UN: NDN An Express Train For Afghan Drug Traffickers
U.S. officials have long expressed the hope that its web of military transport lines through Central Asia to Afghanistan, the Northern Distribution Network, would eventually spur non-military trade as well. But what they probably didn't have in mind was that it would help in the transit of Afghanistan's most profitable export: opium. Nevertheless, that's what's happening on the newly built, CENTCOM-brokered railroad between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan, according to the United Nations. In a report (pdf), "Misuse of Licit Trade for Opiate Trafficking in Western and Central Asia: A Threat Assessment" by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, one of the key findings is that:
The rail network links a number of dry ports in Central Asia and plays a vital role in the region. In recent years, the Central Asian rail network has been extended to Afghanistan. Since this extension, several important heroin seizures have reportedly taken place along the network, suggesting that traffickers are abusing the lack of efficient law enforcement control along it.
(Yes, the report is from October 2012, but I only just came across it.)
That rail extension to Afghanistan, recall, has been a key project of U.S. military logisticians seeking to make the cargo route through Central Asia in and out of Afghanistan much smoother. As the report notes, "The road and railway link from Termez to Hairatan runs along the northern trade route and is part of the Northern Distribution Network." However, most of the recent drug seizures made on Uzbekistan's rail network have been on trains that originated in Tajikistan, rather than in Afghanistan, the report says:
Over the past two years in particular, heroin has frequently been intercepted on trains travelling between Dushanbe and Moscow. In March 2012, border guards in Tashkent reportedly seized 8 kg of heroin that had been hidden within a carriage on the Dushanbe-Moscow train. In June 2012, further 8 kg of heroin were reportedly discovered in Tashkent inside another train travelling on the same line. On that occasion, the heroin had been stashed in a liquefied gas tank owned by a train conductor.
And the report notes that the rail crossing at Hairatan/Termez is more secure than other border crossings between Afghanistan and Uzbekistan:
In Afghanistan, dry ports along the main trade and transit route to Uzbekistan often lack sufficient monitoring and inspection equipment. For example, the dry port at Naibabad is not equipped with any control equipment and staff merely physically and visually inspect cargo. According to customs officials at the dry port, none of the cargo handled there has ever contained opiates or illicit precursors. However, a mere visual and physical inspection is not sufficient for ensuring that licit cargo contains no concealed drugs or precursors. Furthermore, no substances have ever been sent for lab testing from Naibabad dry port.
Hairatan, in contrast, is a relatively well-monitored BCP. It has watchtowers and the entire border is double-fenced with barbed wire. With regard to facilities, Hairatan dry port is equipped with scanners and a small laboratory with drug testing kits. Furthermore, Uzbek officials stationed at the border are generally well trained and receive relatively high salaries. The risk of concealed drugs crossing the border undetected is therefore lower at the Hairatan BCP than it is in Naibabad.
The report also notes that small amounts of opium have been seized at the Navoi International Logistics Center, another key NDN node in Uzbekistan. It's worth recalling, too, that the Russian military's direct involvement in the drug trade in the years when it was in charge of the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border dwarfs any indirect aid the NDN may be giving to drug traffickers.
It stands to reason that making transportation easier would make illicit trafficking easier -- especially in countries where border officials are notoriously corrupt. Why go through the trouble to cart the drugs by pack animal through remote, unguarded border areas when you can bribe the border officials on a much faster a highway or railroad? This already has happened with the U.S.-built Friendship Bridge between Afghanistan and Tajikistan, so it's not a big leap to suppose that the same would be happening on the new rail route, as well. But thus far the evidence seems a bit thin.
Joshua Kucera, a senior correspondent, is Eurasianet's former Turkey/Caucasus editor and has written for the site since 2007.