Fierce-looking men on horseback, rifles slung across their backs, roam up and down this town's hot, dusty main street.
Looking up from their work, the blacksmith, iceman, druggist, and dry-goods merchant stare out suspiciously from hole-in-the-wall shops, as if waiting for something to happen. Across the street, still more armed men sit on their haunches on the second-story veranda of the town's only hotel, muttering and spitting into the street below.
At first glance, this scene could be the set of a Hollywood western movie. But the camels, donkey carts, and brightly colored buses bustling up and down the street remind one that this is Central Asia, as do the men wearing turbans rather than 10-gallon hats.
Still, the town does have the lawless tension of an Islamized Dodge City. The reason for the tension is made clear when half a dozen armed men begin loading a truck with 40-kilogram sacks of opium for transport to a nearby factory, where the raw drug will be converted into high-quality heroin that will eventually be sold to addicts in Western countries.
Sitting at the very top of the legendary Khyber Pass in the no man's land between Pakistan and Afghanistan, Landi Kotal has been a smuggler's town for more than 2,000 years. Goods ranging from exquisitely finished, handmade copies of guns from around the world to videocassette recorders and narcotics are bought and sold here.
Wild and sometimes dangerous, Landi Kotal is a place without laws, without courts, without police of any sort. Men's actions are governed by only two things: ''Pukhtunwali'' (the code of honor of the Afridi Pathan tribesman) and the search for profit. Women's actions are governed by men. It is a clear-cut way of life.
And the Pakistani government has little effective jurisdiction over its North-West Frontier Province. Until recently, no one paid attention to what happened here as long as too many people did not die from it. Now this has changed. Landi Kotal has become the subject of intense concern in Washington, London, Paris, Bonn, Rotterdam, and Rome.
Over the past two years, Landi Kotal and the whole tribal belt of Pakistan of which it is the unofficial capital have become the chief suppliers of heroin to the entire world. In fact, almost 60 percent of the heroin coming into North America, and perhaps 90 percent of the narcotics smuggled into Western Europe and Britain this year, will come from opium grown in Southwest Asia. The area, spanning parts of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, is sometimes called ''the Golden Crescent.''
Although laboratory analysis usually cannot pinpoint the country of origin, only the region, experts say most heroin originating in Southwest Asia and carried to the West is, in fact, from Pakistan.
''The heroin problem here is far eclipsing anything we've seen before in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia or in Turkey,'' explains Doug Wankel, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agent in charge in Pakistan. ''The labs here are operating openly and freely in the tribal areas of Pakistan, and we're lucky if we catch 5 or 10 percent of it before it reaches Europe and the States. Most Americans are simply not aware of the immensity of the narcotics problem here.''
If most Americans are unaware of the Khyber Connection, they are likewise ignorant of its likely impact on their society.
For one thing, the purity of Khyber heroin typically averages in excess of 80 percent, as opposed to the 3 to 4 percent pure heroin that dominated the American market throughout the late 1970s.
As a result, hospital admissions from overdoses have more than doubled in New York City alone since 1978, according to a 1982 study sponsored by New York State and headed by Joseph A. Califano Jr., former US secretary of health, education, and welfare. Heroin-related deaths nationally increased 30 percent in 1980 over 1979, and have remained nearly stable at that higher level, according to US health officials.
In addition, the increased traffic of the drug has reversed a five-year decline in the number of addicts, leading to a 50 percent rise in addictions in New York City, according to the Califano report, and pushing up current estimates of the total addict population in the United States to between 450,000 and 600,000.
Experts trace the rise of the Khyber Connection indirectly to the Iranian revolution of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in early 1979. Before that, most of the opium produced both in Pakistan and Afghanistan traveled to Iran to supply that country's estimated 1 million addicts. With the domestic turmoil and breakdown of law and order in Iran after the revolution, however, domestic Iranian production soared. The Iranian market was then further closed to outsiders by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan a year later, which blocked some of the traditional smuggling routes through Afghanistan.
What to do with all the opium stockpiling in Pakistan thus posed a major problem for smugglers by the middle of 1979. An estimated 800 tons of opium was produced in Pakistan alone during that year's spring harvest - one-third more than was ever produced in a single year in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia. In addition, several hundred more tons were produced in Afghanistan and brought east over the border to the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan.
With their traditional markets closed and stockpiles overflowing, the relatively unsophisticated tribal traffickers decided to move into the Western market. But here there was a problem: Opium is not a drug of choice in the West as it is in the East, and addicts prefer the more potent and injectable heroin, which is refined from opium.
So in mid-1979, officials now speculate, tribal entrepreneurs imported a few Southeast Asian chemists to teach the simple conversion process. Soon a network of primitive ''bathtub'' laboratories had sprung up throughout the tribal belt of Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province.
Mr. Wankel, the DEA agent in charge, claims that today the Khyber heroin problem is out of control. So far this year just in Pakistan, he notes, a staggering 850 kilograms (about 1,900 pounds) of Khyber heroin have been confiscated by police and customs agents - 10 times the amount seized in that country last year. According to Wankel, this year's heroin haul in Pakistan may even come close to the amount seized in all other reporting countries of the world combined.
Skyrocketing statistics on heroin seizures in the US and Europe also support Wankel's note of alarm. In West Germany, for example, 112 kg of Southwest Asian heroin were seized by law enforcement personnel in the first six months of 1980, compared with only 100 kg in all of 1979 and barely 40 kg the year before.
The epidemic, in fact, has spread to virtually all West European countries except France, which still imports a significant portion of its heroin from Southeast Asia's Golden Triangle. Throughout Europe, 618 kg of heroin were seized by police in 1981, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration. Of that amount, 88 percent was from the Golden Crescent.
In the United States, the Khyber heroin problem shows similar growth rates. Nearly 136 kg of heroin were confiscated by drug agents in the first five months of this year, compared with 151 kg seized in all of 1981. The DEA's laboratories estimate that about 55 percent of that heroin had its origin in the Golden Crescent, or more precisely, in the tribal belt of northwest Pakistan. On America's Eastern Seaboard, however, probably 85 percent of the total heroin seized was manufactured from opium grown in Southwest Asia.
So alarmed are officials at the sudden explosion of Khyber heroin production that a coordinated effort is being organized worldwide to stop or at least slow the traffic. In mid-September, more than 200 drug enforcement officials from around the world met with their Pakistani counterparts in Quetta, Pakistan, to plot new strategies for the war against the Khyber Connection.
In early October, DEA agents as well as staff members of the US State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics Matters held separate conferences in Rome, a major European port of entry and transshipment point for Khyber heroin.
For its part, the drug agency has created a Special Action Office for Southwest Asian heroin. The agency has doubled its staff in Pakistan in the past 12 months, opening a new office in Lahore and planning to open another in Peshawar, besides adding personnel to the Karachi and Islamabad offices. In addition, millions of dollars in new equipment and training for Pakistani law enforcement personnel have been authorized by Washington.
More recently, a number of new antinarcotics programs were announced by the White House after President Reagan's Oct. 2 radio address to the nation on drug abuse. Although it is too early to tell if these will be any more effective than measures adopted under previous administrations, several programs have direct bearing on the Khyber Connection, including five intended to help wean Pakistani farmers away from opium production to other crops. In addition, Washington has secured Pakistan's agreement to ban opium poppy cultivation in certain areas.
Perhaps the strongest indicator of American concern, however, has been the fact-finding trip to Pakistan by Attorney General William French Smith on Nov. 2 and 3. Although he was also concerned with refugee and other matters on his Asia trip, Mr. Smith's focus was discussions with Pakistani officials both to assess the campaign against heroin and to impress on them the intensity of American concern in the matter.
This concern had previously not been well understood in Pakistan, and, in fact, the heroin problem has even become a source of friction between Washington and Islamabad. Last spring, the US ambassador to Pakistan, Ronald I. Spiers, spoke of these differences on narcotics policy in an address before the Karachi Institute of Foreign Relations which is still talked about for its candor.
''There has been a tendency in Pakistan as in other opium-producing countries ,'' the ambassador declared, ''to regard this as a 'Western' problem, even as a sign of Western 'decadence,' and to take a detached view. . . . But I believe our (Pakistan foreign aid) program will have difficulty weathering the annual congressional review unless we can point to clear progress in opium poppy eradication.''
The narcotics problem, he added, was clearly one of four major ''vulnerabilities'' in American-Pakistani relations, along with the human-rights , nuclear, and Indo-Pakistani issues.
Since Ambassador Spiers' warning, Pakistan appears to have taken a more serious approach to the heroin traffic, in part because its own citizens are becoming increasingly addicted to the narcotic.
''Just 12 months ago, there were only a couple thousand heroin addicts at most in all of Pakistan,'' DEA agent Wankel observed. ''Now, Pakistani medical officials are screaming, because their own research indicates there may be 30, 000 addicts in Karachi alone. They realize the problem is getting out of hand.''
Differences remain, however, and some American officials specifically criticize what they term a ''lethargic'' approach by Islamabad to law enforcement. Traffickers, even if caught, are almost never jailed, leading to a situation where some prominent figures in Pakistani society have become involved in the lucrative traffic.
The managing director of the brand-new Sheraton Hotel in Karachi, for instance, Sadruddin Hashim Gangi, was arrested in West Germany three days before the hotel's grand opening in June with 33 kg of pure heroin in his luggage. At present, no major narcotics dealer is imprisoned in Pakistan.
In their defense, Pakistani officials point out that theirs is a poor country lacking adequate resources for modern law enforcement. In addition, men like Miraj Hussain, chairman of the new Pakistan Narcotics Control Board, claims that Pakistan's opium production has substantially decreased in the past two years. Finally, as Fazle Haq, governor of the North West Frontier Province, complained at the Quetta conference in September, legally Pakistan has little authority to move against the heroin laboratories in the tribal areas, as these are autonomous regions tied to Pakistan only by treaty relationship.
John Warner, chief of the DEA's International Programs Division and a participant in the Quetta conference, countered: ''That may be partly true, but when I asked him what he'd do if currency counterfeiters were running printing plants up in those mountains, or if the (former President) Zulfikar Ali Bhutto terrorists had training camps up there, he admitted they'd have troops up there in six hours.''
That heroin laboratories are operating openly and freely in Pakistan's tribal belt is beyond doubt. Indeed, this reporter inspected two such ''bathtub'' labs recently, each of which produces more heroin on a weekly basis than is consumed in the entire United States.
Next: A look at the heroin manufacturing process, the men behind it, and the mega-profits that are its lifeblood.