A Russian source recently brought an obscure but disturbing article to my attention. Published last month by a little-known online journal called the Oriental Review, the piece, "Active Endeavour And Drug Trafficking," proposed that not a single gram of heroin has been confiscated on the Mediterranean Sea since the inception of NATO's Operation Active Endeavour, a maritime operation launched a month after the September 11th attacks with the mission of "monitoring shipping to help detect, deter and protect against terrorist activity."
My first thought was that perhaps this information was being torqued for some reason by the self-described "Moscow-based internet journal." But upon further research, I found that not only had Russia itself been involved in Operation Endeavour as a non-NATO country, but that the Russians had cooperated with American troops in post-9/11 anti-heroin proliferation efforts in Afghanistan.
In November 2011, Reuters quoted Russia's anti-drug czar, Viktor Ivanov, as saying that five Russian-American raids of heroin laboratories in Afghanistan, conducted over a five-month period in late 2010 and early 2011, basically represented the sum of the combined anti-heroin efforts there. Ivanov sounded frustrated by the "cumbersome" process of getting the military approval required as a prerequisite to any such raid and seemed to credit this with the demise of the Afghanistan anti-heroin efforts.
Why would Russia be particularly frustrated? The Hindu, an English-language newspaper in India, noted in a 2008 article that 90 percent of heroin in Russia and 93 percent globally was coming from Afghanistan. The article quoted Vladimir Putin as complaining as far back as 2005: "Unfortunately, (NATO) are doing nothing to reduce the narcotic threat from Afghanistan even a tiny bit ... sitting back and watching caravans haul drugs across Afghanistan to the former Soviet Union and Europe."
This background helps illustrate the larger history of Russia's exasperation with NATO inaction in curtailing the heroin trade, and it offers context to the Oriental Journal piece specifically addressing the interception (or lack thereof) of heroin on merchant ships in the Mediterranean.
But does Russia have cause to complain? Has there really been no heroin confiscated during the 10-plus years of Operation Active Endeavour? That seems hard to believe, given this claim on the website for Operation Active Endeavour: "NATO forces have hailed over 100,000 merchant vessels and boarded some 155 suspect ships. ... If anything appears unusual or suspicious, teams of between 15 and 20 of the ships' crew may board vessels to inspect documentation and cargo."
Presumably, these boardings and inspections would include the detection of some heroin or, at the very least, something that could be used to manufacture it. According to Craig Murray, a former British ambassador to Uzbekistan who wrote an article for the Daily Mail in 2007: "Millions of gallons of the chemicals needed for (the heroin-producing) process are shipped into Afghanistan by tanker. The tankers and bulk opium lorries on the way to the factories share the roads, improved by American aid, with NATO troops."
So why hasn't NATO been confiscating any heroin or the chemicals used to produce it? I turned to a top-level American diplomat, who explained to me that, "NATO has never done anything on drug trafficking. ... (O)ur Department of Defense has consistently refused to do anything with counter-narcotics in Afghanistan."
But doesn't NATO view the curtailment of heroin trafficking as part of the counterterrorism mission, since it seems to be a major source of funding for terrorist initiatives? And indeed it is a major source of terrorism funding -- $150 million annually to the Taliban, and $7 billion globally each year, according to Russia's anti-drug czar Ivanov.
Yet the Obama administration's solution, at least for the 2013 fiscal year, is to throw $179.1 million at the Afghan drug trade through the State Department and, presumably, private contractors who bid on USAID opportunities via the federal procurement process. According to the "National Drug Control Budget: 2013": "In Afghanistan, USAID will continue to focus on reducing the production of illegal crops by promoting alternative livelihoods programs. The majority of the decreased funding in (fiscal year) 2013 is in Afghanistan, and is due to a shift away from stabilization and staple crop focused alternative development programs to those more closely integrating stabilization, alternative development, and market led agricultural development objectives."
So the Taliban is going to get out of the heroin business because someone convinces them that planting corn or some other crop is a better alternative? I'm not sure who would have to be higher on heroin to believe this would work: the Taliban "smack" farmers or the American public.