Opium Runners Find Passages Along Tajik-Afghan Border
While the Pyandzh basin is well-patrolled, opium is streaming across other spots along the border. United Nations official Roberto Arbitrio told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty that officials had seized more than four tons of heroin in Tajikistan in 2001, up from six kilograms in 1996. RFE/RL also quoted Arbitrio as saying that Tajiks had increased the total land area devoted to opium by 50 percent. As these statistics indicate, Tajiks can reasonably wonder what happens elsewhere on the border while troops protect the Pyandzh crossing.
Besides the basin of the full flowing Pyandzh River, so well known among the TV viewers, the border takes a longer run over the mountainous region. It is not feasible to build guard towers and footprint lines on this portion. This region, which includes Takhar and most of Badakhshan province, produces the biggest share of northern Afghanistan's heroin. Traffickers carry it into neighboring Kunduz, which consists predominantly of steppes and semi-arid land. People carry poppies to the river for cultivation; like wheat or barley, opium poppies require irrigation systems. Villagers along the Kunduz River who used to trade cotton and sesame seeds with Pakistani wholesalers have begun growing and selling poppy.
They do so wherever they can. One villager told EurasiaNet that he administered poppy as medicine to his sick mother, then confessed that he sold some of the leftover "yield." Since raw opium commands a price as much as ten times richer than wheat does, this sort of behavior has grown widespread. Moreover, poppy requires less effort in cultivation than grain. And in Badakhshan, where a mountain foot serves as a border, the road crosses poppy fields as it climbs. Any land on the mountain slope that promises any use for cultivation is ploughed up, seeded with poppy, and tilled. Villagers have even moved soil and covered stones, using buffaloes and donkeys, to clear more land. They distribute soil in a thick layer so that the stones are fully covered and poppy roots have enough space to grow. When spring rains destroy this layer of fertile soil, farmers repeat the process for the next season. Farmers say soil lasts two or three seasons, then must lie fallow for three or four years.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has promised to enforce a ban on poppy production, but he will need helicopters to even see where farmers are growing opium behind the major roads. The Taliban have never controlled Badakhshan, making poppy production relatively entrenched and leaving the soil relatively free of battle damage. Residents are as poor there as they are elsewhere in the region. The local police chief knows where and how many poppy plots are being sown, but declined to talk about it in detail. He urges international organizations to help rebuild irrigation systems and roads so that farmers could economically produce and export legitimate crops.
Meanwhile, farmers sell their poppy yield to hungry buyers. Local officials refuse to discuss the transport of heroin between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, but an observer can see drugs travel frequently between Badakhshan and Tajikistan's (similarly named) Gorno-Badakhshan oblast. Sometimes these shipments travel close to trucks delivering humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. Traffickers choose landlocked crossings like the route between Ishkashim, Afghanistan and Khorog, Tajikistan, which includes three guards along 160 kilometers. As Tajiks and their Russian trainers watch the Pyandzh, this sort of flow is likely to gain speed and volume.
Egamberdy Kabulov is a freelance writer specializing in Central Asian affairs.