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    Central Asia
     Oct 27, 2005
Follow the drugs: US shown the way
By Ramtanu Maitra

Drug traffickers loaded with Afghan opium and heroin have virtually overrun and pulverized internal security in Tajikistan, particularly since the Taliban came to power in 1996. As most of the Afghan drug output finds its way to European nations (in addition to Russia), it might be expected that the European Union, and the United States, would make concrete efforts to help secure the Afghanistan -Tajikistan border.

There is no dearth of lamentation by Western political leaders about how the opiates have endangered security and about the damage caused to the youth. But, so far, no plan to address the problem has been put forward.

After the Taliban were ousted from Kabul in late 2001, opium production skyrocketed again, breaking all-time production

records in 2004. Hundreds of tons of Afghan heroin are now transported annually to Europe, corrupting the continent's systems further - and much of it passes through Tajikistan.

Afghanistan is estimated to produce 87% of the world's supply of opium (4,519 tons this season, down 2% from 2004), with nearly half of the country's US$4.5 billion economy coming from opium cultivation and trafficking.

Moreover, by early 2003, it had become evident that US troops had forged alliances with many reigning Afghan warlords, who ostensibly provided support to American troops in their battle against the various anti-US elements conveniently lumped together as the Taliban.

Some of those dubious allies of the US troops and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization-led (NATO) coalition forces are suspected to be among Afghanistan's biggest drug traffickers, controlling networks that include producers, criminal gangs and even members of the counter-narcotics police force.

US-backed Afghan President Hamid Karzai has also brought some of these warlords into his popularly elected government, in recognition of their clout.

But the EU, perfectly in sync with the US approach toward Afghanistan following September 11, has put no pressure on the US to take definite steps to reduce opium production in Afghanistan. In fact, hardly a peep on the subject has been heard from the top political leaders of Britain, France or Germany - Europe's most powerful nations.

Bureaucracy on display
At the same time, while drugs were pouring into Tajikistan from Afghanistan, and from there finding their way to Europe - in the process sustaining the terrorist networks against whom both the US and the EU had declared war in unison - many futile bureaucratic moves were made, ostensibly to stop Afghan drugs from coming into Central Asia.

For instance, take the March 15-19, 2004 visit of EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten to Central Asia to meet government representatives of Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. During the visit, discussions with each of the four countries reportedly ranged over a broad agenda concerned including bilateral relations, the fight against terrorism and drug trafficking, and the need to accelerate the process of political and economic reform.

"The Central Asian countries are of strategic importance to Europe and EU enlargement will allow us to strengthen political and economic ties with the region, while making clear that a sustainable and fruitful relationship requires tangible steps to consolidate civil rights and the rule of law," Patten intoned ahead of his trip.

Another bureaucratic spectacle took place more recently. On September 27-28 a donors' conference was held in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's capital, in conjunction with the EU's twin programs, Border Management Central Asia (BOMCA) and the Central Asia Anti-Drug Proliferation Program. Representatives of the US, the European Commission (the executive arm of the EU), Germany, France, the United Nations and Russia took part, with Britain chairing in its capacity as current holder of the EU presidency. The twin programs were launched by the EU this year when Russian border troops departed.

Under a bilateral agreement signed in 1993, Russian troops were in charge of patrols on almost all of the 1,344-kilometer Tajik-Afghan frontier. The Tajiks controlled just 70 kilometers of their border with Afghanistan, in addition to the whole of the long but inaccessible border with China. The pact envisaged the possibility of handing over that mission to Tajik troops at the end of a 10-year period, at which point either side could opt out of the agreement with a six-month advance notice.

In December 2004, the Russians handed over 700 kilometers comprising the easternmost section, in the inaccessible high-mountain region of Badakhshan. The Moskovsky section in the middle was transferred in May, and in August the remaining 243 kilometers in the west (called the Panj sector) came under Tajik control.

European leaders appear to have fixed on BOMCA as a convenient bureaucratic solution to the drug issue. Already, EU authorities have begun to point out how the third phase of BOMCA will prepare the ground for BOMCA-4, which is the EU-funded border-management program for the five Central Asian countries, covering the period 2004 to 2007. In line with a European Commission financing decision of July 2003, BOMCA-3 would also be funded under the "kick starting" Rapid Reaction Mechanism of the EC, bureaucrats pointed out recently.

Belling the cat
The EU and the US have no hesitation in blaming corruption among Russian troops for the enormous quantities of drugs that have found their way into Tajikistan all these years. At one point, Russia's border troops in Tajikistan numbered almost 14,000.

But while the great majority of officers - estimated at 2,200 - and non-commissioned officers were Russian, conscripts and contract servicemen were for the most part Tajiks in Russian uniform who served under the Russian flag.

US Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard E Hoagland, for instance, addressing a May 16-19 conference on drug trafficking in Central Asia at Freising, Germany, said: "... In Central Asia, the Soviet heritage of law-enforcement agencies is that they exist primarily to protect the stability of their governments. In principle, of course, there is nothing wrong with this. But there is another Soviet heritage - and that is the intersection of government and the criminal world. And that makes your job all the more difficult when powerful officials are profiting from narco-trafficking ..."

There is little doubt that the efforts Russia made to stop drug smuggling into Tajikistan from Afghanistan were less than adequate. Indeed, the task only became more difficult as the US-backed government in Afghanistan continued to encourage opium production to keep the warlords in its fold.

"Whoever guards the Tajik-Afghan border will not find it easy," said Colonel Miroj Abdulloev, Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency's chief in the southern town of Kulyab. "It's all because of Afghanistan. Three years ago, everything was blamed on the Taliban. Now they are no longer there, but yet no one can conceal the fact that 'liberated' Afghanistan has become an international center for drug production."

Tajik authorities have claimed repeatedly that neither the US nor NATO exerts any pressure on the drug warlords inside Afghanistan. "There's absolutely no threat to the labs inside Afghanistan," said Avaz Yuldashov of the Tajikistan Drug Control Agency. "Our intelligence shows there are 400 labs making heroin there, and 80 of them are situated right along our border ... Drug trafficking from Afghanistan is the main source of support for international terrorism now," Yuldashov pointed out last year.

But in congressional testimony about the heroin flow out of Afghanistan in April 2004, US Drug Enforcement Administration head, Karen Tandy, spoke only of "potential links" between Afghan traffickers and terrorists. Drug agents in Central Asia say they were baffled by Tandy's hedging. "The connection is absolutely obvious to us," said Colonel Alexander Kondratiyev, a senior Russian officer who has served with border guards in Tajikistan for nearly a decade. "Drugs, weapons, ammunition, terrorism, more drugs, more terrorism - it's a closed circle."

Tajik authorities were equally categorical about Russia's ineffectiveness in battling the drug smugglers. Rustam Nazarov, director of Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency, complained on September 23 at a Moscow news conference that Russia had not respected a pledge to deliver military equipment covered in the protocol signed last October by the heads of the border-guard services.

"I hope that this clause of the document is fulfilled. So far the Russian side has not supplied one piece of military equipment," he said. The agreement had mainly envisaged donations of armored vehicles and communications equipment. Tajikistan was now receiving American support, Nazarov pointedly told the Moscow news conference.

However, it is evident that drug-smuggling into Tajikistan and beyond cannot be stopped at the borders unless the US and NATO are serious about reducing opium production in Afghanistan. At the recent donors' conference in Dushanbe, Tajikistan's President Imomali Rakhmonov underscored the same point when he said stopping the narcotics flow through Tajikistan was a short-term imperative, but the real solution was suppressing narcotics production at the source in Afghanistan.

Biting the bullet
Desperately poor, Tajikistan, a predominantly Muslim nation of 7 million people, suffered a devastating civil war between 1992 and 1997. Reports show the average wage of a Tajik worker is $10 a month, and 80% of the population lives below the poverty line. Under such circumstances it is conceivable that a large number of Tajiks would turn into drug carriers.

Tajikistan itself produces almost no opium or heroin of its own, but the country has become a natural pathway for traffickers because of its border with Afghanistan. During the civil war, it became evident to Dushanbe that drug money was playing a significant role in revving up violence.

In recent years, Tajik authorities have been preoccupied with efforts to contain Islamic radicals. In 1999 and 2000, militants from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) utilized Tajik territory to launch raids into neighboring countries.

Lately, officials have expressed concern about the activity of a clandestine group, Hizb ut-Tahrir, headquartered in the United Kingdom and active throughout Central Asia. Its stated goal is to establish a caliphate through non-violent means.

Strapped financially, the Tajik authorities are now caught in a twin web spun by the terrorist-linked drug traffickers and Islamic activists.

Tajikistan is also a victim of the geopolitical contest between the US, Russia, China, Iran, India, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Europe. Located in the Pamir Mountains, Tajikistan commands direct access to China, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan.

Much of the country is frozen during the winter months, limiting access for ground troops, but airborne forces can provide security year-round from Tajikistan. It is also the primary site for forces intercepting militants and drug traffickers bound for Russia.

With the Russian troops no longer patrolling the borders, Dushanbe is now desperately seeking help to protect its borders. On September 26, Minister of Foreign Affairs Talbak Nazarov and US ambassador Richard Hoagland signed an updated bilateral agreement on border security measures for the Tajik-Afghan border.

Under this document, the US pledged an additional $9 million worth of transport and communications equipment, power generators and other supplies to Tajik border troops, as well as training programs.

Dushanbe is looking not only for help from the US and NATO, but also wants funding from the EU to beef up its Drug Control Agency strategy. According to Roger McDermott, a Central Asia analyst, Dushanbe's strategy is therefore two-pronged: searching for additional security assistance while applying pressure on Moscow.

President Imomali Rakhmonov told an international conference on coordinating such assistance to protect the Tajik-Afghan border: "Border troops have not yet been provided with aircraft. This makes it difficult for border guards to carry out operations."

Rakhmonov believes that such technical aid from the EU could be of great significance for Tajikistan, and he appealed for help on the basis of the fight against international terrorism and the struggle to stem the flow of illegal narcotics through the Tajik-Afghan border, ultimately aimed at the European market.

There is no indication anyone in Europe is listening to Rakhmanov, however. It is also not clear how the EU can control the flow of drugs out of Afghanistan without making clear to the US, and Kabul, that production of thousands of tons of opium is not okay and that there exists a clear link between the drugs and the militants the soldiers are fighting.

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Opium gold unites US friends and foes (Sep 3, '05)


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