Is Drug Trade on Tajik-Afghan Border Set to Expand?
As some of the last Russian troops stationed on the southern border of Tajikistan begin pulling out, there are concerns that heroin smuggling from Afghanistan could rocket.
This month, Russian border guards will hand over to their Tajik counterparts on a 232-kilometre section of the frontier called Moskovsky, after a border village in Tajikistan.
The Russians will hold onto a neighbouring stretch for another two or three months, but the Moskovsky disengagement is seen as a high-risk move because it is one of the most frequent crossing-points for drug smugglers infiltrating from Afghanistan.
So far the Tajik frontier guards have taken over just over half of the Moskovsky sector, including the area near Shuroabad which is notorious for trafficking. They inherited the infrastructure and even the weapons of the departing Russian units.
In the past four years, over 13 tonnes of drugs, with heroin accounting for half the total, have been confiscated by Russian troops guarding the Moskovsky stretch. Last year, 127 people were arrested crossing the border illegally and two Russian soldiers were killed in a clash in this one sector.
After Tajikistan became independent in 1991, it rapidly became unstable and the ensuing civil war - not to mention domestic conflict across the border in Afghanistan - provided Russia with plenty of reasons to maintain a historic presence that goes back even before Soviet rule, to the Tsarist era.
Although Tajikistan became considerably more stable since its war ended in 1997, and the demise of Taleban rule in 2001 greatly improved cross-border relations, the Russians stayed on, in part because the Tajiks lacked the resources to build a substantial frontier service, and because heroin smuggling continued to pose a threat.
Until last year, Moscow was in charge of patrols on almost all the 1,344 km Tajik-Afghan frontier, with the Tajiks controlling just 70 km, plus the whole of their long but inaccessible border with China. But in December 2004, the Russians handed over 700 km comprising the easternmost section, in the inaccessible high mountain region of Badakhshan. The Moskovsky section in the middle is being transferred this month, and by August the remaining 243 km in the west (called the Panj sector) will come under Tajik control.
With that final transfer, the Tajik border guards will assume complete responsibility for patrolling the border and stopping incursions.
The rank-and-file men of the Russian Frontier Guards Service in Tajikistan are in fact local nationals, with only the officers brought in from Russia.
But Tajik conscripts earn far more with the Russian units than if they served in their own country's military.
These economic imbalances are only part of the reason why some believe the Tajik border guards are not up to the job.
A former soldier in a Russian border unit who asked to remain anonymous, told IWPR, “I have lost my job, but I don’t intend to join the Committee for State Border Protection of Tajikistan - and not just because of the low salary. Our poorly-off officers will probably not be averse to cooperating with the drug traffickers, so the war on drugs will be nothing but words.
“As an experienced border guard, I can say for certain that the Tajik armed forces do not have the experience or the equipment necessary for effective border protection."
But the head of the Tajik border guards committee, Colonel-General Saidamir Zukhurov, rejected claims that under his men's control the frontier would become more porous.
He admitted that “we lag behind the Russian border guards in our personnel and technical equipment, for example we don’t yet have our own aircraft". But he said plans were under way to make the troops more mobile and able to deploy over a wider area.
"As for concerns that drug trafficking will increase drastically when control of the frontier is transferred to the border guards committee, I don’t think that will happen,” he said.
The Tajik authorities, with the assistance of western governments concerned at the heroin flow out of Afghanistan, have been building up their capacity to curb the trafficking. The national Drug Control Agency set up in 1998 claims to have had significant successes.
The United States will provide over nine million dollars this year for border protection and anti-narcotics programmes. According to Ambassador Richard Hoagland, “We are also prepared to provide communications and transport, and also to assist in renovating and equipping existing border posts and building new ones.”
The European Union has also offered help, including a six-million-dollar Central Asian Border Guards Academy to train senior officers in the Tajik capital Dushanbe.
The focus on anti-narcotics programmes is unsurprising. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC, says Afghanistan accounts for 87 per cent of world opium production. Last year's opium harvest was up 17 per cent at 4.2 million tonnes. The area of cultivation spread by 64 per cent, or as a UNODC report put it, “like wildfire”.
This growth “promises increased trafficking and a steady supply of high-grade heroin for Central Asia and the Commonwealth of Independent States,” the report said.
Between 20 and 30 per cent of the Afghan population are believed to earn an income directly or indirectly from the narcotics business, which may account for 60 per cent of the country’s gross domestic product.
“Whoever guards the Tajik-Afghan border will not find it easy,” said Colonel Miroj Abdulloev, the 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 Taleban. Now they are no longer there, but yet no one can conceal the fact that ‘liberated’ Afghanistan has become an international centre for drug production."
A Tajik senior drugs control officer, who asked not to be named, said Tajikistan and its neighbour Uzbekistan account for about 24 per cent of Afghan drug exports. Most of it – around 40 per cent - is believed to go through Iran despite the immense efforts the Tehran authorities have made to stem the flow. The second most important route, accounting for some 36 per cent of the total, leads through Pakistan to Karachi and onwards to Europe via the Gulf Arab states.
Tajik Drug Control Agency officers say they are playing an increasingly important role in stopping trafficking. It plans to keep mobile units along the Afghan border, and also form a second line of defence on the country's northern borders with Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the next stopping point for heroin on its way to Russia and then European markets.
The agency has established the first ever ties with their Afghan counterparts. They recently held a joint operation in Kunduz province to arrest a crime gang which had a long history of transporting drugs to the adjoining Hatlon region of Tajikistan.
Colonel Abdulloev says the Tajik agencies are now achieving success. Last year, over three tonnes of heroin were seized by various agencies in the Shuroabad area - about 60 per cent of the total volume of drugs confiscated in Tajikistan that year. So far this year, Tajik units have intercepted about 1.2 tonnes of narcotics.
However, the apparent success of these operations may mask a bigger problem – that substantial amounts of heroin are never detected, creating a trade that corrupts and distorts the Tajik economy.
The high-ranking drugs control officer interviewed by IWPR, who has in the past infiltrated a number of major trans-national drug groups, said the Russians’ withdrawal may change little because the situation was not particularly good even when they were in charge.
“The borders were quite transparent before, and quite easy to cross for smugglers,” he said. “The local authorities have not shown themselves keen to put a stop to the illicit drugs trade, although they are constantly displaying their resolve to wage war on it.
“Although it’s hard to prove, judging from the level of corruption in Tajikistan among high-ranking officials, it is quite possible many influential figures in the country are involved in the business.”
Turko Dikaev is an IWPR correspondent from south Tajikistan.