Pubdate: Sun, 02 Nov 2003
Source: Sunday Telegraph (UK)
Copyright: Telegraph Group Limited 2003
Author: Tom Parfitt


Drugs from Afghanistan are pouring through Central Asia on their way
to Britain, the UN said last week. Tom Parfitt reports from Tajikistan

Hunched over his walkie-talkie at a dusty command post near the border
with Afghanistan, the Tajik soldier shouted in frustration: "Where are
you? What can you see?"

An Afghan farmer works on a poppy field in the Jurum district of
Badakhshan province In reply came a garbled tirade, distorted by
static. "It's no good," said the soldier. "I can't understand a thing."

Unable to contact their base for reinforcements, the soldiers soon
gave up the chase for a gang of heroin traders crossing the
mountainous frontier from neighbouring Afghanistan.

Hampered by poor resources, border guards in this impoverished former
Soviet state are losing the battle to stem the tide of drugs that
bears most of the heroin reaching Britain's streets across Asia and

Last week, a UN report revealed that impoverished Central Asian states
are now bearing the brunt of the burgeoning trade in Afghan narcotics.
More than 90 per cent of heroin sold in Britain comes from
Afghanistan, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"There is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a
failed state, this time in the hands of drugs cartels and
narco-terrorists," said the UN anti-drugs chief Antonio Maria Costa.

Heroin is pouring through Tajikistan, the poorest country in the
former Soviet Union, because anti-terrorism operations in southern
Afghanistan make it difficult for smugglers to cross into Pakistan and

More than 10,000 Russian border guards and 3,500 Tajik guards are
stationed on the porous 800-mile southern border with Afghanistan. "We
are shielding the world from Afghan heroin," said Rustam Nazarov, a
general drafted in to head Tajikistan's UN-backed Drug Control Agency.

On the ground, however, reality has bitten. "It's impossible for us to
destroy this trade," admitted Col Saidato Merzoev, who commands a
force of about 700 Tajik border guards at Shurobod near the Afghan

In one recent operation, his guards pounced on a gang of drug
traffickers in a stony gully near the Pyandzh river, which marks the
frontier with Afghanistan. Acting on a tip-off, a unit of 30 men
trekked into the barren mountains and lay in wait. "We saw the
criminals come up though the valley and stop to light a fire,"
recalled the colonel, a brawny man in striped T-shirt and army
fatigues. "Then we attacked."

Two Afghans were captured in the ensuing battle; the rest fled into
the night behind a barrage of automatic gunfire. The border guards
found a satchel which had been tossed aside, containing 44 pounds of
pure heroin. While that operation was a success, the contents of the
satchel were a tiny loss for the traffickers. Although in the first
nine months of this year, drug control forces seized 4.4 tons of
heroin - more than double their haul for the same period last year -
it is still just one tenth of the total amount being smuggled, law
enforcement officials believe.

Cultivation of opium poppies, the raw material for heroin, was banned
in Afghanistan by the Taliban, but production has rocketed since the
regime was driven from power. Smuggling is widespread. In one recent
incident, a ministry of health official carrying 12 pounds of heroin
injected into 52 lemons was intercepted trying to fly out of the Tajik
capital, Dushanbe.

Gen Nazarov warned the Afghan president Hamid Karzai and his
international backers not to slacken their efforts to stamp out the
trade in narcotics. "There is a direct link between drugs, extremism
and terrorist organisations such as the Taliban and al-Qaeda," he told
The Sunday Telegraph. "When US forces entered Afghanistan they saw
these problems in isolation. Now we are paying the price."

The smugglers use satellite telephones to co-ordinate forays across
the border from Afghanistan, linking up with criminal gangs in
Tajikistan. Those groups then co-operate with Russian mafia who
maintain the supply to addicts in Europe. Britain has committed UKP70
million to eradicating Afghan drug production over the next three
years but Bill Rammell, a Foreign Office minister, admitted this week
that the task would be "a long haul".

Farmers can earn up to 40 times more growing opium than by growing
wheat. Cash from drug production and smuggling is a key source of
income for the warlords who still control large swathes of the
country, and accounts for about half of Afghanistan's GDP, the UNODC

Heroin and methadone are refined from raw opium at laboratories in the
Afghan mountains, then carried into Central Asia via myriad routes -
on foot, on horseback, packed into the tyres of vehicles or smuggled
on trains. It is hardly surprising that the guards struggle to stop
the trafficking.

"They are doing the best they can but they can't intercept everybody,"
said one senior British diplomat in Dushanbe. "You'd need a border
post every 50 yards." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake