A week after terrorists struck the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, officials from Tajikistan and the UN met in Dushanbe to fight drug trafficking and abuse. Participants worked on ways to fight a scourge they've already battled for five years - but one that has taken fresh relevance because trafficking profits are reportedly a vital source of income for the Taliban.
Tajikistan's neighbor, Afghanistan, has reportedly become over the past nine years the world's leading producer of poppy paste, heroin's base product. Trafficking has exploded in recent years. Authorities confiscated 38 kilograms of poppy paste in 1992; since January, they've seized nearly seven tons. The 1300-km border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan offers smugglers the cheapest and most straightforward route into the former Soviet Union and on to Europe.
Gennady Stepanov, a Russian External Intelligence Service expert, claims "abundant proof" that the Taliban control "more than 90 percent" of Afghanistan's poppy fields. The group reportedly uses poppy-derived income to arm, train, and support fundamentalist groups including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Chechen resistance.
The meeting, the Third Review Meeting of the Parties to the Memorandum of Understanding on Drug Control Cooperation in Central Asia, took place on September 17 and 18. Participants included representatives from Azerbaijan, Russia, all the Central Asian states, along with representatives of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) and the Aga Khan Development Group. These NGOs signed the original agreement after five Central Asian states dedicated it in 1996. A number of other countries and international NGOs attended the meeting as observers.
Participants suggested the anti-trafficking effort merits increasing attention as the West ponders its tactical options to combat the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement that is hosting suspected mega-terrorist Osama Bin Laden. Some participants assert that curtailing drug trafficking would drastically limit the Taliban's ability to finance its own military operations in northern Afghanistan, and to provide support for Islamic radicals.
Tajikistan, on the front line of the anti-trafficking struggle, is eager to weaken radical groups, but reluctant to allow the United States to use Tajik territory or military purposes. No wonder, then, that its leaders seek to reinvigorate their anti-trafficking policy, as well as seek greater international assistance. Tajik officials are overmatched against the Afghan drug suppliers. Drug developers in Afghanistan are not only ruthless but industrious, according to Russian intelligence. They say bin Laden personally is investing in a new liquid heroin called "Tears of Allah."
While the Taliban's role is not clear the movement's spiritual leader signed a decree last summer formally banning opium cultivation some say Afghanistan houses enough of the super-narcotic to saturate Europe and the United States in three years. Tajik society is already suffering severely from the narcotics scourge.
According to the Tajik Ministry of Health, drug addicts in state institutions increased fourfold between 1996 and 2000; 74 percent of these reportedly use heroin. Experts say that the real figure must be 10-15 times higher. The number of patients appealing for medical assistance has grown by 10.3 times during the last five years. And General Roustam Nazarov, who runs the state's drug control operation, says stockpiles of surplus heroin await addicts. "According to available data, dozens of warehouses and laboratories producing high-quality heroin meant for transportation abroad, are located along the Afghan-Tajik border," he said.
To repel this tide, Tajikistan needs more international support, officials in Dushanbe say. While the United States has suddenly become focused on the Taliban, Russia has been fighting heroin imports for years. Russia's Ambassador to Tajikistan, Alexey Peshkov, reported at the Dushanbe meeting that an increase in intravenous drug users has spurred HIV infection rates in his country. It's also aggravated crime levels. Last year, drug-related crimes climbed 40 percent; they've leapt 73.5 percent so far this year. Some experts maintain the best way to address addiction- and trafficking-related issues is through preventative measures. Moves to restrict supply make trafficking more lucrative, they add.
Russia also suffers because of trafficking. Peshkov claimed that 30 percent of drugs that Russian police seized were headed elsewhere. Russian aid already props up Tajikistan's economy in critical ways. Now that the West is turning to Russia for help, the giant nation may try to bolster Tajik drug-enforcement operations. This would make Tajikistan look more stable and thwart the likes of Bin Laden without angering key constituencies at home.
Tajikistan already takes all the help it can get. It's party to every basic international and regional agreement on drug control and crime prevention. In the wake of the September 11 attacks, it has the chance to gain more lasting and energetic aid. "Protection of the border demands a special attention and a new approach," said Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov. He implied that the Commonwealth of Independent States, which has been inconsistent as a policy-setting body, should coordinate the anti-trafficking effort.
Some encouraging signs emerged from the meeting. Azerbaijan, which prior to the meeting made a request on accession, became a full-fledged member of the Memorandum. Delegates pledged to exchange more intelligence and recruit mass media to fight illegal drugs, while the UN International Drug Control Program proposed a set of projects to support drug control efforts in the region.
Konstantin Parshin is a freelance journalist based in Dushanbe, Tajikistan.