Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 114

At the recent CIS Collective Security Treaty summit, Tajik President Imomali Rahmonov declared that his country “has become a buffer zone in the struggle against the narcotics traffic” originating in Afghanistan. This assertion is also an official rationale for the stationing of Russian troops in Tajikistan. Russian officials routinely tell Western interlocutors that those troops constitute “Europe’s forward line of defense against the drug trade.”

Yet Russian and regional sources provide growing evidence that Tajikistan functions as a corridor–indeed the main one–rather than a buffer zone, and that elements among the Russian troops provide regular access, rather than a barrier to the narcotics business. The report “Drug Addiction in Russia: Threat to the Nation,” issued last month by Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, endorses recent estimates that Russian border troops in Tajikistan intercept just one-tenth of the volume of Afghan drugs channeled through Tajikistan. Those troops regularly engage in skirmishes with Afghan and Tajik drug smuggling gangs, but lack the technical means, the training and, on the whole, the motivation to be any more effective.

One reason behind that failure is being discussed in a Moskovsky Novosti interview–“The Military Controls Tajik Drug Trafficking”–by Anton Surikov, formerly a military intelligence officer in “hot spots” and senior aide to First Deputy Prime Minister Yury Maslyukov in Yevgeny Primakov’s government, currently head staffer of the Duma’s industry and high-technology committee, and a well-known policy hardliner on the “near abroad.” Surikov cites his personal experience in Tajikistan to confirm that some Russian officers work with the Tajik drug mafia on both sides of the Tajik-Afghan border.

According to Surikov, “Tajiks purchase the stuff in Afghanistan, Russian troops help to transport it across the Panj River [Amu-Darya, forming the Afghan-Tajik border] and then the shipment goes to Russia by military cargo plane or military train.” Once on Russian soil, other servicemen are bribed to allow the drug shipment to move on inside Russia and to points west. In common with other observers of the Tajik scene, Surikov fingers Deputy Prime Minister and Dushanbe Mayor Mahmadsaid Ubaidolloev as the alleged head of a major drug transit network linked to elements in the Russian military.

Press reports suggest that Tajik border guards and military personnel are often complicit. In two of the latest cases, 9.8 kilograms of heroin were seized from the car of a Tajik border guard officer bound for Russia, and one when police busted a ring of Kyrgyz and Tajik drug-retailing cadets at the Russian Airborne Forces’ School in Ryazan.

Most of the crossborder drug trade involves portions of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance, the anti-Taliban opposition consisting predominantly of Afghan Tajiks. Backed by Moscow, Dushanbe and Tehran, the Afghan Northern Alliance is supposed to insulate Tajikistan from the Taliban by holding on to safe zones on the Afghan side of the border. Meanwhile, those zones have become opium-growing and heroin-trading centers in the wake of the Taliban’s crackdown on the drug trade in most of Afghanistan.

In sectors controlled by the Northern Alliance, the border is porous enough for drug dealers to shuttle across, conduct transactions and enforce their own brand of justice. Most recently, northern Afghan drug traders act as moneylenders on the Tajik side of the border, then proceed to seize goods or cattle from defaulting debtors or to abduct the debtors themselves and members of their families for ransom or indentured service on the Afghan side of the border. In a recent report on that practice, Iranian state radio clearly identified those gangs as residents of the “Islamic State of Afghanistan”–that is, the portion controlled by the Northern Alliance (as distinct from the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” which is the Taliban state). The Iranian radio, which is strongly anti-Taliban and pro-Northern Alliance, concluded with an appeal to Russian and Tajik border troops to be more “vigilant.”

Heroin shipments bound for Russia often measure up to ten kilograms and even more. That size suggests that the shippers deem the risk of detection to be low. The heroin is retailed by predominantly Tajik rings of vendors in Russian cities. One major channel takes the wholesale shipments to Samara on the middle Volga. The Russian authorities periodically seize heroin shipments along that channel, but seem unable to close it. Most recently, Russian authorities have reported detecting another channel that runs from Tajikistan to the Siberian city of Novosibirsk via Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. These developments confirm the ineffectiveness of the “forward line of antidrug defense” in Tajikistan. The situation has prompted Russia’s First Deputy Foreign Affairs Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov–who handles CIS relations and is a career intelligence officer–to call for establishing a “second line of defense” against Afghan and Tajik drugs at the Russia-Kazakhstan border.

In Afghanistan, officials of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and of the State Department’s Asian antidrug program now confirm the UN officials’ earlier findings that the Taliban authorities have been successful in suppressing opium cultivation. The prohibition was issued last July on the basis of religious considerations and has been enforced with characteristic ruthlessness since then. Meanwhile, opium cultivation and heroin-production laboratories tend to be concentrated in northern Afghanistan, though they have also moved into Tajikistan itself. The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (UNDCP) head Pino Arlacchi estimates that Tajikistan transits at least 50 percent of the total volume of drugs consumed in Russia and has also become Russia’s second-largest supply source in its own right, after Afghanistan (Moskovskie Novosti, no. 22, June 5; Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran (Mashhad), June 5; Itar-Tass, June 5-7, 10; AP, June 8; see the Monitor, December 22, 2000, January 23, 31, February 9, March 12; Fortnight in Review, March 16).