Tajikistan’s Southern Border: Opiate Headwaters

CES recently enjoyed a jaunt along the Tajik-Afghan border from Qalaikhumb to Langar before jumping over the Pamiri Plateau and back to Khorog.  Along the deteriorated road following the Panj River, we were able to speak with a number of locals regarding the opiate trafficking surging north from its headwaters in Afghanistan.

The Tajik-Afghan border, as anyone familiar with the region knows, is porous.  30% of Afghan opiates (about 90 tons/yr) come through Tajikistan every year en route to western markets.  The Economist provided a nice example of foreign aid gone awry in its piece on the situation in 2012:

“A European official says the people doing the trafficking are the same counter-narcotics people that Western countries are training. “We give them cars, and they use them to transit drugs—look at their houses,” he says of the mansions cropping up around [Dushanbe].”

With the US relying on Tajik airspace at least for transit in and out of Afghan for the foreseeable future, counter narcotic efforts will remain Potemkin – a show of effort that actually serves only to enrich those controlling the distribution channels.

Panj River in the Pamirs

Panj River in the Pamirs

Near the border town of Qalaikhumb the Panj River, with its swift chalky brown current, is a stone’s throw wide.

Head upstream and east to the minuscule hamlet of Langar and this “border”, now a brilliant turquoise brook, would hardly wet the knees of a grown man.

The story is hardly new and unlikely to change anytime soon.  High-seated Tajik corruption, obscene profit margins and ravenous Western demand keep narcotics rushing across the border in high volume.

The issue continues to attract international support, a true core competency of the Tajik government.  The annual CSTO summit in Sochi yielded increased Russian technical support for Tajik border security, including renovating existing buildings (see below), radar, air patrol and surveillance.  However, Russia will not provide any troops to supplement the devastatingly thin Tajik patrol presence on the border.

The border narrows

The border narrows

Tajik bases are few and far between with many completely abandoned since President Rahmon banished Russian forces from the border in 2005 due to their alleged involvement in narco-trafficking.   Others believe Rahmon wanted the narco royalties in Tajik rather than Russian hands.  Either way, security along the Panj is sparse.  We traveled hours without seeing a green fatigue.  Perhaps they stay off the roads.  Those we did see appeared to be boys, most under 20 years old, paying their dues in this barren region before being released back to their families and personal aspirations. Judging from media reports, very few enlisted men are there by their own choice.  The bases seen from the road are old and sparsely populated at best if not utterly abandoned.

Outside Khorog a local explained the narcotics trade to us.  By his estimates, a kilo of heroin can be purchased on the Afghan side of the river for roughly $1,000.  The price instantly jumps to $2,000 once it crosses the river and arrives at the Saturday market in Khorog, reportedly a hotspot for shady dealings since Afghan merchants are licensed to cross over and sell their wares (here’s a good

The sparse infrastructure along the border

The sparse infrastructure along the border

article on cross-border trade).  Those able to transport the product to Dushanbe can make $5,000 while the markets in Russia fetch closer to $10,000.  The Afghan government and UNODC cite prices in the $3,000 – $4,000 range for off-white 100% Badakhshan powder heroin and prices close to our friend’s estimate for “chara”, a 20% purity variant.  In a country with an average per capita income of $1,800 the temptation is simply too great. Despite the harsh penalties for trafficking (our friend quoted 15 years minimum), hundreds are arrested each year along the border and in Dushanbe.

In The Pamirs

In The Pamirs

Each night we asked if we might walk down to the river and each night we heard similar tales of the Tajik military harassing, extorting and even deporting foreigners for being near the river. Although no law exists about proximity restrictions, we were told that Rahmon’s forces are taking an iron fisted approach to the border in the months leading up to his election.  One evening we met an Israeli couple who had hitchhiked all the way in from the Kyrgyz city of Osh.  They claimed to have swum in the river for well over an hour to cool off in the high afternoon after walking for a good portion of the day.  Maybe they just got lucky. Maybe the military is compensating for holes in their regimens with panoptic tales to the locals.

Before climbing up to the Pamir Plateau and away from the border we stopped at the ancient fort of Yamchun.  An obelisk on the road reads,

“Yamchun Fortress is thought to have been one of the greatest defense fortifications in the ancient Wakhan.  It dates back to 300 – 100 BC.  Based on the legend there was a town called Gashon under the rule of king brothers Qahqaha and Zangibor who are said to have built the fortress.”

Ruins of a Fortress in the Pamirs

Ruins of a Fortress in the Pamirs

To the north the Hindu Kush in Afghanistan and Pakistan to the south swelled upward, its crowns capped in rich glaciers defying the high September sun.  No one guards this relic of the ancient world so we skipped down through the precarious ravine separating the fort from the road and scrambled up to its remaining turrets.  Despite its ideal strategic location nested in the cliffs overlooking the Wakham Corridor, the harsh Pamir weather, tourists’ boots and scavengers moving rocks in search of valuable artifacts fuel its decay.

Forces just as fundamental, although more elusive, pull at the poppies to the south, urging them northward across the Panj and into the intricate, braided streams of our societies.   Qahqaha and Zangibor’s citadel remains, although in grave disrepair, a picturesque watchtower over the Wakhan.  Perhaps its greatest splendor is the contrast provided by its backdrop against the Hindu Kush, utterly dwarfed by their vast primordial stature.  Their strength looms large from the south, almost as if to say, “Our affairs are beyond you.  Be on your way.”

Afghanistan’s poppies have mastered this dispatch as well and in this lonely valley Qahqaha, Zangibor and the thousands of protectors of territories, laws and transitory institutions obey.

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6 comments

  1. Loren Sundlee · · Reply

    Good first-hand assessment of the traffic situation there. The photos show how interdiction is light, maybe impossible.

  2. This is a great one! Do you mind if I repost this one?

    *Madeline Koch* *Program Officer,* International Civil Society Action Network madeline.koch@icanpeacework.org *Blog Editor, *Women In International Security blog@wiis-dc.org (973) 452-2612

  3. Great story! Was the border with Afghanistan open, or were there still restrictions due to the cholera outbreak in August?

    1. Thanks! I don’t think our correspondent was close enough to any of the crossing points to make a judgement call on movement, but nothing came up about cholera.

  4. Good to know! I will mention this story in my newsletter.

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