All Quiet on the Tajik-Afghan Border

APRussian border guards patrolling Tajikistan`s border with Afghanistan on Tuesday. Their main job has been to stop drugs.
CHUBEK, Tajik-Afghan border -- As thousands of Afghan refugees fearing U.S. air strikes pour toward Pakistan, Russian guards defending Tajikistan's border with Afghanistan fear an influx of drugs rather than people.

Russia keeps more than 10,000 border guards in Tajikistan under an agreement to defend its frontier, as the former Soviet state is too weak to do so itself after years of civil war.

But as the world awaited American reprisals against Afghanistan, Russian guards at the border on Wednesday were extremely relaxed. "We're taking additional measures, but so far there's nothing noticeable here," said a guard, who could not be named.

"If anything happens, we'll be ready, but we're not expecting bombing here." The Chubek area he patrols borders a part of Afghanistan controlled by the Northern Alliance, the Taliban's foes.

Chief of General Staff Anatoly Kvashnin said Russia would not join any U.S. action. "We are not participating in the military action and have no plans to do so," he told reporters in Dushanbe.

Lieutenant Colonel Viktor Kondrashov, head of the Russian guards in the Moskovsky region, which covers 230 kilometers of border, said his troops were ready for anything, including the influx of refugees expected to flow toward Tajikistan if bombing starts: "We anticipate thousands, but how many thousands it's difficult to say."

At Chubek, the River Pyandzh that forms the border divides into many separate streams, carving out channels through the soft soil, and is several hundred meters wide.

While a few Russian troops stood in watchtowers on the Tajik side, in the hills of Afghanistan there was no sign of life. Kondrashov said his men's main job was to guard against drugs and weapons, not refugees.

Visiting journalists watched the guards burning 110 kilograms of pure heroin seized in recent weeks. The drugs, in one-kilogram bags, were packed into old truck tires, doused in gasoline and torched.

Charred earth showed where other hauls had been burned -- six tons in the two years Kondrashov has been there, he said. But for all the guards' efforts, Russia cannot stop the trade.

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of heroin and most crosses Tajikistan on its way to Russia and Europe. Heroin costs around $700 per kilogram in Afghanistan, the guards said, rising to $1,000 on the Tajik side of the border, $1,300 in Dushanbe and $30,000 in Moscow. It is worth a cool $220,000 by the time it reaches Western Europe, making Wednesday's bonfire worth around $24 million.

So do the guards stop even half the drugs that smugglers attempt to bring across the 1,300-kilometer Tajik-Afghan border? "We like to think so," said one. "But we don't really know."

Along Pakistan's border with Afghanistan, up to 5,000 Afghans staged a tense anti-U.S. protest Wednesday as reinforced Pakistani forces laid barbed wire to block them from crossing the frontier. Most carried Kalashnikov rifles during the hourlong protest, which Pakistani guards said was led by Taliban militants. "Death to America" they chanted while an officer of the Pishin Scouts, the local militia manning the border post, barked over a radio to his superiors: "Send us more men immediately!"

The protesters left in buses and trucks for nearby Kandahar after Pakistani guards convinced the Taliban militants to turn back from the border.

"At first the crowd and the Taliban looked very hostile," border forces Captain Amjad Khan said. "They probably didn't understand why the border had been closed and were not sure how we are going to enforce the closure."

Tension has been mounting along the rugged frontier since Pakistan closed it on Tuesday, only allowing vehicles with Afghan transit goods and Pakistani nationals to pass through.

Since the Achakzai tribe straddles the rocky desert border, guards have trouble distinguishing Pakistani from Afghan citizens. Many Afghans also have fake Pakistani identity cards.

Militiamen estimated that at least 50,000 Afghans had entered Pakistan in this area before the borders were closed.

The border closure has stranded thousands of refugees fleeing the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, the spiritual capital of the Taliban. Kandahar was nearly a ghost town after frightened residents fled, refugee officials said.

"Even villages around Kandahar are empty," refugee Saad Ullah, 25, said.

He said the Taliban had apparently installed missiles in several areas around Kandahar but made no attempt to stop residents from fleeing the city.

"Everyone is scared for their lives while the Taliban are telling them that everything is okay," said Abdul Baqi, 59, who said he had both an American passport and property in Los Angeles.

Ovais Subhani contributed to this report from Chaman, Pakistan.