Vanity Fair – March 2002
The ex–K.G.B. colonel and I are bumping along on the ancient Silk Road in Tajikistan, heading southeast from the capital city of Dushanbe toward the Panj River, which separates Tajikistan from Afghanistan. Arid mountains loom on either side, and random boulders are spewed on the poorly paved road, which we share with a few peasant boys and donkeys bearing bundles of kindling wood. Like most Americans, I had barely heard of this country before September 11, but soon I began to realize its crucial importance to a dangerous war that is sure to last much longer than the one going on in Afghanistan. The enemy is heroin, the most valuable export of Central Asia, and I have come 7,000 miles to understand the symbiotic connection between drugs and terrorism. Now I am about to visit the nexus of the world’s largest heroin supply and the beginning of its extravagantly profitable transit—the porous border between these two impoverished countries.
In the villages on both sides of the river, virtually the entire population is engaged in smuggling the only cash crop that Afghanistan grows, the opium poppy. “You have to smuggle or you die of starvation—it is the only means to live,” a Tajik Drug Control Agency commander told me. My guide, Colonel Salomatsho Khushvakhtov, once the K.G.B. agent in charge of the border for the Soviets and now an officer of the elite new Tajik drug agency, concurs, explaining that the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda will not stop heroin from flowing across the border. In July 2000 the Taliban, to gain international recognition and deplete their stockpiles, imposed a strict ban on poppy growing, which was 91 percent effective by 2001. Nevertheless, Khushvakhtov assures me, the warlords who still roam Central Asia need the money heroin brings. “It is their main source of income, and they have to feed and pay soldiers. There is nothing else for them economically.” He carries worn topographical maps and claims to know every turn of the 835-mile border between Afghanistan and Tajikistan. Even in the middle of winter, villagers on the Afghan side of the Panj jump barefoot into the icy water to float kilos of heroin across the river inside animal skins stacked on old inner tubes or rubber rafts. Horses and donkeys are also used to carry the heroin, and sometimes the cargo is lost on the bottom of the river. “It’s amazing how these Afghans get into the freezing water in bare feet,” the colonel says. “They can walk barefoot in the snow.” “A billion-dollar business depends on a guy pushing an animal skin across a freezing river,” a U.N. official told me.
When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, a tax of 10 percent was charged to the opium growers, and another of 20 percent to the dealers, who were based mostly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. Heroin refineries were also taxed. The fall of the Soviet Union had made available previously banned chemicals from Siberia used to refine opium gum into heroin in kitchen labs near the borders of Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. Then the drug was packaged in kilo bags and marked with the brand of its producers, or sometimes with radical-Islamic insignia. The Taliban took power in 1996, and after that the industry grew so quickly that in 1999 Afghanistan produced 5,000 tons of opium, more than 70 percent of the world’s supply. The poppy crop was worth more than $100 million annually to the Taliban and the poor farmers who grew it.
The places on the Tajik side where the heroin is delivered can be very dangerous. They are often mined, either by the Russian guards who patrol the border or by the traffickers themselves to protect their load. Yet there is always plenty of heroin to be had. The independent Tajik journalist and publisher Muhibulloh Siddiqzoda tells me, “Afghans come round in the evening to the small villages on the Tajik side, where they often have relatives. They knock on doors like salesmen, saying, ‘Householder, householder, come outside. I’ve brought you drugs.’ They will trust Tajiks with 10 kilos of heroin. They say, ‘I will come for my money later.’ ” He continues, “You can take it to Dushanbe without any problem. If you pay $10 [to checkpoint guards], nobody checks your car.”
Most heroin reaching Tajikistan and other Central Asian countries travels north to Russia and Eastern Europe and then to points west. Hundreds if not thousands of tons also go through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, and Dubai before reaching the streets of Europe and the United States. With every change of hand, the drug’s value increases exponentially. A kilo of heroin worth $300 inside Afghanistan can jump to $3,500 across the border, depending on its purity. The trafficker reaps the profit. “By the time it reaches Europe it can be worth from $20,000 to $30,000 wholesale, retail four or five times that amount,” according to Mohammad Amirkhizi, a former Iranian U.N. ambassador, who is now senior policy adviser to the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (U.N.O.D.C.C.P.), headquartered in Vienna. “Opium is the best crop, because it doesn’t spoil and you always have customers.”
In Tajikistan, drugs are equal to hard currency. A man asking the price of a new jeep may say, “How many kilos?” Traffickers hide packages of heroin inside young cabbage plants and allow the leaves to grow over it, or in pomegranates or melons. Drugs are buried in boxes at the bottom of truckloads of onions, or sometimes stuffed into the bones of legs of lamb after the marrow has been drained. Students drive a kilo or two to Moscow to finance their university education. For $200, women allow themselves to become human containers by swallowing from 100 grams to one kilo of heroin wrapped in condoms and traveling to St. Petersburg or Moscow to relieve themselves of it. About 35 percent of those convicted of drug violations in Tajikistan today are poor and female. Afghan heroin has a retail value in Europe of $30 billion annually. However, the lion’s share of the profit has not gone to the Taliban or the Northern Alliance, which have a history of dealing, but to criminal gangs and complicit officials in Central Asia, the Russian Federation, and Europe.
Even the United States, which gets most of its heroin from Colombia and Mexico, obtains more than $100 million at the retail level from Afghanistan annually. It is estimated that Pakistan has a shadow drug economy of more than $1 billion, with Pakistani narco-barons overseeing heroin labs inside Afghanistan and controlling the drug’s subsequent distribution. They also allegedly enjoy the protection of high-ranking Pakistani intelligence officers suspected of being major drug partners; one Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) general was convicted in 2001 of having “assets disproportionate to his known sources of income.” Nevertheless, Afghanistan gets all the blame for the illicit trade and very little in return. “It’s quite different from Latin America, where a few groups control production all the way to street sales,” Mohammad Amirkhizi says. “In Afghanistan, farmers produce it and have nothing to do with trafficking.”
As Colonel Khushvakhtov and I approach the town of Kulyab, which has emerged as a major forwarding point for the drug trade, I repeat a story the writer Muhibulloh Siddiqzoda heard from a Kulyab prosecutor: “Seventy Tajik cows were stolen by Afghans, who took them across the Panj River. Nothing happened. The Afghans had negotiated with the border guards not to see it. But then one young Tajik man went to Afghanistan and brought back drugs, and the guards killed him. Yet before crossing the border, he too had negotiated with the Russians and paid them $10,000. Then he got shot because they took the drugs. I’m giving you the words of the prosecutor,” Siddiqzoda told me. “Why didn’t the Russian border guards notice 70 cows? Cows moo going across the river—they should be heard.” Isn’t it common knowledge, I ask the colonel, that the biggest dealers are fully protected at the highest levels and often part of the power elite? “The law is like a spiderweb,” Siddiqzoda said. “Strong people simply tear through it, but weak people get caught in it.”
The colonel, who was recruited out of retirement for the new agency, says, “We don’t have the force, the opportunity, or the abilities.” He thinks a high-ranking official could be prosecuted if “we caught him red-handed,” but he claims he does not know why the Tajik ambassador to Kazakhstan, who was apprehended crossing the border in May 2000 with 60 kilos of heroin, was not charged. Ironically, while the United States was spending $1 billion bombing the Taliban last November, the colonel was dreaming of just having cell phones for his five men. The narco-bosses, he says, “have the finest cars, and they can communicate with one another from any point. We have a very small station and still use regular phones.”
Officers of the Tajik Drug Control Agency must often wait in line at a village public pay phone to communicate with their colleagues in Dushanbe. Yet they are charged with policing a treacherous, often inaccessible terrain 13,000 feet above sea level in some places and with temperatures that plunge to 40 degrees below zero in winter. “There is an irony to this inaccessibility,” Martha Brill Olcott and Natalia Udalova wrote in Drug Trafficking on the Great Silk Road, published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2000. “Anyone with a horse, any other pack animal, a helicopter, or a plane is effectively able to evade detection. This has made drug trafficking a pursuit of the well-connected as well as of the poor, while crippling those who take seriously enforcing the law.”
The spillover effects of the only product that allows Afghanistan to participate in the global economy are millions of new addicts in the transit countries and an incipient aids epidemic in Russia. Traffickers make a concerted effort throughout Central Asia to addict vulnerable young people—half the population of Tajikistan is under 15—who are ignorant of heroin’s long-term effects and can buy it nearly as cheaply as cigarettes. I visited a 31-year-old Tajik doctor who had studied the psychological toll of addiction before quitting a woefully ill-equipped government treatment center, where he was earning $1.25 a month. Now he secretly takes private patients and charges $100 for a 30-day detox program, but he says most of them can afford to stay for only two weeks. In some areas, irate citizens, horrified at the accelerating rate of addiction, are demanding that politicians do something. One man told me of villagers hanging two addicts upside down by their ankles from a tree in the public square. If you are known to be an addict, I was told, “nobody will come to your wedding or your funeral.” Heroin has not only corrupted government officials but also made bedfellows of criminals and terrorists, both of whom feed on instability, weak institutions, and violence.
Central Asia, with its predominantly young, rapidly growing, and poverty-stricken population, has been the focus of largely unheeded warnings by various experts as well as the U.N.O.D.C.C.P. They caution that the countries surrounding Afghanistan are in very real danger of becoming narco-societies, unstable, lawless tinderboxes where, despite the fall of the Taliban, radical Islamist groups still control large areas. In Tajikistan, for example, always the poorest republic of the U.S.S.R., the gross domestic product has declined 49 percent in the wake of the Soviet collapse in 1991 and a debilitating civil war in the mid-90s. Part of the peace agreement of 1997, which ended that war, allowed the opposition warlords, some of whom were drug dealers, to assume 30 percent of high-ranking government positions. Today, Tajikistan has an unemployment rate of 54 percent, and the lure of drug money undermines all aspects of its society. In their report, Olcott and Udalova state: “Most of the Central Asian officials dealing with the issue either fail to see or refuse to admit the connections among drugs and weapons trafficking, corruption, terrorism, and money laundering.… They ignore the fact that many of the groups involved in drug trafficking deal in weapons, in addition to being heavily armed themselves.”
These are the hard realities facing Colonel Khushvakhtov and the new chief of drug enforcement in Kulyab, who joins us. Murodov Hydar, the brother of Kulyab’s mayor, is a jolly 27-year veteran of the Dushanbe police force. He wears an ancient pair of binoculars around his neck as he reads to me from a tattered seizures list. Between April and October of 2001, his team confiscated 69 kilos of opium and 4.8 kilos of hashish, a modest amount but a considerable improvement over the year before, when, in the six months they were in operation, they captured only 6 kilos of opium. Chief Hydar hardly seems perturbed, however, and as we drive south out of town, he blithely gestures to grand new houses under construction and says in English, “New Tajiks.” He is making a play on the expression “new Russians,” a sarcastic name for the Russian Mafia. “I’m pretty sure, when Americans come to Afghanistan to stay, some of them will also become drug dealers,” Colonel Khushvakhtov tells me. “It’s natural because of the money involved. I don’t mean to offend you, but this is the reality.”
Out on the Silk Road once more, we are passing through the Pamir Mountains, with breathtaking sheer granite drops at every turn. “We have identified 80 different paths the dealers use,” Chief Hydar explains, adding that 99 percent of the dealers are armed but often the police are not. “The dealers have intelligence reports on where the roads are open and if there are any threats to them.” Informers on the Afghan side let the colonel and the chief know last July that Osama bin Laden had become the minister of defense of the Taliban, something U.S. intelligence apparently never did find out. They also alleged that the drug-dealing Uzbek Islamic radical Juma Namangani was made bin Laden’s chief military deputy at the same time. Namangani, who was forced out of Tajikistan and moved from Kyrgyzstan to Afghanistan, was the major suspect in deadly terrorist bombings in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, in 1999. He reportedly died last year fighting the Northern Alliance in Mazar-e-Sharif, but there has been no confirmation. In the past he had kidnapped four Japanese geologists and held up a train carrying 700 tons of weapons and humanitarian supplies a group of Iranians were attempting to put in the hands of the Northern Alliance. Namangani, who was 32 when last heard from, led a force of up to 2,000 mercenaries and controlled 70 percent of the drug routes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. Many on the Tajikistan side of the border felt that the purpose of any battle Namangani fought was at least as much to secure drug routes as to claim territory for an Islamic caliphate state. Today his terrorist army—named by President Bush as one of the world’s 38 principal terrorist organizations—is said to be regrouping in Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan.
On the Afghan side, however, ideology has been less of an issue. Whether it was the Taliban or the Northern Alliance escorting the traffickers, the charge to the border was a flat $25 per kilo of heroin. “After the officer has been paid, he is responsible for their trip to the river and safe passage,” the chief tells me. Beyond that, it’s literally sink or swim.
About 45 minutes outside of Kulyab, our four-wheel drive is on an ascent when we come upon four young Tajik soldiers in camouflage and carrying Kalashnikovs. They are part of the second line of border protection, as are three Tajik soldiers not in uniform we meet a couple of hundred yards farther west. They are lounging on a tank flying the Tajik flag and parked on the side of the road as a checkpoint, silhouetted against the snowcapped peaks of northern Afghanistan. Chief Hydar assures me there are more soldiers hidden in the hills, because this is one of the most heavily traveled heroin routes in the world, but it certainly seems pretty tranquil this day. He points out a village built into the steep mountainside on the Afghan side. “That is the village of Parikhan. ‘Pari’ in Farsi means angel,” the chief says. “The women of that village have a reputation for being very beautiful, and rich and famous Afghan men go there to find brides.”
As we start to descend, the vista is majestic, and we can now see the narrow, winding river with its rocky embankment at the bottom of the sheer drop of the mountains. When we finally reach the border, at the tiny village of Kharanajo, the checkpoint is marked by a Cyclone fence with a rusted old gate on which are two faded metal Soviet stars in red and blue. The gate is partially blocked by a pair of brown cows, nonchalantly swishing their tails. Two Russian border guards peer out the door of a stone house with a small TV antenna on its roof. A World War II watchtower is visible in the distance, and crops are planted out to the river 300 yards away. The chief tells me we can go no farther. It doesn’t matter. I have the picture of what I have come so far to see.
Most Americans, if they perceive a link between drugs and terrorism, immediately think of Colombia. As a former Peace Corps volunteer in Medellín, I have watched the heartbreaking demise of that once vibrant country. Facing civil war and costing the United States hundreds of millions in aid—and hundreds of millions more for interdiction and treatment in the United States—Colombia is now in the vise of a violent terrorist-driven drug economy in which left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries tax and traffic in heroin and cocaine much the way the Northern Alliance and Taliban and other Muslim radicals have done in Central Asia. Shortly after September 11, 2001, Colombian official Andres Jimenez told a group of us former Colombia Peace Corps volunteers, “Thinking that by simply eliminating Osama bin Laden and his network will substantially curb the global terrorist threat may prove to be as misguided as the hope that the elimination of Pablo Escobar, once the leader of Colombia’s most powerful and violent drug cartel, would end drug trafficking. After Colombian authorities killed Escobar, he was quickly replaced by other drug lords with more sophisticated networks.”
Some Colombian farmers, facing a 52 percent decline in coffee prices since 1997, are tearing out their coffee plants and replacing them with opium poppies and coca, just as Afghan farmers have replaced wheat and other crops. As a result, the chemicals dumped into lakes and rivers wherever heroin is refined pose a horrific ecological threat. Colombia estimates that each year the amount of chemicals poured into its Amazon Basin from poppy and coca labs equals the harmful effects of three Exxon Valdez oil spills.
Today, Colombia supplies the United States with up to 75 percent of its heroin. The rest comes from Mexico, Afghanistan, and Southeast Asia. According to General Jose Serrano, the former head of the Colombian National Police, in 1991 and 1992 authorities discovered for the first time 10,000 acres of opium poppies planted in guerrilla-controlled areas of the southern Colombian Andes. “We found that more than 100 Afghans and Pakistanis had applied for tourist visas from Quito, Ecuador, and La Paz, Bolivia, and we believe they were the ones who taught the Colombians how to cultivate heroin, because its cultivation was completely unknown before.”
Saodat Olimova is probably one of the most gifted women in Tajikistan. A sociologist, she and her husband, Muzaffar, founded an institute called Sharq, which surveys public opinion and analyzes issues. Saodat is one of those quietly heroic people who persist against all odds. She and Muzaffar, a noted Orientalist who translated for the last Russian-installed president of Afghanistan, Mohammad Najibullah, are terrorism experts whose work in the past has been supported by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Intermedia Survey Institute, a nato defense consortium, and Harvard University. Saodat remembers the day when she realized that the connection between drugs and terrorism was real. “In 1992, I was sitting at home watching people being shot just beyond my garden wall.” Their house was 15 minutes from central Dushanbe, and this was at the height of the devastating civil war, when various government and opposition factions were all jockeying for power in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse.
Every night, Muzaffar and a neighbor would go out to bury the corpses of those who had been shot that day. During the day a guard would stand watch, not allowing anyone to touch the corpses. “They dug graves for at least five or six bodies a night,” Saodat recounts. “One night, fighters of the field commander arrested my husband and took him to their headquarters, where he saw huge sacks of hashish and cannabis. And all these so-called warriors were high. Later I heard stories about small villages, where they would round up young men—both sides did it—and force them to start using drugs. Otherwise they couldn’t force them to fight.”
Over time the horror became too much for Saodat, and one day in 1993 she abandoned their house, leaving all her furniture and clothes behind. She has never returned. “The most difficult years were ’93 and ’94. People were starving to death. My neighbor’s husband was killed, and she had nine kids. One day, she told me, she had given her 15-year-old daughter to four watchmen at a bread factory—she sold her daughter for a half a sack of flour. Later her daughter died, because they used her in every possible way. I suspect her kids were starving for a long time, and that forced her to do this. I cannot blame her. We were starving, too. I have two sons. I was getting up in the morning not knowing how to feed them, and pretty soon they didn’t ask anymore. We had some money, but there was no food to buy. It was a crazy year, 1994. It is my understanding that was the year the drug business began to work full-force.”
There is a drug trafficker in her own family, Saodat says. One of her relatives married a man whose family, in Soviet terms, had been very wealthy. “He didn’t need to work hard at school or work.” But because his father was a mullah, it was never going to be possible for him to have a good government position in a Communist state. “The only place he could fulfill his potential was in business.” At age 17 the husband, who is now 37, began dealing in vegetables and fruit. Private business was banned then, but he bought fruit and vegetables in large enough quantities to fill railway cars and ship them to Siberia. “Of course, he had to bribe people to do it, but the system of bribes existed under Communism, and he continued to do so until the civil war. By 1993 his regular business was over. There was no food available, so he switched to drugs.” For a time, she says, he operated from Moscow. “He already had all the right contacts. Immediately he became a large trafficker.” He also got seven of Saodat’s relatives involved. “Two of his sons are in jail now—one is 19, the other 17. Both are drug addicts, and I suspect the older one won’t live long. His whole family is devastated. The mother has gotten sick from this nightmare; the stress has caused her to lose her hair and her eyebrows,” Saodat tells me. “When he switched from vegetables to drugs, he thought it would be just another kind of business that wouldn’t affect his family. He did not understand.” I ask if he ever tried to leave. “You can only enter this business—you cannot leave,” she says. “Whoever gets involved in the drug business will never leave it alive.”
Since this huge illegal enterprise is one of Tajikistan’s major industries, I ask if drug dealing is openly acknowledged. Emomali Rakhmonov, the president of Tajikistan, has repeatedly called on the international community for help in establishing a cordon sanitaire around Afghanistan in order to protect his country and the rest of Central Asia from drugs. Saodat and others close to the scene explain that, with powerful tribal clans and two branches of Islam at work in the country, the president functions as a kind of middleman among local power centers. The mayor of Dushanbe, for example, who since entering politics in the last decade has become a principal owner of several huge companies, is also the speaker of the parliament. The mayor has been known to say, “I’m not No. 1, but I’m not No. 2 either.” As Saodat says, “If a person becomes an official and converts his power into finances, we call him an oligarch.”
The drug business sustains up to 50 percent of the Tajik economy and props up its currency, if only because of the great number of people it employs. In 1999, I was told, the profession most aspired to by the young was bodyguard to a narco-baron. Drugs pay the salaries not only of couriers and bodyguards but also of workers in construction, the service industries, all the small businesses built on laundered money—the list is long. I visited the Vodonasosnaya neighborhood of Dushanbe, where a number of dealers have constructed large houses complete with underground bunkers. “They have a great defense system,” Saodat says.
“I spoke with many field commanders in the drug business during the civil war—now they are involved in the management of the state. They’ve become directors of factories, administrative heads on both sides—the government and the opposition,” Saodat continues. “The original motivation to enter was to become immune to prosecution.” It is widely believed that, in exchange for certain Tajik opposition commanders’ acquiescence to the new coalition government in 1997, they were allowed to keep their drug businesses intact. But then something unexpected happened: the people spoke out. “The public will demanded they fight the vice of drugs,” Saodat says. “Because our authorities depend on the masses for popular support, each one had to choose whether or not to stay in the drug trade. Some started to exit the narcotics business, and for some it finished with murder, because people started to get shot.”
Today the system is schizophrenic. Some officials are still narco-barons, and others benefit indirectly by taking bribes. A New York metals trader I interviewed before I left America told me that five or six years ago, on his business trips to Tajikistan, an assistant Cabinet minister would constantly ask him if he wanted to be in on the trafficking. Today the man the trader named is still very well connected and close to the mayor of Dushanbe. “Becoming a major drug dealer without major bribing of the government is not possible,” Saodat says. “One group supports the drug business, the other group fights it. Everybody knows who the other ones are, but they keep silent and go after the little dealers.”
I trust Saodat’s information, because she once prepared a major research paper on terrorism for a U.N. envoy to Tajikistan, who, after reading it, told her not to publish it—it would be too dangerous for her. During 1996 and 1997, she interviewed more than 50 “warlords, politicians with links to terrorist organizations, people who went through terrorist training camps in Afghanistan and the Sudan,” and individuals in Communist intelligence agencies, or special services, as they are known. “I was promised a meeting with Osama bin Laden, but my husband said, ‘Why are you putting your nose in such a place?’ He stopped my work and told me, ‘You are going too far.’ Saodat concludes that terrorism is an equilateral triangle of violence, drugs, and the intelligence services. She adds, “There is a major separation between warlords and drug barons. One’s a business and one’s an armed power. [Terrorists] use drugs to reach their goals, but they don’t believe in drugs.” Rather, Saodat says, terrorists see themselves as “superpeople,” above the law, and drugs allow them to manipulate all other people. “I think many of the terrorist fighters are drug addicts, but not their leaders. I met two types of people: the little soldiers, they use drugs [the Northern Alliance has said that American turncoat John Walker, for example, was a heavy hashish user], and the other people, who are well educated, who know Islam.” Those “true believers and fighters,” she says, do not use drugs.
I ask her how the intelligence services perform their role in the triangle. She says, “I think the special services, like the ISI in Pakistan, always use both sides. They use the warlords [including the Taliban] until they don’t need them any longer, and then they get rid of them.”
‘Do you include the C.I.A.?,” I ask. It has often been said that the C.I.A. and the ISI created the modern drug business in Central Asia after the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, between 1979 and 1989, by encouraging the mujahideen fighting the Russians to try to addict the Soviet troops as a way to imperil Communism. Mathea Falco, who was head of International Narcotics Control for the State Department in the Carter administration, has told me, “We always let it happen [through the mujahideen], and we’re letting it happen with the Northern Alliance right now.”
“Oh yes, I know drugs were massively distributed at that time,” Saodat answers, saying she often heard how Russian troops were “invited to taste. There were also instances when single secret agents would use drug dealers in their own interests—that’s routine. It’s very comforting to the warlords and narco-businessmen, because it allows them to put all the blame on the special services.” She adds, “Terrorists make an ideal of Islam, and secret services have the idea they are providing for the security of the state. For both, the end justifies the means.”
Saodat, however, is most concerned about the long-term effect drugs have had. “Drugs are undermining the economies of these countries, preventing other industries from developing. They destroy the family, the social system, the political system, education—everything. It is in the interest of both terrorists and narco-traffickers to have an unstable society. On the other side of the equation, though, is the fact that nobody is going to be involved with drugs if there is no demand.”
I ask Saodat if she knows General Rustam Nazarov, the 43-year-old head of the Tajik Drug Control Agency, which was created in 1999 and which is supported by the U.N. as a model for combating narcotics in Central Asia. Of course she knows him, she says, “for many years.” She smiles. Those in power, she suggests, “allow the general to exist, and he is sincere.” She adds, “I think the general and I are people of the same character. My husband and I have a favorite toast: ‘Let’s drink to our useless work.’ If we analyze the situation, we see there is no hope to better the system. But at the same time”—she pauses—“there is always a crazy hope.”
General Nazarov is a laconic, no-nonsense person. On the flight from Khujand to Dushanbe, a British cotton broker told me that the less tea you are offered here by someone, the more he respects you—it means he wants to get down to business. The general doesn’t offer any tea but has his secretary put down a couple of unopened bottles of water. He lives under fire. Last spring a bomb went off where he usually parks his car. General Nazarov has also received written threats demanding that he give up his job or be killed. “What keeps me going is that I have people who think the same way I do, who, despite all the hardships, are willing to fight drugs. My whole life has been devoted to fighting criminals. At 18, I wore a military uniform for the first time, and from then until 1996, I was in the militia. I worked my way up to chairman of the criminal police of Tajikistan.”
He explains that the whole Tajik civil war was financed by drug smuggling, and that, as we speak, Islamic radicals are stationed in the central part of Tajikistan and are not about to go away. In Uzbekistan, I had heard from the U.N.O.D.C.C.P. that the elaborate communication and transport networks set up to market heroin could easily be converted for use in guerrilla warfare. The general confirms this. “None of the operations for smuggling through Tajikistan are done without the permission of Taliban commanders or Northern Alliance commanders.” The Taliban are inside Tajikistan for a reason, he says, and will pose a threat even after the war in Afghanistan is over. He continues: “Philosophy is no good for war. You need money for war. You need material support for weapons. And where can you get it? In Afghanistan there is no economy now, but between 1992 and 2000, Afghanistan raised the crop that provided 75 percent of the world’s heroin.” He looks at me as if to ask, What more proof do you want?
General Nazarov’s agency is housed in a newly refurbished building that used to be a health center. He shows me through an immaculate new lab for analyzing heroin and introduces me to some of his 65-member force, who have been trained in Italy. They are studying a map with a maze of arrows on it indicating drug routes and locations where opium has been found. When the general laments their lack of cell phones, I tell him playfully that American Indians had to use smoke signals to communicate. “Oh, we use smoke signals,” the general says without irony. “We also fire shots: one shot means to run, two to stop.” The final stop on our tour is the reinforced-steel locker where confiscated drugs are kept. “This place cannot be penetrated,” a guard tells me. Some drugs seized at the border are burned on the spot for the benefit of journalists. The drugs here—37 kilos of heroin and 100 kilos of opium, hashish, and marijuana—have been seized inside Tajikistan. The smell is overwhelming, with an ammonia-like intensity.
The Tajik Drug Control Agency gets no money from the United States. “I went there and met with the Drug Enforcement Administration [D.E.A.] and asked them to contact me to establish some kind of system to fight drugs in Afghanistan,” General Nazarov says. “They were interested and found people, but after the terrorist attacks on American Embassies [in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998], the State Department limited foreigners coming here.” Before September 11, 2001, the Tajik Drug Control Agency’s budget had been slashed by the U.N. because the European donor countries did not believe that Afghanistan posed much of a threat. By contrast, Iran, which has the highest rate of opiate use in the world, has gotten tough at the Afghan border and as a result has lost 3,000 border troops in shoot-outs with traffickers since 1996.
“So far the U.N. program has given us $3.5 million for 36 months, between 1999 and 2001. We expected $11 million for four years,” General Nazarov continues. “We need $500,000 for special wiretapping and X-ray equipment. What we have is old Soviet equipment that is obsolete.” Nevertheless, in the first nine months of 2001, the authorities were able to confiscate three and a half tons of heroin—a big increase over 2000, when two tons of heroin were confiscated. After describing the hierarchy of major dealers in his country, the general declares bluntly, “The person at the apex of the pyramid is unreachable.” The biggest drug dealer in Tajikistan is perceived by the public as “positive and responsible, a person who performs humanitarian acts and owns property in the United Arab Emirates, Russia, and Turkey.”
The respected Tajik political scientist and presidential speechwriter Kosimsho Iskandarov informs me, “Tajik commanders are the ones running drugs. General Nazarov has no authority over these commanders. He cannot do anything, since they are more powerful than he is.” For one thing, the vehicles driven by military officers, whether Tajik or Russian, are not examined at checkpoints. In particular, the Russians, who frequently deliver aid to the Northern Alliance, whether there is a war on or not, are not scrutinized. “The Northern Alliance would not endure without Russian support,” General Nazarov says flatly. He even admits, “Those who are convicted by us are small fish.” But, he adds, “if we were not working, a real Mafia would develop.”
Stories about the corruption that allows the multibillion-dollar scourge from Afghanistan to flourish over a huge swath of the globe are sad and alarming. Dr. S. Frederick Starr, chairman of the Central Asia–Caucasus Institute at the Johns Hopkins Nitze School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, recounts a harrowing incident that took place at over 15,000 feet above sea level on one of the highest roads in the world—between Khorog in southern Tajikistan and Osh in Kyrgyzstan. The 450-mile route is part of the Osh Knot, and until recently, when the main lines shifted west, the whole drug trade passed through there. Starr says, “We found ourselves following a Russian Army convoy of three trucks. The young soldiers in the back waved, so we stopped. It was 20 degrees below zero, and we had tea in a hut with the Russian officers. They told us to leave the kids where they were, explaining, ‘They’re all accused of drug dealing, and they’re going to be shot in the morning.’ I went out to the kids and asked them if that was true. Red-faced, they said yes, but they also said, ‘Our officers turned us in, but they were the ones who recruited us.’ Periodically, you see, the officers would turn in three or four of the young soldiers and write to Moscow about what a good job they were doing. Meanwhile, they were running drugs.”
Starr took pity on the young men. “I had a big bottle of booze, and I gave it to them so that they would be oblivious until they arrived at the firing squad. But I won’t forget what they said. That was in 1996, and I have no reason to believe that anything has changed.” He goes on to explain, “The big growth market was Europe, and the way to get to Europe was through Russia. That was facilitated by the Russian Army placing its 201st Division down there.” Division 201, sent in to keep the lid on Afghanistan even before the fall of the Soviet Union, consists of 12,000 Russian troops and is stationed in a base right in the center of Dushanbe. In 1997 a Division 201 plane flying to Moscow was found to have eight kilos of drugs aboard, including three kilos of heroin. Twelve soldiers were arrested. The Russian Council on Foreign and Defense Policies estimated that in 1996 more than $180 million in drug profits had been invested in Russian privatization, mostly in the energy and telecommunications industries.
Starr agrees with General Nazarov about one thing: “The Northern Alliance is a wholly owned subsidiary of Russia, armed by Russia and Iran.” Therefore, the Russians were apparently able to deal drugs with both the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. “The question is, we don’t know how much the Russian military gets,” says Starr, “but it’s the only assignment in the Russian Army that people fight to get.” Regarding the Russian military’s complicity in drug smuggling, Martha Brill Olcott of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace tells me, “The Russian military is fully complicit … we just don’t know how high up it goes.”
To find out, I track down in Moscow the only Russian official who has spoken on the record about this issue. Dr. Anton V. Surikov is chief of staff of the Committee of Industry, Construction, and High Technology in the Russian parliament. Last spring he told the Moscow News that the mayor of Dushanbe was a major drug dealer. That interview precipitated not only a denial from the mayor but also, according to Surikov, a demand that the Tajik journalist the mayor erroneously believed was Surikov’s source be arrested. When we meet, Surikov makes it clear that he is not speaking as a member of the Russian government, but rather from his experience in various government posts and his many trips to Central Asia. “Since the collapse of Communism, the No. 1 goal of the people here is to get money and nothing else. When they speak with Western people, they may talk a lot about democracy and the free market, but in reality they just go after money and don’t think about the methods,” Surikov says. “The Tajik peasant is not involved in serious drug business—only rich people are involved.” He tells me not to expect to get information easily, because foreigners are still treated with great suspicion in these erstwhile parts of the old U.S.S.R., especially snooping journalists. “Official salaries are very low,”he says, “but many officials in Tajikistan as well as in Russia have serious money in Western bank accounts and real estate. Tajik officials own real estate in Florida. Mr. Mayor can be very poor officially, but his brother or his wife’s brother can be a businessman and control serious real estate.”
He confirms that as early as the mid-90s, the Russians were “buying heroin and transporting it from the northern part of Afghanistan to Russian military bases in Tajikistan by truck and helicopter.” And with the absence of any customs control, he says, “military planes and railway cars took the heroin to central Russia and on to Moscow.” Surikov adds that, because of the degree of corruption at high levels, it is dangerous for prosecutors to launch official investigations into drug dealing; they can lose their jobs. How high does this corruption go?, I ask him. “President Putin is not involved, and the minister of defense and the chief of general staff are not involved. Officials in the lower ranges are not involved directly, but they get some money. For example, a drug dealer in the army asks to be sent to Tajikistan, and he pays for this position. It’s corrupt,” Surikov concludes, “but these generals in Moscow don’t sell drugs personally, they only get bribes.”
Shortly after I arrive in Dushanbe, Lieutenant General Alexander Markin, chief of the Russian Federal Border Guards, is crowing in a newspaper interview that during last September alone the border guards “seized more heroin than was seized during the previous year. In general, the total amount of drugs seized this year [to November] is 5.84 tons, of which 2.59 tons is heroin. We could have built a dam out of the sacks and packages burned in Moscovsky and Panj border outposts during this year.”
It is true that the border guards, who seize two-thirds of the drugs confiscated in Tajikistan, were more active in 2001, exchanging fire with smugglers at least 50 times. Does that indicate a panicked response on the smugglers’ part to dump stockpiles and move more drugs across the border because of the war? Or are the guards under greater pressure to perform because the border has tightened as a result of the war? Or are individuals in the highest echelons belatedly realizing the terrible toll rampant addiction in parts of the Russian Federation is taking?
Unfortunately, I am not going to be able to ask General Markin any of these questions. Permission to interview the general, I am told, would take at least a month to obtain from Moscow, and the two bureaucrats I speak to are not interested in giving me any undue help. After they grill me about whom I have spoken to, I ask them a question: “How do you deal with the problem of Russian military transporting drugs?”
Alexander Kondratev, one of the officials, eyes me narrowly and answers, “I have worked here for six years and never discovered such a fact. I have no one in the Russian border-guard service smuggling or delivering drugs.”
“Are you saying no one has ever been punished for this?,” I ask.
“The answer is no,” he says. “I am speaking for the Russian border service, not other Russian military men serving in Tajikistan.”
I press him: “So these reports are not true?”
The other spokesman, Igor Plugotarev, who has come from Moscow to prepare General Markin’s newspaper interview, interrupts. “Drugs are smuggled through, but Russian border guards are not involved in this smuggling,” he says.
Kondratev adds, “The thing is, the narco-Mafia is interested in saying that Russian military work in drug trafficking. Mass media has mentioned it, but without evidence.”
I manage to elicit a laugh when I ask them if getting rid of the Taliban will mean getting rid of heroin in Afghanistan. It is poignant to see how the once mighty Soviet military machine has disintegrated. “We don’t have any cell phones, either,” Plugotarev says, by way of explaining why the work goes so slowly. “We have no money for technical-equipment maintenance, or gas or kerosene. We could not even buy one truck this year.”
When I reach the world headquarters of the U.N.O.D.C.C.P. in Vienna, a small tempest is brewing. Pino Arlacchi, the onetime Mafia investigator who heads the office, is on his way out, in large part because he has insulted donor countries by bypassing the traditional U.N. bureaucracy and using general-purpose funds to start up the Tajik Drug Control Agency. “Donors two to three years ago were not ready to listen to the idea that Central Asia would be a major transit point for drugs,”I am told by one official. “They did not believe it.” It seems donors do not care much for law-enforcement projects, either. Now an international evaluation team of six men, paid by the United States, is being assembled to go and see General Nazarov and his agency for themselves. Since Ihave just come from Dushanbe, they ask if I would brief them. I outline some of what I saw and think to myself that there could hardly be much sophistication required to see the gaping need to support the Tajik Drug Control Agency. The people in the agency, I tell them, wear some of the few white hats in the region.
The real question is much broader. What are the U.N. and the U.S. government prepared to do after the war to rebuild Afghanistan? After all, the Taliban ban on poppy growing was the largest, most successful interdiction of drugs in history, resulting in a 91 percent reduction in the cultivation of opium poppies. The U.N.O.D.C.C.P. has sent dozens of teams of evaluators throughout Afghanistan—some to villages so remote they are accessible only by walking seven hours—to make sure the ban was for real. Would those in charge now keep enforcing the ban and provide alternatives to Afghan farmers? “It’s very strange,” Vladimir Fenopetov, the U.N.O.D.C.C.P. senior program officer for 55 countries, including those in Central Asia, tells me. “We’ve tried to elicit interest in Afghanistan for the last several years from donors. We ran four programs for alternative crops—wheat and onions.” They all stopped last year for lack of funds and lack of interest from donors. Fenopetov adds, “We have hundreds of these projects collecting dust because there is no money from donors to start them.”
An equally important and even more delicate problem is whether the United States is willing to impose conditions on its aid to Pakistan and the other Central Asian countries with regard to their complicity in running drugs. “Americans will be giving $1 billion in aid to Pakistan. Will they specifically say to Pakistan that you cannot traffic in drugs?” asks Giovanni Quaglia, the officer in charge of operations for the U.N.O.D.C.C.P. He adds, “The Taliban were made up of commanders who were also chief traffickers.” For Pakistan, Afghanistan has been one big free-trade zone serving as a trade route to and from Iran and the Caspian Sea. “Whoever comes to Afghanistan in charge of postconflict political problems will have to deal with very powerful trading networks, the ones moving all the goods in and out. The World Bank has estimated this [contraband] trade is worth $2.5 billion a year, and together in all the Central Asian countries about $4 billion,” Quaglia informs me. “Drugs are simply a new commodity. The Pakistani, Iranian, and Turkish networks are the ones making the money. You have politicians, but underneath you have businessmen—some honest, a lot of them dishonest. The value of the parallel economy in Pakistan is $15 billion.”
A fascinating article entitled “Heroin, Taliban & Pakistan,” by a critic of that country’s policies, a former Indian intelligence officer named B. Raman, charges that Pakistan has two kinds of savings deposits and that one of them is not taxed, i.e., the profits from illegal trade, which the government dips into to buy dollars with inflated rates of rupees in order to finance its colossal weapons program and not go bankrupt. After reading the article, I call Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister of Pakistan, who was accused of corruption by the current regime and is living in exile in Dubai. She is quite forthcoming. “They have a very strong black market—I’m not sure how much is heroin and how much is smuggling contraband,” she tells me. “During General Zia’s time, he permitted money-laundering. [Zia ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988.] He created bearer certificates, and a lot of the business community did invest in them as a ‘tax effort.’ They could also be used for money-laundering.”
Giovanni Quaglia adds, “The bearer certificates keep their economy afloat, and it’s all based on illegal money—all based in Dubai and the hawalas system,” referring to the Middle Eastern moneylenders who don’t keep written records. “You can’t trace it.”
The last time the United States got so heavily involved in Central Asia—when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan—it just walked away after the U.S.S.R. was defeated in 1989, allowing the Pakistanis to build up the Taliban as well as the drug trade. What will the United States do now?
While the war was being waged last November, Afghan farmers were apparently busy planting a huge new crop of the opium poppy. And according to Roberto Arbitrio, the program coordinator of the U.N.O.D.C.C.P. regional bureau for Central Asia, “Exactly the same dealers who dealt with the Taliban are dealing with the new people. It’s like the wind and the flag. If the flag changes direction, so does the wind.” In mid-January the new Afghan government reaffirmed the poppy ban, but, broke and with no police force, it has no resources to fight the traffickers, so the struggle will be mainly up to the international community. Afghan president Hamid Karzai made that point recently when he said it would not be possible to eliminate heroin without giving the Afghan people “a good agriculture base and economic opportunity.”
“Preventing a resumption of poppy production in Afghanistan is second only to preventing a re-emergence of terrorism on our ladder of goals. We’ve made this clear to the interim authority, and we will direct reconstruction to achieve that end,” a senior administration official told me. But the United States does not want to take the sole initiative, and so far there appears to be a lack of understanding among the various international aid givers and government agencies of the symbiotic relationship among economic and agricultural development, drug control, and the elimination of terrorism. “People who do development don’t worry about the drug problem,” an administration official told me. As yet, the United States has not declared itself on whether its aid money will be used as a carrot or a stick.
“Traditionally, the provision of humanitarian assistance has not been conditioned by anything,” says Rand Beers, the assistant secretary for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs at the State Department. “How do we talk about the delivery of that developmental assistance along with a parallel effort to stop cultivation and trafficking? That’s where the process is now.” There is a danger that no conditions will be imposed and that the problem will continue to be “studied” even as the moment for useful pressure passes. One positive development is that the Drug Enforcement Administration has chosen the personnel for a new office in Uzbekistan that will open sometime this year. “We will have to have a presence in Kabul at some point,” D.E.A. administrator Asa Hutchinson told me. “We see a great opportunity to increase world cooperation in the anti-drug effort.”
The question is whether the United States will tell Pakistan, which came on board for the war and is cooperating to prevent a nuclear confrontation with India, that it has to rein in its ISI as well as its militants. Further, will we let Russia and the other Central Asian countries whose oligarchs and officials are profiting from drugs know we will no longer reward those who tolerate the flagrant corruption? Can we just say no? Rarely has there been a more auspicious moment to help eliminate a worldwide scourge and bring corrupt officials to heel.