Political disagreements between the United States and Russia over Ukraine should not hamper their cooperation in search of strategic solutions to the issue of Afghan drugs production and trafficking. This was a key conclusion drawn by the EastWest Institute’s project team following a three-day meeting of its U.S.-Russia experts steering group on Afghan narcotrafficking, held in Moscow at the end of June. Co-chaired by EastWest’s vice president, David Firestein, and the institute’s Russia office director, Vladimir Ivanov, the meeting in Moscow was convened specifically to assess the implications of the current systemic crisis in Russia’s relations with the West on the security situation and counternarcotics efforts in and around Afghanistan.
The meeting involved leading experts from the EastWest Institute’s bilateral Joint U.S.-Russia Working Group on Afghan Narcotrafficking: Ilnur Batyrshin, head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service’s research center; Ivan Safranchuk, associate professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations; Konstantin Sorokin, advisor at the International Training and Methodology Centre for Financial Monitoring; Ekaterina Stepanova, head of the Peace and Conflict Studies Unit at the Institute of the World Economy and International Relations; George Gavrilis, visiting scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life at Columbia University; and Austin Long, assistant professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. The steering group meeting also included Patricia Nicholas, project manager in the International Program at the Carnegie Corporation of New York, whose generous contribution makes possible the work of this EastWest Institute experts group on Afghan narcotrafficking.
Participants discussed the effect of the drawdown in Afghanistan of NATO International Security Assistance Force troops after 2014, with many noting that poppy cultivation and exports of illicit drugs from the country are likely to increase and that a basic precondition to solving this problem in the longer term would be political reconciliation and increased stability and functionality of the Afghan government at both the central and local levels. Discussion also focused on possible measures for managing the situation in the interim, such as continued international assistance to help raise the capacity of Afghan military and security forces as well as enhanced efforts to secure the borders around Afghanistan to counter both illicit drugs exports and the possible spillover of violent extremism to the neighboring countries. In this context, it was pointed out by some participants that even if U.S.-Russian counternarcotics cooperation continues at the operational level in this post-Crimea-sanctions environment, this is not enough to effectively address the complexity of Afghan drugs and security issues.
The steering group devoted one full meeting day entirely to consultations with key regional players that contribute to shaping security and counternarcotics strategies around Afghanistan. The consultations involved senior diplomats from the embassies in Moscow of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Kazakhstan as well as the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Secretariat of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO). Ambassador Zamir Kabulov, Special Envoy of the Russian Federation President for Afghanistan, also addressed the group.
The outcome of the steering group meeting in Moscow made it clear that the EastWest Institute’s leadership of this dialogue is particularly important against the backdrop of the recent challenges in the U.S.-Russia relationship at the governmental level. The steering group concluded that increasing efforts to engage regional players in this project could be an effective step towards helping restore regular communication between the Russian and U.S. counternarcotics communities.