Central Asia's Heroin Problem : FROM AFGHAN FARMS INTO THE TAJIK MOUNTAINS, THE DRUG TRADE CUTS A WIDE SWATH

Article excerpt

In Khujand, Tajikistan, when someone shows up with a new Mercedes or Audi or Jaguar, the joke on the street is that people don't ask how much money it cost. They ask how many kilos it cost.

As the drug trade has saturated Afghanistan over the past decade, trafficking routes have been carved through the brittle landscape of the Central Asian nations to the north, like Tajikistan. Increases in crime, corruption and addiction have followed, while repressive governments have used the fight against narcotics as another tool to crush political opponents.

One tour of the heroin route can begin in northern Afghanistan, where organized religious fanatics produce the drugs, and continue north through Tajikistan, where organized criminals of a more familiar stripe take over. A good place to start the tour is the city of Taloqan, where the elegant tree-lined boulevards and the bustling bazaar belie its role as a fiercely contested strategic point in the north. According to one United Nations diplomat, about two tons of heroin flow through Taloqan each month. The city was a prize taken by the Taliban from the Northern Alliance in 2000, and then, this past November, it was recaptured by the Northern Alliance in its US-backed blitzkrieg through the country.

Nearby, UN experts say, there is a group of warehouses with enough stockpiled heroin to export a hundred tons a year for the next three years. According to a Western diplomat familiar with the drug trade, when Taloqan fell this past fall the owners of the heroin warehouses reached a new accommodation with the incoming conquerors, switching sides even before the door had swung shut behind the exiting Taliban. The warehouses "are not destroyed, they are just waiting."

In Afghanistan, poverty has made drug production necessary for survival, and warlords have used it to consolidate their power. Virtually the entire economy is black market, aside from aid money. The legal exports are worth approximately $80 million, according to the CIA's World Fact Book: mostly carpets, dried fruit, nuts. The opium crop, at rock-bottom prices in Afghan markets, is worth at least $120 million, based on UN estimates of $30 a kilogram in February 2000. Since then, the wholesale price has jumped tenfold. The true value of the exported drugs, once they hit the streets in Moscow, Amsterdam, Geneva, London or New York, is estimated at up to $100 billion.

Unlike in Colombia, Afghanistan's drugs aren't grown high in tree-covered hills; instead, the poppy is cultivated more overtly in the only really fertile areas the country has: the bottom land along rivers, in Badakshan, Nangarhar, Kandahar, Oruzgan. Then it's processed near the cities. Afghan heroin production is highly professional; the one-kilo plastic bags are stamped with the names of the factories where they are produced. One that I saw in November was stamped "999"; underneath, it said "95%. Azad private factory--The Best of All Export, Super White." "Abdur Rauf" read another, "wholesale," "Faizabad," meaning that's the city of origin. Faizabad has always been under the command of the Northern Alliance.

Afghanistan produces three-quarters of the world's opium and heroin--hundreds of tons a year. As a result, America's allies in the current global conflict, as well as its enemies, are neck-deep in the narcotics business. As the postwar gamesmanship shifts into high gear, a US official preparing for negotiations tells The Nation, "We're going to be dealing with people at all sorts of levels who've had involvement with the opium trade."

And that's been the flavor of the confusing war on both terror and drugs in the region. Less than a year before the Taliban's designation as the enemy in the wake of September 11, Afghanistan's brutal rulers won accolades from the West for a ban on poppy cultivation. Last May the United States announced a $43 million aid package widely seen as a reward. The ban was successful--because of the Taliban's implacable violence and a drought--but cynical, shoring up the price while allowing traffickers to unload huge stockpiles they'd built up. …