Tajikistan Series: Drug Trafficking Pt. 1

While chatting with a friend who works in irrigation policy research in Tajikistan, we both came to the conclusion that there is, relatively, very little information and very little research being done with regards to Tajikistan. This lack of interest, six years ago and prior to, is understandable. And yet post 9/11 and Afghanistan invasion (Operation Enduring Freedom) the want of attention and research is both frustrating and unacceptable. That is to say that actionable information and intelligence have by no means caught up with the need brought on by its newly realized geographic and geopolitical strategic significance. Societies in developed countries still have almost no recognition of Tajikistan (or of Central Asia at large); this is distressing since Tajikistan’s strongest cultural ties (and even perhaps economic and business ties) are with Afghanistan – a country whose situation is by no means ignored nor internationally insignificant.

And for those who want to visit Tajikistan, readily accessible sources of information are few and far between. This has become painfully apparent to myself; I’m headed there for my first visit in June and my endeavor to construct a personally satisfactory pre-understanding of its society and politics has turned out to be a fairly arduous task. I should state two qualifiers here: 1) I am pretty familiar with the Middle East and Central Asia but 2) I am rather pedantic when it comes to reaching a putative understanding of things. In regards to 2), perhaps there are some who prefer to drop right into the country without even knowing the name of its capitol; my complaints here are neither shared nor well understood by that crowd. As an independent researcher with a slightly academic tilt, my informational requirements and the objectives that knowledge can achieve is, for me, quite critical.

And so I chose different topics of import in Tajikistan: Drug Trafficking, Sleazy Politics, Irrigation Reform, Censorship, Organized Crime, Prostitution (the interesting ones). I read up on some of their most recent literature, participated in some online forums, contacted some people, etc etc etc. The point is that I spent some time reviewing the great nation of the Tajiks, and I think some of the information I netted from this would be useful to others. I do delve into the relevant rumors and opinions on the topic at hand occasionally, but most of the information is from documented sources. I will also post many of the text sources for the interested reader’s perusal. I make no claim to the intellectual rights of this info (much of it is clearly plagiarized, but only for a sentence or two at a time :P), and I offer it as helpful and interesting information for those who are interested themselves.

So let’s descend from the inhibitive language of the self-important intellectual and get down to business. One note: this is not an introduction to Tajikistan or Central Asia. For that, head to nationmaster, wikipedia, google, BBC, your local ethnic community, etc.

And so our first topic in this exploratory Tajikistan series will be Drug Trafficking. Why? Because I feel like it.

And who doesn’t like drugs?

Drugs Are Bad…mmmmkay?

There are 200 million drug consumers worldwide (hi there). They are spending 200-400 billion USD a year. This makes drug trafficking the second largest business in the world (after arms trade). Of course much of these two industries are run by a larger apparatus: Organized Crime. Global turnover of organized criminal groups is estimated to be 500 to 1,500 billion USD. I bet that has churned out quite a few Bill Gates.

In the wonderful world of Organized Crime and illicit activity in general, we’ll focus on drug trafficking in the setting of Tajikistan and its surrounding regions. And drug trafficking in Tajikistan, Central Asia, and the Middle East cannot be understood without considering its source: Afghanistan. Likewise, the first section of this report intends to be a concise but sufficient treatment of “Poppies in Afghanistan” (that makes it sound nice, doesn’t it? like a bollywood film). And in an attempt to utilize a wheel without necessarily reinventing it, I will primarily focus on aspects of opium production that I believe are overlooked by the media as well as those that pertain specifically to Tajikistan. That is to say that there is a glut of info out there on the subject; I will do my best to echo the less considered yet still significant aspects of this international debacle.

A Subjective, Biased, and Appropriated History

(is there any other kind?)

Afghanistan is now estimated to produce 80-92% of the world’s opium. This was not always the case. Up until the 1970s, the Golden Triangle in Southeast Asia was the world leader and the major production region. However at least two separate but coincidental occurrences have been pointed to as catalysts for change with regards to that setup: 1) a drought in Southeast Asia that hurt production and subsequently drove up prices worldwide, 2) the Mujahedin were fielding their resistance to the USSR and needed funds. They quickly found out that opium production and trafficking worked. As the strengthening of the industry in the Golden Crescent (Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan) is therefore traced back to the Mujahedin, it puts it only a stone’s throw away from the CIA. Resultantly, it too has been accused of condoning and being complicit in the rise of the production (and its consequential modern-day societal entrenchment in Afghanistan) by continuing to supply intelligence and arms to the Mujahedin (who paid in drug money) even after they became big-time drug traffickers.

And so cultivation and production in Afghanistan increased throughout the resistance period and continued in earnest in the 90s (during the internecine conflicts of the mujahedin). And in 1991, with a yield of 1782 metric tons, Afghanistan surpassed Burma as world’s number one producer. I have not been able to find information regarding the transnational trafficking networks and the percentage of the product that each respective bordering country absorbed during that early period. It has been assumed that the breakup of the Soviet Union and the increased amount of border checks discouraged trafficking north from the early 90s and onward. And since Afghanistan was actively at war with the Soviets until ’89, it might be best to assume that drug trade north was managed largely by the soldiers stationed there (on both sides); that also seems to entail that transportation networks through the north – Central Asia – were kept in check by various factors at different time periods throughout the 80s and 90s. It follows that the most significant networks of distribution during the formative growth period of cultivation and production were probably to the south and west, Pakistan and Iran respectively.

This underscores the contemporary assessment that the reason trafficking has developed into such a huge, intractable problem in Tajikistan of late is because of the overwhelming scope and explosive zest of drug-pushing efforts that started shortly after the fall of the Taliban; in the early 2000’s in Tajikistan, there was not the infrastructure nor policy to combat this massive, illicit campaign. Recently, a senior Tajik drugs control officer estimated that Uzbekistan and Tajikistan carry about 24% of Afghan drugs export. 36% is estimated to head through Pakistan to Karachi and then the Gulf states. The remaining 40% goes through Iran (who acquires upwards of 80% of the world’s seized opium, much to its own detriment). Most of this shit is final destination Europe, where Afghanistan is said to supply 80-90% of the demand there (and lately, it is said to have over-supplied the demand).

To return to the Afghanistan and cultivation of the early 90s, the most significant factor is the Taliban. The movement started and gained control in southern Afghanistan in 93-94 and consolidated its power to include most of Afghanistan by 1996-1997. It is said that they actively supported poppy cultivation (as a means to pay off debtors) until a supposed ban in late 1997. Only in 2000 did an official decree go out: cultivation and production was un-Islamic (and prohibition finally began to be enforced, it seems). Even after the ban, when opium production was at its lowest, Afghanistan was still responsible for 75% of the world’s opium. This may be because the Taliban did almost nothing to prevent the lucrative unloading of previously warehoused opium repositories.

Regarding this specific topic, I’ve read in numerous places how the 2000 ban was designed to drive up prices that had seen a severe drop after the Taliban flooded the European market in 1999, but I have no idea who or what is the source of that rumor. Wikipedia mentions a swiss security publication in 2006; however they could just be regurgitating the same rumors that were repeated in many other earlier sources (as early as 2002-2003 at least). This story of international drug mafia barons forcing the Taliban to slow down production, and the resulting “religious” ban by Omar in 2000 is a little far-fetched. Who the hell from Europe was going to enforce this demand in Afghanistan? How? These drugs usually made their way through 3-5 different transnational gangs before reaching Europe, including numerous smaller more regional ones. The European groups couldn’t pose an existential threat to the Taliban. It’s also highly unlikely that they could disrupt profit for the Taliban without creating an even bigger problem for themselves. What leverage could the drug dealers in Europe really have had? I’d love to read the swiss article that lays out this argument, but for now it seems more probable that continued international isolation and non-recognition were driving factors behind the 2000 fatwa against production; it’s clear that they could have continued to sell from stockpiles anyways, saving face and making money. The “Mafia forces Taliban to back down on production” story sounds a little fanciful and is reminiscent of a fresh piece of potential intelligence getting stuck on ‘dissemination’ without ever hitting analysis again – the kind of fantastic shit that a reporter kicks up, unsubstantiated, which in turn garners a lot of interest and alarm, and finally is quoted to the UN by a high-ranking US official as proof positive of WMD and reason to go to war (as it conveniently serves existing political imperative (yes, I am double-nesting quotes (shut up): downing street memo)).

Anyways, trafficking was continuous throughout the early Taliban period. A Tajikistan indicator of this is the involvement of both sides of the 92-97 Tajikistan civil war where trafficking was a major source of fund-raising. (Another evidence local to Astan seems to be the existence of Taliban stockpiles, uncovered and quickly re-covered as transfer of ownerships occurred immediately after the Taliban was sent packing). In 1998, following the cessation of the Tajikistan conflict (at which point many kingpins/warlords/drug traffickers from all sides had been assimilated into positions of power in the government), in an act of rebellion against the new government, the warlord and political elite Mahmud Khudoberdiev launched a military assault towards Khujand in northern Tajikistan. Although there are different interpretations concerning the reasons for this act, local accounts indicate that the motive was to protect the northern region drug trafficking monopoly he had held since the end of the civil war. This was just one of the many examples that highlight the seamless transformation of drug traffickers into respected leaders of the highest echelons of the Tajikistan government (a problem that continues today, which we will get into in part 2).

Back to Afghanistan, we know that poppy cultivation and heroin production has skyrocketed since the fall of the Taliban (said to be because both the ban of 2000 was lifted and the war collapsed the economy). Areas controlled by the Northern Alliance saw increases in all phases of the illicit process. Afghanistan’s estimated metric tonnage of opium in 2003 was 2700; compare that to the estimated 3500-4000 of 2006 (some reports now say it was actually closer to 6000) . In terms of cultivation, the most prolific provinces are near rivers and irrigation systems (unsurprisingly): badakshan, kandahar, and oruzgan. Nangarhar was once a primary supplier but has reportedly had success in reducing poppy cultivation. However, this has come at a price. On Nangarhar, Wikipedia (with citation) reports, “..the eradication program has often left peasant farmers destitute, and many farmers were reported to have given their children in payment for debts to opium dealers.” This sucks – but it prompts us into the examination of an oft understated aspect of opium production in Afghanistan: survival.

The On-the-ground Economics and Agricultural Aspects of Opium Production

Opium is said to account for 12-33% of Afghanistan’s GDP. Anyone with half a brain can then understand that “eradication” programs, especially when successful, will bring about unrest and disruption in society if there is no immediate and monetarily equal replacement. We are forced to face a certain reality (however much it doesn’t lend itself to our leaders’ politicking): People need an economic means in order to survive.

And so there are pertinent “humanitarian” aspects of the opium industry. Besides harvesting and production being a professional process (complete with advertisements, tag-lines “the whitest and purest this side of Herat”, and promotional deals), it is a source of employment for many Afghans (and Tajiks, incidentally). This is because opium harvesting is labor intensive, requiring 6-8 times the manpower as wheat. Furthermore, its season begins in the south of the country in March and April and then continues on into the summer as one moves further north; this natural staggering of the harvest allows migrant workers to find seasonal employment through March-June of any given year, earning much of the money that will support them and their families throughout the following winter.

Another indication of its subsistence-level enabling are the stockpiling and spending habits of workers and farmers. While various stockpiles do exist, on the whole farmers use proceeds towards satisfying immediate, fundamental needs. Virtually all workers and many farmers survive on a seasonal basis, able to squeak by thanks only to the cash derived from the latest crop. Often, debt to druglords keeps farmers at near-poverty conditions, not unlike the exploitive debt that bogs down 3rd world countries thanks to irresponsible lenders (or gangster-like institutional and national lending).

While alternative crops will hopefully be the answer (someday), right now it is just not a possibility. Two reasons are 1) irrigation and 2) old technology. Irrigation systems all over Central Asia and Afghanistan are in serious disrepair. The amount of water wasted (and nutrient-drained, dessicated soil created) by their poor functioning and nil upkeep inhibits any paradigmatic changeover to other crops. The Helmand irrigation system in Afghanistan was completely hashed following decades of neglect, misuse, and war (I believe the US originally developed on it in the 60s). I have not heard what recent restorative efforts have been able to achieve, but if any serious attempt is to be made at rehabilitating the agricultural sector, irrigation system policy and repair must be at the forefront. Along with this comes the needed upgrade of machinery and agricultural technology. The soviet, dilapidated junk is often as much a liability as it is anything else. The largest inhibitive factor here is money. Farmers don’t have it, and druglords don’t care to share it. Since farmers are often in a state of indentured servitude to local criminal groups, responsible international creditors and consultants are sorely needed.

Clearly there are systemic problems here that will not go away by having crop-dusters unload anti-organic, carcinogenic chemicals over fields full of opium workers. Even the old reimbursement policy of the Afghanistan government (250 USD for every poppy cultivated acre burned) just does not compare with the monetary reward – the necessity – of playing by the druglord’s rules (it seems that the equivalent opium harvest per acre nets about 1200 USD ). And as long as Europe is demanding, someone must be there to provide it.


I’d like to take a break now. It seems that our jaunt down drug-trafficking lane will have to be continued in part 2. Most of the info I have presented here is readily available on the web; below are some links for people who were interested enough in the topic to have read to this point. I welcome any questions, comments, corrections or updates for the information above.

Regarding part 2, it will focus chiefly on Tajikistan and look at trafficking routes, narco-terrorism, drug-induced political corruption, and societal consequences. Until then, stay off the heroin and promptly disrupt any “Johnny Chimpo” Afghanimation trafficking cartels that you encounter.



Wikipedia on Afghanistan Opium

Interstates cooperation for irrigation of Amu Darya River Banks, its potential role as a solution for the poppy problem 2006

Stability and Security in Tajikistan: Drug Trafficking as a Threat to National Security 2005

The ‘Bounty’ of the Golden Crescent 2003

Central Asia’s Heroin Problem 2002

(several other sources that I really don’t feel like adding unless someone complains)

http://enews.ferghana.ru/: My favorite Central Asian news source! English!

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