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Afghan general targets desert traffickers

January 9, 2002

Guy Dinmore reports from Zaranj, centre of Taliban drug smuggling until two months ago when the fundamentalists fled
Published: January 9 2002 17:44

The drought that has destroyed the lives of millions of Afghans and Iranians has been a bonus for the drug barons transporting opium and heroin to Europe.

The great Helmand river, its tributaries and surrounding marshlands once threw up a considerable natural obstacle where the borders of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan meet. Today, after three years without a drop of rain, the once mighty waterways are a sandy wasteland.

Across this wilderness, obscured by frequent dust storms, self-navigating camels, individual smugglers with backpacks and even four-wheel-drive vehicles ply their deadly trade. Drugs and illegal migrants move west, as traders return with fresh supplies of weapons.

Some 90 per cent of the heroin that reaches the streets of Europe comes this way, as well as all the opium that supplies the many addicts of Iran.

An important staging-post was, and still is, Zaranj – border town and capital of Nimruz province, a sparsely populated expanse of desert in the south-west corner of Afghanistan controlled by Baluchi tribesmen.

Under Mullah Rasool, the Taliban governor of Nimruz until his hasty flight in mid-November, Zaranj became the key centre for the smuggling community. Opium and heroin were sold openly along its streets, controlled largely by five Pashtun druglords, all known as Haji for having made the pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

But now the Pashtuns and their governor have gone, by most accounts to Pakistan, and much to the relief of the people of Zaranj, the province is again commanded by General Karim Barahui.

An old soldier, graduate from Kabul’s military academy and veteran of the war against occupying Soviet forces, Gen Barahui could prove to be a valuable ally in the US-led campaign against remnants of the Taliban regime and al-Qaeda fighters of Osama bin Laden, as well as the war against drugs.

Although no Baluch were invited to the Bonn conference of Afghan leaders at the end of last year, nor given any positions in the interim government, Gen Barahui declares himself a firm supporter of the peace process and is a leading candidate to take a top position in a future national army.

He also intends to crack down hard on the drug lords.

“This was a town for buying and selling drugs,” he told the Financial Times in his heavily guarded compound. “Now you can’t find any in this province. I closed the shops and there are no more drugs in the town. We will destroy the drug bandits, and terrorists if we find them, and fight against them to the last drop of our blood.”

The general appealed to the west to supply him with the weapons, equipment and money he needs to stop the drugs trade. “We will end the drug story,” he declared.

It is true that heroin and opium are no longer sold openly in Zaranj’s pitiful bazaar, mostly long lines of shipping containers converted into store-rooms. But after a few guarded whispers, young men will lead you to hidden caches, offering to provide up to a tonne of opium in one go. The trade has simply gone underground, although who is now in control no one will say. Traders suggest that the “five Hajis” and Mullah Rasool still have a hand from their hideouts in Pakistan.

“Drugs were sold openly, now in secret, but the price has stayed the same because supplies are plentiful. Prices will fall,” explained one trader. “The druglords had guerrilla bands, handheld sat-phones, luxury 4x4s and beautiful women,” he recalled.

The prices tell their own story. One kilogram of opium is offered at 4.5m Iranian rials ($560), little changed since the events of September 11, while heroin has risen to $1,500 from about $900, possibly reflecting disruptions to supplies from laboratories deeper in Afghanistan and also in Pakistan.

Across the frontier in Iran, in the border town of Zahedan, young street dealers in drugs, pornography, alcohol and aphrodisiacs doubt that Gen Barahui can stop the trafficking. Some are sceptical of his intentions, remembering him as “Rich Karim” when he was previously governor of Nimruz, from 1992 with the fall of the communist government until 1995 when the Taliban drove him back into desert warfare with a safehouse in Zahedan.

Such claims that Gen Barahui or members of his family were somehow involved in the drugs trade are dismissed by the petty smugglers of Zaranj. “It is not true that Barahui was a dealer,” exclaimed one. “He is a good man. He can keep the town clean, safe from robbers, and under control. He has already cleaned the jube (gutters and irrigation ditches).”

One smuggler encountered on the Iranian side of the border told a different story. According to him, Mullah Rasool was the king-pin, operating out of Zaranj but maintaining a fleet of 50 vehicles inside Iran. He is also said to have visited Zahedan for medical treatment and to see members of his family living there.

The smuggler described how camels addicted to opium would be trained to cross the desert alone, bearing their cargoes until they reached their next fix. Another technique was to force camels to swallow up to 5kg of opium in plastic bags then lead them to slaughter-houses inside Iran.

Although Iran remained hostile to the Taliban and maintained no official relations, there was active government-approved commerce between the two sides. The town of Zaranj was wired into Iran’s electricity grid, while further north, Ismail Khan, the Afghan warlord in control of Herat, discovered stores of Iranian fuel on capturing Shindand airbase from the Taliban.

Iran’s anti-narcotics headquarters declined to be interviewed, but an official denied that Mullah Rasool had any business network inside Iran. Officials of the United Nations Drugs Control Programme also say they have no evidence of high-level involvement by Iranian officials in the drugs trade.

Indeed, Mo Mowlam, who last year became the first UK cabinet member to visit Tehran since the 1979 Islamic revolution, praised the “heroic efforts” of the Iranian security forces against drugs traffickers, a war that has cost Iran more than 3,000 lives over the past 20 years.

According to UN statistics, Iran seizes about 250 tonnes of drugs each year, accounting for 90 per cent of all opium seized worldwide and about 10 per cent of the heroin. Iran has also allocated more than $100m to fortify its 900km-long border with Afghanistan, constructing ditches, stretches of barbed-wire and watch-towers. The government has armed hundreds of village militias to deal with drug-gangs that kidnap locals and release them only after drugs are smuggled through.

Ahmad Akbari, a commando colonel, described on the border how the Taliban, even using artillery, would give covering fire to the traffickers.

Interviews with traders along the border indicate that, despite Iran’s efforts, a short-term wave of drugs could be headed towards Europe. The Taliban were estimated by some western experts to have around 3,000 tonnes of opium in stock and much of it appears to have survived the US bombing.

Prices have soared by as much as tenfold over the past two years but largely as a result of the drought and a ban on planting of opium poppy seeds that the Taliban imposed in 2000. The year 1999 was a record with the UNDCP estimating 4,600 tonnes of opium produced, followed by 3,275 tonnes in 2000 but less than 200 tonnes last year.

Iran had already engaged the Taliban in promoting crop-substitution programmes and plans to step up its efforts under the new interim government, with help of the UNDCP.

One harrowing indication of tightening supplies of heroin is the increase in deaths among addicts using fixes contaminated by poisonous dilutants. One Iranian newspaper said 60 addicts had recently died over a two-week period in Tehran alone. Heroin was being dumped in Iran over the past few years at extremely low prices, as little as $250 a kilogram, to hook a new generation of addicts and smugglers.

But Moulavi Abdul Hamid, the senior Sunni Muslim cleric in Iran’s Zahedan, says in the long term Iran needs to concentrate more on alleviating the underlying poverty that drives young people towards addiction.

“There is no doubt the government is fighting drugs, but they can’t eradicate the problem until they end the economic plight and improve living standards. It has been shown they did not achieve much.”

The street dealers of Zahedan, some with secondary school education, echoed this view. “Life here is a disaster,” said one 22-year-old trader. “Only smuggling is worthwhile. The rest is useless. We can’t do anything else.”

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