U.S. and Russia Fight Drug Flow

Commentary | April 15, 2013

Writing for the World Policy Journal, former DEA Administrator John Lawn discusses U.S.-Russia cooperation on Afghan narcotrafficking and the EWI-led Joint Threat Assessment.

In 1989, I was approached by the government of Mikhail Gorbachev for help with a new problem the Soviet Union was facing—drug addiction. At the time, I was administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. We quickly accepted their invitation and traveled to Moscow and met with our law enforcement colleagues. Our goal was to foster better cooperation with our Soviet colleagues, consistent with the international enforcement mission of the DEA. It was in our mutual interest to work with the Soviets as they faced their country’s new but still small addiction to Afghan opiates.

Today, at a time when U.S.-Russia relations have dropped to a new low, the two countries continue to find it in our mutual interest to cooperate in their ant-drug efforts. Given the planned drawdown of U.S. troops from Afghanistan next year, opium from Afghanistan continues to fuel a growing drug crisis in Russia. About 30,000 Russians die each year from heroin-related deaths, and intravenous drug use is the lead factor in the stunning rates of HIV and AIDS in that country. What began as a relatively modest opium abuse problem among the Soviet troops returning from Afghanistan in the 1980s is now a major crisis for Russian society.

Although only about 7 percent of heroin in the United States is of Afghan origin, the flow of drugs from this struggling country threatens us in numerous ways. First and foremost, drug funding supports terrorist activity. Even during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, when the Soviet Union and the United States were on opposing sides of the conflict, the DEA worked with the mujahideen to locate and destroy heroin laboratories. After the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the USSR’s overture for DEA assistance in 1989, we shared the common goal of addressing international drug trafficking. We now have offices in Moscow and Kabul, and Russia’s cooperation and sharing of drug intelligence is a key component of our investigative activity focused on opium from Afghanistan, corruption, and money laundering.

What does this cooperation look like? Today the DEA works on the ground with NATO and Afghan national forces to track down Taliban and other anti-government elements involved in the drug trade. In this work, we rely on assistance and intelligence from Russia’s Federal Drug Control Agency (FSKN) to locate and destroy drug laboratories, and to initiate investigations of trafficking, corruption, and money laundering. It is, in short, an effective partnership with the law enforcement and security agencies operating in Afghanistan.

But there is more that can and should be done to institutionalize such vital cooperation. The demand-side is part of the equation, and the Russian government has sought to learn from our long history of drug treatment, drug education and rehabilitation. But we also must work together on the supply side of the equation. We have continued these efforts in a discreet non-governmental effort to bring U.S. and Russian experts together to cooperate on combatting narcotrafficking from Afghanistan. This effort, led by the EastWest Institute, recently culminated in the publication of a U.S.-Russia joint threat assessment on narcotrafficking. International cooperation is key in any successful strategy.

As the EastWest report acknowledged, the two sides don’t necessarily agree on how to deal with the supply side of the problem. The Russian government has urged massive aerial eradication, taking as an example the U.S. strategy in Colombia. This strategy worked in Colombia in spite of the violent intimidation of the Medellin and Cali cartels that targeted law enforcement and judicial officials, including this writer while Administrator of DEA. But such a strategy cannot be easily translated to the realities of Afghanistan.

If Afghan farmers abruptly lose such a major source of income, the danger is that they quickly will be radicalized, providing new recruits for the Taliban or other antigovernment forces. Washington prefers to put more emphasis on the kind of economic development that would provide new alternatives to poppy cultivation and smuggling.

Despite those disagreements, the areas of shared understanding between the United States and Russia on these drug issues are growing. The main dilemma for counternarcotics efforts is not a strict choice between hard and soft measures prioritizing either eradication/interdiction or alternative development. Any effective counternarcotics strategy requires an integrated enforcement and development solution. It also demands that the United States and Russia continue to work together, no matter what other problems plague our bilateral relationship.

With 27 years in law enforcement, John Lawn served as administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration from 1985 to 1990 and was deputy administrator from 1982 to 1985.

Read this piece at the World Policy Journal.