Washington struggles to stem heroin tide

With Southwest Asia now supplying more than half the heroin entering the United States, concerned American officials are working to stiffen both the resolve and the resources of the Pakistani government to help stem the illicit tide. The US can do little, however, to stem drug production and trafficking in Iran and Afghanistan.

Assisted by the US and other international donors, Pakistani agents are being trained and equipped to deal with their country's soaring drug traffic on their home soil. Programs are being readied to lure farmers from traditional opium crops to profitable - and licit - substitutes. Pakistan officially bans opium growing, processing, and use, and it now seizes more heroin than any other country in the world.

Progress is being made, but the heroin keeps flowing - and immense obstacles thwart its control. Chief among them is the Pakistani government's lack of effective control over tribal areas in its rugged North-West Frontier Province. There, as in the tribal areas of Southeast Asia's ''Golden Triangle,'' opium poppies and clandestine laboratories flourish, and smuggling and contempt for outside authority are ways of life.

''Today, with Soviet troops just across the border and a reported 2 million Afghan refugees in camps in the North-West Frontier Province, narcotics control is not the government of Pakistan's highest priority,'' the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotic Matters (INM) observed last month in a ''narcotics profile paper'' on Pakistan.

Nevertheless, both political realities and the sheer quantity of its own narcotics traffic have made Pakistan the centerpiece of US-assisted efforts to plug the outpouring of drugs from the opium-producing ''Golden Crescent'' countries: Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Neither Afghanistan, under Soviet troop occupation, nor Iran, which has no diplomatic relations with the US, offers possibilities for cooperative drug control programs. Pakistan and the US, on the other hand, revived an old but ruptured friendship following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Pakistan is now targeted to receive $3.2 billion in US military sales credits and economic assistance over a five-year period.

Due to the turmoil in its neighboring Golden Crescent countries, Pakistan has become the hub of the region's drug activity. Said Clyde Taylor, deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotic matters, ''56 percent of the heroin entering the United States in 1981 was of Southwest Asian origin. You can't then say how much was from opium grown in 'x' country. What we can say is that the bulk of that 56 percent was from opium grown or transited in Pakistan.''

What's more, according to the US government's ''Narcotics Intelligence Estimate,'' Pakistani chemists have made ''rapid strides'' in their heroin-manufacturing abilities. In 1976, says the estimate prepared by a committee of key US agencies involved in drug control, local chemists showed only ''rudimentary skills.'' Only four years later, they were turning out high quality heroin. Within the past year, says the State Department's INM, Pakistan has become a major processor and exporter of refined heroin.

Along the way, heroin addiction has been growing in Pakistan - a fact American officials drum into Pakistani official ears as a means of raising the issue of narcotics control on Pakistan's priority list.

"Ten years ago heroin addiction in Pakistan was unheard of,'' says Terence Dunn of the US Drug Enforcement Administration's international heroin section. ''Heroin abuse is growing in Pakistan. It could become a very severe problem. So it does behoove the government of Pakistan to take action against this before it gets out of hand.''

The Drug Enforcement Administration opened a special action office for Southwest Asian heroin in February 1980. It currently has six special agents assigned to offices in Islamabad, Karachi, and Lahore; another office has been approved for the North-West Frontier Province capital of Peshawar. American special agents have no authority to make arrests or heroin seizures, but they work cooperatively with Pakistani narcotics control and customs officials.

Since 1979, a year that saw both a stupendous 800 ton Pakistan opium crop and a government ban on opium growing, the United States has undertaken several new projects to backstop narcotics control in Pakistan. It has been training local law enforcement officers and providing equipment, technical assistance, and training for a special drug enforcement unit at the port of Karachi. It is giving money to establish a national forensic laboratory, and helping to equip special narcotics task forces in each of Pakistan's four provinces.

The $3 million the US will spend there this current fiscal year includes $1. 75 million for a program aimed at denting the largest single obstacle to effective control: the government's inability to enforce its own anti-opium-growing laws in untamed tribal areas. In one such area, the government will try coupling first-time enforcement of its opium ban with inducements such as more roads, electricity, tubewells, and agricultural extension services. The goal is to get traditional opium farmers to switch to substitute crops such as hybrid wheat and peanuts.

''The economics are ripe,'' says the State Department's Taylor. ''In 1979 the price of a kilo of opium gum at the farm gate was $200. It's now running $26 to

The reason for the current low prices, however, is an enormous opium surplus left over in village stockpiles from the bumper 1979 harvest. This home-grown surplus, plus easy access to Afghan opium, dims prospects for effective future narcotics control.

''With the recent establishment of clandestine heroin laboratories and the ready availability of opium from Afghanistan, Pakistan can continue as a major heroin source country even if domestic opium production is further curtailed,'' says an official with the State Department's INM. The government has shut down only one heroin lab in the tribal areas since 1978, although an estimated 15 to 27 operate there.

Worse, the recent sharp drop in opium harvests is credited largely to the price-depressing surpluses and bad weather, rather than to the growing ban being enforced in government-controlled areas. For Pakistan, a country that can singlehandedly outproduce the entire ''Golden Triangle'' of Southeast Asia in an exceptional year, the crunch will come when poppy cultivation becomes even more profitable.

''The real test of the government's resolve to enforce its opium ban will come as prices begin to recover,'' warns the American narcotics intelligence estimate.

Looking ahead at the overall prospects for Southwest Asia heroin through 1984 , the intelligence estimate forecasts grim times ahead. The region's opium supplies will be abundant. Prospects for effective government action in the three-country region ''remain bleak.'' Even more Southwest Asia heroin is likely to appear in American markets. And, most ominously, the increased supply will probably draw new, younger users into heroin abuse.

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