The former Soviet Republics of Central Asia have long been a highway for the lucrative drug trade, but in recent years the routes out of the so-called Golden Crescent have been swelling with increasing traffic of opium grown in Afghanistan. Despite many efforts over the years by both Afghan and American central planners in Kabul, narcotic agriculture in Afghanistan has reached its zenith. As a result, relations with Russia and neighbors to the north like Tajikistan and Kazakhstan have become strained with both Afghanistan and the United States. Afghanistan currently accounts for 75% of the world’s opium production. A UN report made the damning claim that poppy cultivation now accounts for $1.4 billion in revenue in Afghanistan alone and over 15% of the overall economy. The US initiatives have drawn significant fire for providing direct support or compensation to poppy farmers through the construction of dams, canals, and other water works projects that are aimed at restoring the once-fertile provinces like Helmand to their former agricultural glory.
USAID claims that poppy cultivation has fallen due its efforts in providing alternative seeds, eradication efforts, and announcements via broadcast radio. The program gives 8,000 farmers “vouchers for seed, fertilizer, and technical assistance.” These claims, however, run counter to the facts on the ground – that opium traveling out of Afghanistan on its route north to Russia have risen, not fallen. The Russian media and government in particular, with its rising rates of heroin addiction, have been particularly incendiary in their denunciation of US efforts in Afghanistan, which they say supports the flow of opium into their country.
Many initiatives to replace poppy fields with alternatives like wheat and soy have fallen flat due the intensity of wheat cultivation, harvest, and storage as well as economies of scale and the hundreds of millions of dollars in food donations that drive the price of wheat down in Afghanistan (currently valued at 43 cents per kilo, whereas poppies are $203 per kilo). Poppies by contrast can be grown in much smaller amounts more profitably and are so easily stored that the crop is frequently used as a liquid medium of exchange with a consistent store of value. With over 75% of the Afghan population of 34 million living in rural regions where agriculture is the primary means of subsistence and livelihood, American efforts to curtail this practice have been hard-pressed, particularly since different aspects of the program are handled by different entities.
Russia in particular has focused on proposals to NATO that include large-scale spraying of the opium crop during growing seasons to curtail its traffic elsewhere, which has been met with little support. The United States is understandably hesitant to participate due to the risk of alienating rural communities which may revert to Taliban control in the absence of coalition forces after they withdraw later this year.
- The Asian Development Bank announced on Tuesday its intention to invest in energy development in Tajikistan: a total of four projects worth $122 million that include restoration of several substations, the creation of a SCADA system (or an automated process control system) as well as the construction of two 220-kilowatt transmission lines. In related good news for Tajikistan’s economic development, the VP of the World Bank for Europe and Central Asia, Laura Tuck, visited Dushanbe to discuss plans to invest in a higher standard of living for the Tajik people. The World Bank has a total of 13 projects totaling $223 million dollars.
- Iran has test-fired two long-range ballistic missiles, made domestically, ahead of talks with world powers to curtail its nuclear program. Iran has already test-fired long-range surface to surface Shabab missiles capable of reaching Israel, prompting many to wonder if hardliners and Rouhani’s group of doves are at odds about the potential nuclear deal. In response, Wendy Sherman, the lead US negotiator in the talks with Iran, told a Senate hearing that Iran’s missile guidance and ballistics would be addressed in the comprehensive deal, but deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi balked at including the missile program in the nuclear deal.
- Kazakhstan’s currency, the tenge, has been devalued by 19%, despite assurances by Central Bank governor Kairat Kelimbetov that it would not happen. The tenge, closely tied to the Russian ruble, has been in steady decline recently in keeping with the larger global slowdown in emerging economies. Despite the sharp decline in value, which is currently held at 185 to the dollar, Kazakhstan has not revised its official inflation forecast down from between 6 and 8 percent.
- Uzbekistan has begun a requirement for all citizens to use biometric passports, which all citizens are expected to carry by the end of 2015. The decree is on behalf of “measures on improving Uzbek citizens’ traveling abroad.” Uzbekistan has a large absentee worker population, who send money back to their families, so this move could be seen as a way to expedite their travel.