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Opium Threatens U.S.-led Afghan Fight, Russia Says

June 6 (Bloomberg) -- U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan will be “in vain” if forces fail to fight opium production and provide people with alternative economic opportunities, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said today.

NATO forces must figure out how to start “very primitive social economic life in Afghanistan,” Ivanov said today at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, which brought together defense officials from 28 countries. “If we don’t do that, any military presence will be in vain.”

The International Security Assistance Force should do more to curb the opium production that provides Taliban and other groups like al-Qaeda with “billions and billions of dollars” a year, Ivanov said. Russia is “not happy” with global efforts to stem the narcotics trade that threatens international peace and security, he said.

Russia, located on the transit route between Central Asia and Europe, has become the world’s third-largest market for illegal drugs in the past decade. The country, which fought its own war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, supports the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s mission by allowing military supplies to cross its territory.

Opium War

U.S., British and Afghan troops in January launched the biggest operation against the Taliban since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, aiming to wipe out an opium production center that has helped fund the guerrilla movement. The number of American troops in Afghanistan surpassed those in Iraq in May by about 94,000 to 92,000, according to the U.S. Defense Department.

Iran is “seriously fighting” drug traffickers along its border with Afghanistan, and Russia has proposed coordinating with former Soviet states to form “counter-drug rings” around Afghanistan, particularly on its northern border with Tajikistan, Ivanov said. From there “it’s easy to move it to Moscow, London, Paris, Berlin and elsewhere,” he said.

Russia is one of five veto-wielding members of the United Nations Security Council. The Soviet Union torched poppy fields, invested in agriculture and bought the produce at higher-than-market prices during its occupation of the country, Ivanov said.

“If you burn down poppy plantation of course you need to invest in conventional agriculture,” he said. “We understood we should buy higher than the average price to motivate the local peasants.”

Afghanistan is the highest-yielding opium producer in the world and produced 6,900 tons of the drug last year, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The country’s 1.6 million opium farmers earn in excess of three times more per hectare from poppies than from wheat, according to the UN.

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Ten Kate in Singapore at dtenkate@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bill Austin at billaustin@bloomberg.net

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