Drug and Road Initiative, that is the Silk Road of drug

This paper deals with the issue of drug business in post-Soviet Central Asia, a region that plays a key role in the trafficking of banned substances from Asia (mainly Afghanistan) to Europe. The study briefly presents the areas that make up the picture of drug business in Central Asia, paying attention to production and distribution.

Instytut Boyma 12.03.2021

This paper deals with the issue of drug business in post-Soviet Central Asia, a region that plays a key role in the trafficking of banned substances from Asia (mainly Afghanistan) to Europe. The study briefly presents the areas that make up the picture of drug business in Central Asia, paying attention to production and distribution.

Keywords: narco-business, Afghanistan, Central Asia, drug route, opium, opiates, UNODC, BOMCA, CACI



International drug smuggling and trafficking, known as narco-business, is one of the most lucrative criminal activities. This phenomenon is not subject to geographical, religious or cultural limitations, and is therefore present on all continents, although with varying degrees of intensity. As a rule, the main consumers of the final products are communities with higher levels of wealth, while production, especially of drugs of natural origin, is a domain of poorer countries, whose climate, including the political one, is favorable for the development of cultivated fields. A special place on the world map of plant-based drug production is occupied by South American countries, with the leading role of the famous Colombian and Mexican cartels, the countries of Asia’s so-called Golden Triangle (Laos, Thailand and Burma) and the undisputed leader in opium production, Afghanistan.

The dynamic growth of Afghanistan, which dethroned the long-time leader in opium production- Burma, began with the invasion of the Soviet army, and reached the apogee of production under local Taliban rule, and this despite the American military invasion, one of those slogans was precisely to fight the production of this narcotic. 

Production itself, however, is only the first stage of the narco-business. Without the provision of relatively secure high-capacity distribution routes, there would be no growth in the acreage of poppy fields of Afghan soil, with low levels of agro-technical sophistication, poor quality land, and in difficult, mostly mountainous terrain. The Central Asian republics bordering Afghanistan, namely Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, which gained sovereignty from Soviet subjugation in the early 1990s, were not and still are not able to effectively secure their borders to counter opium smuggling on a gigantic scale. 

Central Asia plays a key role in the distribution process. The poorly guarded long borders that run through difficult, mountainous terrain combined with the low technical sophistication of the local armed forces, massive corruption, and widespread poverty of the population are factors that favor an active role in the process of drug distribution from Afghanistan to Russia and Europe. 

Actions taken by local authorities, regional organizations and support from global organizations, despite the involvement of significant military resources, do not bring expected results. Just as the U.S. military has failed to combat opium production in Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) have failed to produce tangible results in the fight against drug trafficking in Central Asia.


Afghanistan as world leader in opium production

Afghanistan is the major opiate drug production area in the world. According to UN estimates (2008), 99% of the opium smuggled through Central Asia originates from this country. Although poppy cultivation is located in mountainous areas where the soil is of low quality class, when the crop is not demanding, production reaches high yields of up to 40.6 kg of final product (pure opium) per hectare.

However, it is not pure opium that is sold, but heroin, which increases the yield per hectare almost a hundredfold. Of course, the final proceeds from drug sales only marginally reach Afghan peasants, enriching primarily the criminal groups that oversee production, smuggling, and organized sales in the target countries. Nevertheless, in one of the world’s poorest countries, where per capita income further declined by almost one-third between 2012 and 2019 (World Bank, 2020) as a result of an escalating civil war, it represents a significant source of livelihood and, most importantly, relative security.

Back in 2003, Afghanistan supplied 75% of the world’s demand for opium, and revenue generated from this source increased as a percentage of GDP from 1990 to 2003 from about 3% to about 14% (Ward and Byrd, 2004). Processing opium into heroin and smuggling across borders are also additional sources of income that are difficult to estimate. While opium processing is increasingly located outside of Afghanistan for logistical reasons, the increase in production also means an increase in revenue for smugglers – revenue from smuggling was estimated to be at least $2.2 billion in 2009 (Peyrouse, 2012), a huge amount considering that Afghanistan’s GDP was $12.44 billion in the stated year (World Bank, 2020). 

It seemed that the “breaking of the back” of opium production was inflicted by the Taliban in 2000 with the ban on opium cultivation. This is estimated to have resulted in the elimination of 90% of the cultivation fields, with acreage dropping from 81,000 hectares to 8,000 hectares (Glaze, 2007), and a consequent two-thirds drop in opium supply, which translated into a sharp increase in opium prices (U.S. Department of State, 2001). The decision to ban, however, mobilized the numerous groups profiting from this activity to unite in their fight against the authorities, which in turn strengthened the Northern Alliance, a conglomerate of various local Islamic, nationalist, or simply criminal groups united by the common goal of eliminating the power of the Taliban (Withington, 2001). In the end, not only was opium production not threatened, but it actually began to increase, which seems obvious in a country with an 85% rural population where agriculture does not guarantee survival. Hence the tendency to turn fields of cereals or melons into poppy fields. 

In the face of a growing crackdown on illegal cultivation by local authorities, farmers dedicate only those parts of their fields that are not visible from the roads to poppy cultivation, the rest being used to grow traditional cereals. The income from these small poppy plots allows them to support their families, which would not be possible if farmers were limited to legal crops only (Clark, 2011). Nevertheless, the scale of this phenomenon has proved surprising. While annual opium production was estimated at 180 tons in 2001, it was already 3,000 tons in 2002 and at least 8,000 tons in 2007 (McCoy, 2018).

It is worth noting here that the revenue generated from the production and sale of opium and its derivatives is so attractive that it overcame the dam of ideology and became the main source of income for the Taliban as they became the anti-government guerrillas after the invasion by Western forces. Interestingly, the ban on opium cultivation came at a time when the Taliban had ruled 95% of Afghanistan for 6 years and had supported the opium economy from the beginning – from opiate production to heroin manufacture to securing distribution across borders to Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan. The U.S. Department of State estimated the Taliban’s tax revenue (20% of poppy crop revenue) to be at least $40 million in 1999, the year of prohibition (U.S. Department of State, 2001).

Over the past 20 years, the acreage of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has fluctuated in correlation with changes in the political situation in the country. After a period of gradual growth, by 2000 poppy cultivation occupied about 91,000 hectares. The aforementioned sudden ban on cultivation by the Taliban in 2000 reduced cultivation to 8,000 hectares in 2001, only to return to pre-ban levels 2 years later (Glaz, 2007). In 2003, the government in Kabul adopted the National Drug Control Strategy for Afghanistan, which optimistically projected a 70% reduction in cultivation acreage within 5 years and the complete elimination of opium production in another 5 years (Ward and Byrd, 2004). The extent to which the central government lived in isolation from provincial reality is further demonstrated by the rapid increase in cultivation area to 131,000 hectares one year after the adoption of the above program and 165,000 hectares in 2006. The fact is that after the record year 2007, when the poppy cultivation area increased to 200,000 hectares, in 2009 there was a reduction to 123,000 hectares. However, this was not due to the implementation of the program of the Afghan government, but the effect of increased foreign financial assistance to farmers who choose to cease cultivation (McCoy, 2018).

Despite the commitment of increasing Afghan forces, increasingly better technological equipment for troops (night vision equipment, drones and aircraft), and even cooperation with the Taliban, there are no tangible results in terms of a perceived collapse in opium and heroin production. In 2017, poppy acreage was 50% larger than in the record-breaking year of 2014, at 329,000 hectares, and production was 9,140 tons of pure opium (ONDCP, 2020). 

It is worth noting the disproportionate, less than proportional increase in pure opium production relative to acreage growth. This is primarily due to the increased intensity of the fight against narco-business, the greater involvement of Afghan and U.S. forces in both the destruction of cultivation fields and the centers for processing poppy into finished products. In addition, a difficult to determine percentage of the crop is exported as an intermediate product for final refining outside Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, such a massive increase marked a complete failure of previous U.S. drug policy, to which President B. Obama directed an additional 700 specially trained soldiers and the support of the US Air Force. In 2017, with President D. Trump taking the reigns of the White House, the fight against narco-terrorism in Helmand province, a key province for opium production and processing, intensified. F-22 fighter jets and B-52 bombers were used in the fight for the first time, thanks to which the Americans managed to destroy 10 heroin laboratories. It is worth mentioning that the number of such laboratories is estimated to be at least 500 in Afghanistan (McCoy, 2018). The intensification of fighting in Helmand has resulted in a drastic reduction in cultivated land. The 2019 data shows that it was 50% of what it was two years ago, but at the same time, yield per hectare increased as production was 6,700 tons (ONDCP, 2020).

Without risk, it can be assumed, and this is borne out by the production data cited above, that until the government in Kabul develops a strategy to address the underlying causes of farmers involvement in poppy cultivation, any government activism and foreign aid in the form of administrative coercion or military violence alone will not result in a long-term downward trend.


Central Asia in a narco-business network

Opium production and its transformation into one of the most socially destructive drugs, heroin, would not pose such a strong threat if it were not for an organized distribution system. In this context, Central Asia plays a key role as a kind of gateway to Russia and Europe. The activities of Afghan groups organized around opiate trafficking basically end at the border with Tajikistan or Uzbekistan, and the roles of smugglers are taken over by local criminal organizations specialized in smuggling. This has the effect of significantly reducing narco-business income for Afghan criminals. For example, in 2003, of the “street” value of opiates produced, estimated at $30 billion, only about 8% ($2.3 billion) remained in the hands of producers (Ward and Byrd, 2004).

Based on the criterion of income and the scale of smuggling activity, three types of smugglers identified by color have been distinguished (Peyrouse, 2012):

  • “Green” includes criminal groups with a strong religious (Islamic) tinge, whose share of the total volume of smuggled opiates is relatively small;
  • “Blacks” are small, locally based criminal groups and individual “initiatives” whose one-time smuggling volume is marginal and serves mainly to satisfy local demand;
  • “Reds” are the most dangerous groups because they are the best organized and have the largest share of global smuggling, often having the support of corrupt officials.

The main drug trafficking routes from Afghanistan are (Ward and Byrd, 2004):

  • the northern route, known as the Silk Road, runs through Tajikistan, which is poor at protecting its borders or intercepting smuggled drugs on its territory;
  • northwest route, which passes through Iran’s Khorasan province, usually transportation is carried out on this route by extremely violent criminal groups;
  • the southern route, running through Iranian Balochistan and Sistan, where transport is carried out by large and heavily armed convoys, additionally protected by local tribes;
  • Hormozgan route, passing along the border with Pakistan and further by water to the coast of Iran. and from there by land to Bandar Abbas, by boat to Dubai and by rail to Istanbul.

A range of local and global organizations and agencies are involved in the fight against drug trafficking across Central Asia. The United Nations Organization for Drug Control (UNODC), which is active in Afghanistan, does not play such a significant role in the region, mainly due to the nature of the political ties of individual republics with Russia and China, which are quite suspicious of the activities of organizations and institutions outside the region. Similar restrictions affect the American-funded Central Asia Drug Initiative (CICA). Of far greater significance is the European Union-funded Border Management in Central Asia (BOMCA) program and the activities of specialized agencies OUBZ and SOW.

It should be added here that a major obstacle in the fight against drugs is the very high level of corruption among local, but also central, officials and police. In general, large-scale anti-drug operations in Central Asia are carried out locally with great reluctance, low commitment, and usually as a result of international pressure. The facile nature of the actions against drug traffickers is confirmed by arrests almost exclusively in the “Black” group, sometimes “Green”, leaving the most dangerous “Red” virtually untouched (Peyrouse, 2004). Theoretically, it is the large-scale activity of the “Reds” that is their weakness and should facilitate the interception of transports, since they are carried out along the main transport routes (roads and railroads), in addition passing through numerous checkpoints. The lack of success in the fight against these groups can only be explained by the high level of corruption involving the authorities at various levels of government, including the presidential office (more on this later).

Tajikistan is by far the most important country in the region for smuggling, both because of its long border with Afghanistan (1206 km) and its passage through a mountainous area that is difficult to control, as well as the highest in Central Asia level of official corruption and poor quality of service. According to UN estimates, in the first years of the 21st century, at least 60% of all production smuggled out of Afghanistan went to this republic in the first stage of distribution (UNDOC, 2008). The dynamic growth of opiate production in Afghanistan resulted in a further increase in smuggling through Tajikistan, but at the same time alternative routes began to gain importance, which ultimately caused the republic’s share of distribution to fall to about 30%. The scale of smuggling of opiates and their derivatives through the drug republic is best demonstrated by the estimated value, which was $2.7 billion in 2011 (Rahmani, 2018). 

The other major smuggling area for opiates is Turkmenistan, which has a 744 km long border with Afghanistan. This republic plays a key role in drug trafficking to Iran. It is estimated that in the first decade of the 21st century, over 50% of all opium and opium derivatives produced in Afghanistan were smuggled through Turkmenistan (UNODC, 2008). This republic, strongly isolated from the rest of the region and ruled authoritatively by president G. Berdymukhammedov, does not cooperate with external organizations and regional and international agencies in the fight against drug trafficking. There is also no reliable data on the scale of involvement of officials at different levels of government in the drug trade, but based on the observation of other republics, especially Tajikistan with a similar system of government or Kyrgyzstan, it can be assumed that it is significant.

Uzbekistan plays an essentially secondary role in drug smuggling from Afghanistan. Due to the relatively strong control on the short border with Afghanistan, which was closed in 1998-2002, smuggling is basically done only from the territory of Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan in this case plays the role of a transit country on the way to Kazakhstan and further to Russia and Europe. Uzbekistan ranks high in terms of transport facilities – it has a relatively well-developed network of good roads and railroads, which in addition run through less inhospitable terrain than in Kyrgyzstan or Tajikistan, where roads in mountainous areas are only available for a few months of the year (Tüylüoğlu, 2010). On the other hand, the republic’s significant turn towards inclusion in the global economy also results in a heavily pushed by President Sh. Mirziyoyev’s program of uncompromising fight against organized crime, so it also hits the smugglers (not only drugs). In addition, Uzbekistan is becoming increasingly open to international cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking.

Kyrgyzstan, while not directly bordering Afghanistan, plays an important role in the northern smuggling route, serving as a stepping stone between Tajikistan and Kazakhstan. Smuggling is facilitated by both a weak border control system and corruption that reaches the highest echelons of power (Kupatadze, 2008). Despite an upward trend in drug smuggling from Afghanistan (by 58% between 2001 and 2009), in 2009 President K. Bakiyev dissolved the Drug Control Agency, which had played a leading role in combating the distribution of banned substances. Under the presidential decision, the role of the Agency was to be taken over by an internal agenda of the Ministry of Interior (Isa and Marat, 2010).

This decision, in a country with a high rate of corruption and a dense network of shady dealings, must have been controversial. In the republic, it was a public secret that the president’s brother was involved in protecting the big players in the narco-business and, of course, benefiting immensely from it. The opposition, in turn, publicly accused the president of direct involvement in this practice, and the alleged corruption involving the head of state led to mass protests and K. Bakiyev’s resignation from office in April 2010. (Matusiak, 2010). Kyrgyz police arrested the president’s brother in July 2010 and the former state leader’s son in London in 2013, but neither of them were charged with links to narco-business (the brother was convicted of murder during the 2010 ethnic riots, and the son of embezzlement and corruption).

Kazakhstan is an exit point on the smuggling route from Central Asia to Russia and on to Europe. Although, in comparison with other countries in the region, the republic is distinguished by the efficiency of its services in combating drug trafficking, the vast, mostly uninhabited area it occupies significantly reduces the effectiveness of the services in combating drug trafficking. An additional problem for the Kazakh authorities is the virtual absence of strict control of the border with Russia, due to both countries’ membership in the Eurasian Economic Community (Olcott and Udalova, 2000). The consequence of a significant level of freedom of cross-border distribution is the de facto absence of barriers to drug smuggling into the territory of Russia.



Combating drug production and trafficking in the so-called ‘Golden Crescent’, whose key areas include Afghanistan and Central Asia, is currently the greatest challenge for local governments and international organizations. However, it is difficult to speak about the effectiveness of actions taken in this direction, given the enormity of corruption, political instability and the relatively low wealth of the societies of the countries involved in this practice. Undoubtedly, stabilizing the political scene in Afghanistan, as well as ensuring stable economic development of Central Asian republics are of key importance here. So far, the prospects for limiting the production and trafficking of opiates are not promising.

Without a change in the system of government in Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and their greater involvement in regional cooperation, a significant improvement in border control with Afghanistan and internal control between the republics, any efforts to curb the ever-growing scale of production and smuggling are unlikely to succeed. The situation is unlikely to improve in the next dozen years, especially in view of Washington’s resignation from defeat in the Afghan war and the end of military intervention in that country, as well as the weak and uncoordinated efforts of local governments and organizations such as OUBZ and SOW in the fight against drug trafficking. 

An important qualitative change on this front could be the increased involvement of China, which is increasingly affected by the distribution of drugs on its territory, becoming, as its social wealth increases, the ultimate recipient of drugs. For the time being, however, Beijing’s efforts are focused on expanding and deepening economic ties with Central Asia, concentrating efforts and resources on implementing the Belt and Road Initiative. 

This does not mean that the Middle Kingdom ignores the problem of the narco-business, especially since it is often linked to terrorist organizations, for which it is one of the main sources of income. This situation is not only detrimental to China’s security, but also undermines Chinese dominance in the region and has a destructive effect on Beijing’s credibility as a state capable of filling the gap in the regional security system in the face of U.S. withdrawal and Russia’s political and economic weakness. 

In view of these facts, an effective solution for combating drug business appears to be the creation of a specialized regional organization that would involve all interested countries, while coordinating its activities with institutions and organizations outside the region with experience in combating drug business. It is essential that such an organization is established across political divides and is organized in such a way as to ensure stability and continuity of operations (resources) and remain independent of the decisive influence of any state. It is the dominance of Russia’s political influence that limits the effectiveness of the OUBZ, and the required consensus in decision-making, given the lack of mutual trust and the partisanship of Russian and Chinese interests, that have virtually thrown the potentially powerful SOW to the margins of regional politics.

Translation: Karolina Piotrowska



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