In Afghanistan, drug trade is blooming. Heroin production in Asia's `golden crescent' worries drug officials

In northeastern Afghanistan, small numbers of returned refugees have been rebuilding their homes and replanting their terraced fields. But not all the fields returned to the plow this past year have been planted with wheat and corn. Many - perhaps one out of every two - were turned over to the cultivation of marijuana and opium-producing poppies.

In fact, many Western narcotics control officials, diplomats, some members of the Afghan resistance, and Pakistani officials, are concerned that this region could develop into the world's leading producer of heroin - the potent drug derived from opium.

The primary source of opium for the West remains Southeast Asia's ``golden triangle'' - Burma, Laos, and Thailand. But since the mid-1980s, international narcotics control sources say, the ``golden crescent'' of Southwest Asia has gained prominence.

Together, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iran account for at least 30 percent of the United States heroin market, these sources estimate.

Afghanistan, according to the narcotics officials, is the region's largest producer. Last year's opium crop is estimated at between 500 to 700 tons. The 1988-89 poppy season, which normally begins with the first rains in December, is expected to increase output by 100-200 tons. The reasons for Afghanistan's increased production include: lack of government control in much of the countryside during the nine-year war against Soviet occupation; crackdowns on cultivation in Pakistan, which have made Afghanistan a safer bet; Tehran's apparent willingness to allow trafficking through Iran; and growing demand in neighboring Pakistan and the West.

For many peasants, white-and-pink poppy flowers are the easiest and most lucrative cash crop. Harvesting the sticky, black sap can bring a small farmer up to $2,000 - a fortune in this area. Dealers take the opium by horse and mule across the border into Pakistan's tribal border districts; there, scores of illicit laboratories process the opium into heroin.

``We don't have to be Adam Smith to realize we have a problem,'' says Carlo Boccia, representative of the US Drug Enforcement Agency in Paris. ``When drugs become more readily available, they become more difficult to control.''

Western narcotics officials say they do not know how much of Iran's ``tremendous'' poppy production reaches the international market. Pakistan is believed to have produced 200 or more tons of opium last year. Most of the region's heroin is manufactured in Pakistani labs. (Ten pounds of opium produce about one pound of pure heroin, which can sell for tens of thousands to a few hundred thousand dollars in the West. Heroin sold in the West is diluted, about 5 percent pure.)

One of the most severe effects of this rapidly growing regional trade, Western aid officials and other sources say, is its corrupting and undermining influence on Pakistani and Afghan society. They cite:

A rise in the number of Pakistani addicts, most of whom ``chase the dragon'' (smoke heroin), from an estimated 200,000 in the early 1980s to between 1 million to 3 million today.

The spread of heroin abuse among Pakistan's 3 million Afghan refugees.

Corruption that involves senior Pakistan government officials, Army officers, politicians, refugee administrators, businessmen, tribal leaders, and members of the Afghan resistance. This was alleged separately by narcotics and intelligence officials, and Western aid sources.

In addition, there are fears that the ``drug and gun culture'' on both sides of the border could increase gang warfare. ``You have got to understand that it is a huge business in this part of the world. There are terrible things going on, and they involve a lot of people,'' says a worried representative of the Afghan resistance.

Pakistan's new prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, has described drugs as the country's ``No. 1 problem'' and has created a Ministry of Narcotics to tackle it. Diplomats and aid workers are skeptical about chances for success.

``The only reason we have not yet seen the sort of violence you find in Colombia [South America] is that enough people here are getting paid off to keep the trade going,'' a Western aid official says. ``The moment you start hitting where it hurts, the situation will start getting nasty.''

The Karachi connection

Narcotics from eastern and northern Afghanistan and Pakistan's border areas are channeled to Karachi; those from southern Afghanistan go toward Iran.

According to aid sources, trucks from the government-run National Logistics Corporation, which normally carry goods to Afghan refugee camps, often take heroin to Karachi.

``There is a lot of direct collaboration with the police, the Army, and the refugee administration,'' says a Western official.

For appearances, sources say, a vehicle is sometimes deliberately sacrificed to the police. The rest then proceed unhindered to Karachi, where the heroin is taken by boat or plane to the Mideast and Europe.

Some sources allege that officials in Pakistan's National Shipping Company are involved. Narcotics officials say East Berlin, a drugs gateway in the 1970s, is once again becoming a major entry point. Afghan drug lords

The production of opium in southwest Afghanistan has come under the control of local drug lords, cooperating closely with Pakistani traffickers as well as drug syndicates from Europe and North America, intelligence sources say.

At Musa Qala, a fertile region in southern Afghanistan, poppy-growing is largely run by Nassim Akhun Zada, say journalists and relief workers who have visited the area. Mr. Zada is a guerrilla commander, reportedly still affiliated with an Afghan resistance party, the Harakat-e-Inquilab-e-Islami, but who operates largely on his own. Western sources say Zada leads a private army of 1,200 fighters. Recently, there have been reports of pitched battles with a rival, Abdul Rahman Khan of the Hezb-i-Islami (Hekmatyar Gulbuddin) resistance party.

The roundabout Iranian route

From Musa Qala, part of the opium harvest is transported to eastern Iran. But most is taken to the Pakistani desert refugee camps at Gerde-Jangal. There, resistance and aid sources claim, trafficking is carried out in collaboration with officers of Pakistan's Interservices Intelligence (ISI) organization.

At Gerde-Jangal, the opium is weighed and some is processed by local labs.

``There is so much dealing going on that the money is not counted but weighed,'' a Western aid representative says. Various sources, including a former trafficker from Quetta, say narcotics are driven in five-vehicle convoys - two carrying drugs, the other three armed guards and heavy machine guns - through government checkpoints, to Robat.

Robat is believed to have 20 or more heroin labs, from which the drug is driven in armed convoys across southern Iran to Turkey - and on to Europe and America.

Sources say the Robat operations involve members of at least three Afghan resistance parties. It is uncertain whether party officials in Quetta and Peshawar are linked to the trafficking.

Foreigners are forbidden to enter Robat ``for security reasons.'' Some sources claim the aim is to prevent outsiders from witnessing what goes on.

``It is perfectly obvious that this trafficking could not proceed without the full knowledge of the ISI [Interservices Intelligence] and the local Pakistani authorities,'' a West European diplomat says.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.