a single database using modern analytical software, IBM i2, provided through international partnership projects.

In 2015, Uzbek law enforcement and border control agencies used U.S.-funded training and equipment to improve their ability to interdict illicit narcotics and investigate drug trafficking networks, the INCSR noted. With international funding, Uzbekistan is also developing a national interagency law enforcement database of drug-related crimes to facilitate information sharing. During the first six months of 2015, the government reported seizing more than 350 kilograms of marijuana and 550 kilograms of opium, according to the report.

Each year, Uzbekistan conducts a “Black Poppy” eradication campaign to destroy illicitly cultivated opium and cannabis. During the 2014 campaign, the last year for which information is available, authorities uncovered 1,125 cases of illegal drug cultivation.


Kazakhstan has taken a leading role in anti-drug efforts as well, focusing not just on law enforcement and border security to stem supply, but rehabilitation and education to reduce demand.

An Afghan police officer prepares to burn a pile of illegal narcotics in the Kot district of Nangarhar, Afghanistan, in April 2016. [REUTERS]

According to INCSR, Kazakhstani law enforcement asserts that drug traffickers are increasingly altering routes to international markets, such as through Southern Asia and the Balkans. That shift is partly attributable to stronger interdiction efforts along Kazakhstan’s southern border.

Kazakhstan hosts the Central Asia Regional Information and Coordination Center, designed to strengthen law enforcement cooperation among countries exposed most directly to narcotics trafficked from Afghanistan.


In the same period, Turkmenistan prohibited amnesty for convicted drug traffickers, and the government launched Opium Poppy 2015 as an annual operation to destroy illegally cultivated poppy. In June 2015, the State Service to Protect the Security of a Healthy Society (SSPSHS) held a “drug burn” ceremony that destroyed 200 kilograms of narcotics, an event that usually coincides with the U.N. International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking.

Thanks to these efforts, local authorities reported a decline in the supply of drugs, as evidenced by rising prices of heroin, opium and marijuana. According to the SSPSHS, nearly 200 kilograms of illegal drugs were seized during the first six months of 2015 — exceeding the total from the same period in 2014.

“Transnational threats, especially related to organized crime, remain at the top of the agenda for the entire Central Asian region,” said Richard Wheeler, an Ashgabat-based political officer with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.


With support from the U.S. government, Tajikistan expanded its Drug Control Agency’s Vetted Unit to 23 officers, according to a 2016 INCSR report. Expansion of the unit allowed for staffing in the regional office of Khudjand and should provide necessary resources to focus on higher-level drug violators. As a result, the country’s opium seizures increased 9 percent between 2014 and 2015.

Kyrgyz Republic

The Kyrgyz Republic is the only country in the region to have expanded methadone-assisted therapy (MAT) services, which play an important role in treating opioid addiction. As of March 2016, MAT had expanded to 30 sites across the country, including in seven prisons.

Regional Consensus

Central Asian states have leveraged their counternarcotics experience to partner with Afghanistan in combating the menace of drug production and smuggling. These countries have pitched in to promote economic growth, stability and counternarcotics support to Afghanistan, with the keen understanding that they benefit from each other’s successes in this area.

Members of Uzbekistan’s National Security Service conduct an operation to destroy drugs at a metallurgical plant outside Tashkent in June 2015. [REUTERS]

Turkmenistan, for example, is sponsoring a transnational gas pipeline to supply much of Afghanistan’s energy needs. Kazakhstan has provided Afghanistan with thousands of tons of badly needed wheat and $50 million in university scholarships to train Afghan doctors and scientists. Police in Tajikistan coordinate border security with their Afghan colleagues, and the Kyrgyz Republic transmits hydroelectric power to Kabul.

Even when consensus is elusive on other topics, border management and combating narcotics have attracted widespread cooperation. NATO and Russia have played a productive role in encouraging those natural partnerships by jointly training more than 2,000 counternarcotics officers from Central Asia and Afghanistan in concert with the UNODC and the Turkish International Academy Against Drugs and Crime. The Central Asian Counternarcotics Initiative builds upon that training by setting up anti-drug task forces in the countries of Central Asia to interdict opium and heroin passing mostly through Afghan, Tajik and Kyrgyz transit points.

Thanks in part to these partnerships, UNODC verified that Afghanistan eradicated 3,760 hectares of opium poppy fields in 2015, up from 2,692 hectares in 2014. The majority of 2015 eradication efforts occurred in two of the largest poppy-growing provinces, Helmand and Badakhshan.

Moving forward

To advance the counternarcotics battle, academics and nongovernmental organizations advocate for alternative policies to regulate recreational drugs, as well as the pursuit of harm-reduction strategies to undercut the profits of criminal groups, according to the East Asia Forum. In addition, scholars argue, countries in Central Asia must implement policies to reorient consumer choices — perhaps by conducting educational campaigns on the dangers of opium addiction — to undercut the goods and services crime provides.

Other sources advocate encouraging and subsidizing farmers to grow non-opium crops in the Taliban-rife southern provinces of Afghanistan. Years of economic instability and civil war have incentivized farmers to pursue the relatively quick profits of opium cultivation. The Taliban buy opium from farmers and sell it mostly to drug dealers in Pakistan and Iran.

Sources: UNODC, The International News, East Asia Forum, The Huffington Post, Tolo News, INCSR