On Aug. 24, the Iranian state news agency Press TV published a story claiming that NATO aircraft in Afghanistan were transporting narcotics as part of that country’s lucrative opium trade. It quoted Brigadier General Eskandar Momeni, head of the Islamic Republic’s drug control headquarters.
"Based on reliable information, planes operated by the NATO and the United States transport these illicit drugs in our neighboring country,” Momeni claimed.
That is misleading.
The story provides no further evidence for the claim, but cites a story from Russia’s TASS state news agency quoting a Russian official making a similar claim.
The story in question quotes Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, voicing the drug trafficking accusations. The top Russian diplomat made those charges as Moscow was denying reports attributed to U.S. intelligence alleging that Russia has been paying bounties to Taliban to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
"Those wonderful US intelligence officers, who accuse us of different things, are involved in drug trafficking. Their planes from Kandahar, from Bagram [airfield near Kabul] are flying wherever they want to - to Germany, to Romania - without any inspections. Every citizen of Kabul will tell you that, everyone is ready to talk about that," Kabulov said.
Beyond his assertion that “every citizen of Kabul” would make this claim, he provided no evidence to substantiate it.
Another recent TASS story that raises these allegations quotes Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying: "We keep on receiving reports, including via mass media, that contraband of opiates has been organized from Afghanistan to other countries, including to Europe, with the use of military aircraft of the NATO coalition. We cannot verify these reports 100% but such reports are coming too regularly to be ignored. If military aircraft were used over Afghanistan, they could have been only NATO’s aircraft and such flights could have been performed only by the military or special services. Naturally, such information needs to be probed into, first of all in the United States."
Apart from citing unspecified “mass media reports,” Lavrov’s assertion that NATO aircraft are the only military aircraft flying over Afghanistan ignores the fact that Afghanistan has its own air force.
NATO has long been involved in counter-narcotics work in Afghanistan, part of which involves training local Afghan police to combat drug cultivation and trafficking.
Since the U.S. became involved in Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Washington has spent over $8 billion on counter-narcotics operations there.
However, that does not mean the U.S. operations have been successful. For example, in 2019, the Pentagon ended a year-long program that involved air strikes on Taliban “narcotics facilities” after it was found that the strikes had little impact on Afghanistan’s drug trade. The opium trade in Afghanistan has been a major source of funding for the Taliban.
In recent years, the United States has significantly reduced its military presence in Afghanistan and is currently negotiating a peace agreement with the Taliban, which controls nearly 20 percent of the country’s territory.
March to July are the key months for opium harvesting in Afghanistan, which requires a large labor force. The United Nations estimates that the Taliban’s annual revenue from the illegal narcotics trade in 2018 alone amounted to about $400 million and “remains in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Russian organized crime and state actors have been reportedly long-time key actors in Afghan drug trafficking, maintaining distribution roots via Central Asia and the Caucasus.
According to recent research by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), cross-border mobility restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic reduced illegal drug trafficking worldwide. However, in countries like Afghanistan “with limited law enforcement capacity,” measures to counter the spread of COVID-19 “may divert resources away from counter-narcotics efforts, making drug trafficking and production less risky” and "providing a conducive environment for illicit activities.”
In 2018, Argentine authorities arrested a Russian Foreign Ministry official in connection with an earlier seizure of 389 kg of cocaine that had been found inside luggage stored at the Russian embassy in Buenos Aries.