It may be one of the most remote places on earth, but that is exactly why porous border areas of Central Asia - and especially Kyrgyzstan - have turned the ancient Silk Road into a highway for narcotics traffic from Afghanistan.
Torn by religious unrest, and ruled by fragile post-Soviet regimes, Kyrgyzstan, a crucible of regional problems, is proving to be fertile ground for drug traffickers trying to get record opium harvests and heroin from Afghanistan to markets in Russia and Europe.
Analysts differ on the reasons behind this resurgence: Some accuse Islamic guerrillas of financing their conflict with drugs; others say corrupt local officials help pave the way.
But already, the cost is becoming clear.
Kyrgyz officials in late December seized 1,828 pounds of opium and 5.5 pounds of heroin, their largest single narcotics haul ever - one of a string of big-ticket finds region wide. Russian officials late December announced that drug trafficking has become the most profitable criminal business in Russia, and that the unofficial number of addicts now tops 3 million.
New cases of HIV, the virus that can lead to AIDS, have also surged in Russia, in some places by almost 10,000 percent, officials report. Nearly all are among intravenous heroin users - a practice that is rising sharply across Central Asia.
"This is a huge drugs trade," says Terence Taylor, assistant director of the Institute for International Strategic Studies in London. "In terms of dollar value, it has now surpassed the Golden Triangle [of Southeast Asia]."
United Nations experts estimate that more than 70 percent of the world's production of opium - the raw material for easy-to-make, addictive heroin - comes from Afghanistan.
While drug traffic to the West through Iran and Turkey still exists, tough enforcement there - often leading in Iran to lethal skirmishes against sophisticated, heavily-armed drug convoys - means that traffickers are favoring routes further north.
"A security belt is being created around Afghanistan to stop drugs," says Yuri Misnikov, deputy head of the UN Development Program in the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek. "Kyrgyzstan is seen as the weakest, most vulnerable link in the Central Asia chain."
Most of the drug traffic reaches Kyrgyzstan through its southern neighbor, Tajikistan, which fought its own civil war for much of the 1990s and has a fragile coalition government.
One-third of the Tajik gross domestic product is estimated to be drug-related. Tajik diplomats have been caught with large amounts of narcotics in Kazakhstan; so, before, have Russian soldiers, 10,000 of whom guard the Tajik border with Afghanistan.
Crossing remote mountain passes into Kyrgyzstan, guerrillas of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) - whose stated aim is to establish an Islamic state in Uzbekistan - invaded in August.
"There are religious and political factors, but there is agreement in the UN that drugs were behind those incursions," says Mr. Misnikov. "For us it is clear that unless legitimate sources of income are created, it will not change. Billions of dollars are behind it. People are poor."
That view is echoed by Bolot Djanuzakov, head of the Kyrgyz National Security Council, who says that Islam is "only a veil" and that the IMU's "main aim is distribution of drugs."
IMU guerrillas have been trained in Afghanistan by the radical Taliban militia, which controls 95 percent of the country - and reaps taxes on the opium crop. The IMU provides the Taliban a path to market, Mr. Djanuzakov contends.
"These guerrillas control the export of opium in Central Asia, because it is the easiest way to get it to the rest of the world," he says. Kyrgyz authorities - some trained by the UN - confiscated 10 times as much illicit drugs in the first nine months of 2000, he says, as in all of 1999.
"This is evidence of increased traffic, and why the goal of our government is to strengthen our Army and our borders."
Few doubt the dangers. Profiteers prefer weak states, which "means that the drug trade is at the center of a contest over the very essence of political order in at least Tajikistan and parts of Kyrgyzstan," noted a report by the Brussels-based International Crisis Group last year.
But many argue that, despite some success against traffickers, Kyrgyz authorities themselves are involved, and that claims of an IMU role are a smokescreen.
"This idea is created by the security services of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, so that people concentrate on drugs and not Islam," says Alisher Khamidov, director of the Media Resource Center in Osh, a hub for illicit traffic. At the same time, he adds, "the authorities say they control drugs, but they are the ones with the monopoly [on drug running]. How can they expect ordinary citizens to stop, when government officials are involved?"
"There are always excuses, like the Islamic threat or drug trafficking," says Victor Zapolsky, chief editor of "Delo No..." newspaper. "But officials that are supposed to be fighting drugs are [the ones] trading drugs."
Still, some sources say that drugs are a means to an end for the guerrillas - if not the aim itself. The London-based Jane's Intelligence Review says the IMU is "primarily concerned with financial gain" and has "successfully used terrorism" to "secure" drug conduits.
Impassable routes in winter mean that "traffickers are forced to increase shipments in the summer," and that last year the IMU stored 1,500 tons of narcotics, according to the review. The August attacks, JIR says, were designed to "distract security organs while large shipments are sent through the region undetected."
"There is a direct link," says Alexei Sukhov, correspondent of the opposition Kyrgyz newspaper Res Publica. "The days when the IMU attacked, they wanted to transport a huge amount of drugs. They attacked one area, the drugs went into another."
Mohamadjan Hamidov, south Kyrgyzstan correspondent for the Vechernyi Bishkek newspaper, says that enforcement alone is not the answer. "Drugs are inside community life," and the trafficking "makes some contributions to developing countries. You will never solve this problem by force. We must end unemployment and raise the standard of living."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society