How Conflict Zones From Afghanistan to the Caucasus Fuel Drug Trafficking
By Taras Kuzio
US military withdrawal from Afghanistan is 90% complete. President Joe Biden said it ‘was not in the national interest to continue fighting’ and ‘I will not send another generation of Americans to war in Afghanistan with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome.’ 3,500 coalition soldiers have been killed over the last two decades, including 2,500 Americans.
A Taliban take-over of Afghanistan will create two threats. The first will be a growth in terrorist attacks against the US and Western targets. The second will be a massive boost in production of illicit narcotics. Iran has played a strategic role in the past in both areas and following US withdrawal Tehran’s involvement will multiply. Iran has an extensive history of using proxies and terrorist groups to attack Western interests throughout the Greater Middle East. Iran, Armenia and until last year’s war the Nagorno-Karabakh frozen conflict were the main transit route for Afghanistan-produced narcotics transported to the Balkans and Europe.
Western governments and NATO need to prepare for a growth in terrorism and illicit narcotics after Afghanistan falls to the Taliban. The two key facilitators of these two threats are Iran and Russia. Presidents Trump and Biden have yet to grapple with the intelligence showing Russia offered bounties to the Taliban to kill US soldiers in Afghanistan. If Afghan terrorists, organized criminals and narcotics manage to transit through Turkey and Azerbaijan they have an open route into the Balkans and Europe.
Since the early 1990s, frozen conflicts in Eurasia have been sources of soft security threats, such as narcotics, human trafficking, weapons sales, and other items of illegal items. Narcotics and soft security threats are hugely profitable, and corrupt state officials and law enforcement in many countries along the routes traffickers use.
The Afghan-Iranian route has been operational since the 1970s using land, sea, and air modes of transportation. Western Afghanistan-Iranian border is long and unprotected. Afghan narcotics and weapons are transported through Iran and the former frozen conflict region of Nagorno-Karabakh through different Balkan routes into continental Europe and the UK.
Border crossings from Iran into Armenia at Agarak-Norduz and Meghri have long played a role in the transit of narcotics and weapons. Political protection was provided by corrupt politicians and oligarchs in Armenia who controlled and used the frozen conflict zone of Nagorno-Karabakh.
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project believed ‘Armenia is a transit point for drugs smuggled to Europe.’ Illicit narcotics from Afghanistan and Latin America were smuggled through Armenia. The report was written only three years before Armenia’s colour revolution against long-standing and widespread corruption in the ruling elites.
The US has long claimed Iranian Revolutionary Guards facilitated the transit and undoubtably their participation after the Taliban take-over of Afghanistan will grow. Iranian Revolutionary Guards see the distribution as both a major source of corrupt funds and as one of many means to attack what they see as the ‘evil West.’ Iran, Russia and Armenia are geopolitical allies in the South Caucasus, Eurasia and Greater Middle East.
Production centres such as Afghanistan and transit countries suffer from a growth in drug addiction in their populations. Iran leads with 3.5 million drug addicts. Drug use has been growing in Armenia and Georgia as well. A study of drug use in Iran found it had increased because it ‘shares a border with Afghanistan’, a country ‘which is the largest producer country of opium in the world, and a major route for substance transport to Europe.’ Iran has the ‘highest rate of opium abusers in the world, or 2 million people using illegal drugs daily, and opium use in Iran is three times the global average.’
Illicit narcotics also gives huge financial resources to ethnic organized crime groups who act as distribution centers in Europe. Germany, for example, became a hub for operations by Armenian organized crime groups involved in illicit narcotics and human trafficking. In 2018, Germany’s Federal Criminal Police issued a report on Eurasian organized crime groups and wrote ‘the Armenian mafia exists and represents a threat to the rule of law. The report also alleged ties the then Armenian Ambassador to Germany Ashot Smbatyan had ties to Armenian criminal structures.
Frozen conflicts in Eurasia are black holes of narcotics production and distribution, centres of organized crime, illegal trade in weapons, and human trafficking. There are six Eurasian frozen conflict zones in Moldova and Georgia since the early 1990s and in Ukraine more recently since 2014. Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh was unfrozen after last year’s 44-day war which ended nearly three decades of Armenian occupation.
Normal economic activity in Moldova’s Trans-Dniestr, Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Azerbaijan’s Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine’s Donbas ended during the hot wars and never resumed after they became frozen conflicts. There is no rule of law, and the central government has no influence. They survive through a combination of Afghan produced and Iranian and Armenian trafficked narcotics, Russian acquiescence, corruption and subsidies, remittances from migrant labour and organized crime activities.
Armenia’s occupation of twenty percent of Azerbaijan until last year produced the biggest of Eurasia’s six frozen conflicts. There was plenty of land available in a lawlessness frozen conflict where drug production and drug laboratories could thrive. As we know from Latin America and Afghanistan, poverty, criminality, and lawlessness are perfect breeding grounds for narcotic production and other forms of organized crime activities.
The ending of Nagorno-Karabakh’s frozen conflict status last year shed a spotlight on it as a region of illicit narcotics production and hub for the transit of narcotics from Afghanistan via Iran. The formerly occupied Karabakh and seven surrounding districts had become ‘grey zones’ of uncontrolled narcotics production and transportation from Iran. Stepanakert, the ‘capitol’ of Nagorno-Karabakh hosted an ‘international airport that exclusively served organized crime.’ The fake and run down airport was a ‘dusty relic of a frozen conflict’ which served as a transit hub for illicit narcotics and other criminal activities.
After Armenian security forces withdrew from Southern Karabakh and the seven surrounding districts, which had been agreed in the November 2020 ceasefire agreement, they left extensive evidence of narcotics production. In the Fuzuli and Gubaldi districts, Azerbaijani police found abandoned fields where illicit narcotics had been cultivated and laboratories where new forms of illicit narcotics had been manufactured. In these two districts alone, nearly 10,000 hemp bushes were destroyed by the Azerbaijani police.
Much of what was grown was used to produce the financially lucrative heroin for distribution through Russia and Turkey into Europe. The trade in illicit narcotics as a source of corruption for state officials and military officers provided an additional incentive to that of geopolitics for Russia to maintain Eurasian conflicts frozen.
The very high profits earned from this trade had three impacts.
The first was it corrupted state officials and law enforcement in neighbouring countries. The second was it was used to purchase weapons for separatist forces. The third was lawless territories, such as Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territories, became havens for recuperation and training of terrorist groups, such as the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party), which has fought a bloody terrorist campaign against Turkey for decades.
The fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban is a matter of time which will lead to the growth of Iranian sponsored terrorism and distribution of illicit narcotics as threats to Europe and Western interests in the Greater Middle East. Iran’s allies in the distribution of illicit narcotics and weapons are Russian-controlled frozen conflicts in Eurasia. And yet, Western governments have devoted little attention to resolving these frozen conflicts because they have either not had the political will to push back against Russia or, in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh, France and the US have been sympathetic to Armenian nationalists.
With the strategic environment in Afghanistan rapidly changing it is time for Washington to take return to the region, understand the motivations and goals of Iran and Russia and take a tough line in resuming the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action over Iran’s nuclear weapon ambitions.
Taras Kuzio is a professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and author of Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War to be published by Routledge.