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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Guards, Mines and Peaks Fail to Halt Drugs

APRussian border guards patrolling the Tajik-Afghan border near Kulyab, Tajikistan. Traffic on this drug route is soaring to new highs.
YOL, Tajikistan -- Warrant Officer Amirali Niyozov and his men trekked for five hours to reach the isolated mountain spot near the Afghan border where they had been tipped off that a drug drop was going down.

After four hours lying in wait, Niyozov heard footsteps: Afghans were making their way across the barren slopes.

"Who's there?" he shouted, firing warning shots into the air before training them on the suspected drug traffickers. They returned fire -- and then melted away into the night, leaving behind 31 kilograms of drugs.

It was another frustrating night for Niyozov. He has the unenviable job of hunting down the smugglers who have turned the Tajik border into a favorite transit point for drugs going to users in Russia and Europe.

Despite the mountainous terrain and dangers of minefields, traffickers routinely sneak past Tajik and Russian border guards.

"There's no way to stop them," Niyozov said, sporting a black cowboy hat with matching black vest stuffed with ammunition clips. "They will always find a way."

The U.S.-led anti-terrorism campaign in neighboring Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 terror attacks of caused a brief lull in drug traffic through Tajikistan.

But in the first six months of this year, law enforcement officers seized nearly 5.2 metric tons of narcotics here -- double the amount for the same period in 2002. Experts estimate that seizures are only about 10 percent of actual traffic.

Major General Rustam Nazarov, head of Tajikistan's UN-supported Drug Control Agency, warned the United States that it cannot afford to ignore the drug issue as it seeks to extinguish lingering threats from al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

"Drugs, terrorism and Islamic extremism are all linked. You can't fight against terrorism and then say you will fight drugs later," he said in an interview.

"If we don't solve this problem, then you can worry about a bigger problem than what happened in New York," Nazarov said, referring to the attacks of Sept. 11.

The drugs are not just passing harmlessly through Tajikistan either. The number of addicts is on the rise -- officially about 9,000, according to Nazarov, but the actual number is believed to be 55,000 or more.

Increased drug use is also causing a spike in HIV cases, though official figures are still small. The number of registered AIDS cases is now 92, up from four a few years ago, Nazarov said.

Faridun Sharopov, a patient at the main drug treatment clinic on the outskirts of the capital, Dushanbe, said he started smoking marijuana in 1992, as the country descended into civil war, and injecting heroin seven years later.

"When it first appeared, [heroin] was as cheap as a bottle of beer. People even gave it away for free," he said in an unsteady voice at the clinic, a collection of rundown concrete buildings on the edge of town. "We didn't know such a strong thing existed."

UN drug officials say heroin production in Afghanistan is shifting to the north to take advantage of trafficking routes through Central Asia and because of increased enforcement in traditional opium growing areas in southern Afghanistan, where most U.S. anti-terror operations are being conducted.

Northern Afghanistan is largely left to the control of regional warlords, who Nazarov alleged are still involved in drug trafficking to help fund their private armies -- just as they were before international troops arrived.

Tajikistan gets help policing its 1,200-kilometer-long border with Afghanistan from more than 10,000 Russian border guards, mostly Tajiks working on contract under Russian supervision. A second line of defense is formed by Tajik border guards.

Colonel Saidato Merzoyev, commander of the about 700 Tajik border guards in the Shurobod region, said traffickers use satellite phones to coordinate drops, and often have night-vision equipment and wear Russian uniforms to fool guards. Informants advise them when troops are eating so they can time their illegal forays across the border.

In contrast, the ill-equipped Tajik border guards do not even have walkie-talkies to call their base for help while on patrol. At one border post, guards were seen using an old gun sight to peer across the Pyandzh River to Afghanistan because they have no binoculars.

Merzoyev also faces challenges from the local population, many of whom see the drug trade as one of the few ways to make money in this impoverished country, one of the poorest in the world.

"Even if the Americans, French, Russians or whoever send troops here, the traffic would still happen," said Safar Davlatov, who abandoned the drug trade after being taken hostage in Afghanistan for three weeks. "Reinforcing the border won't help unless they make the conditions better here."

Still, Davlatov says he would consider going back to drug dealing unless his life improves. He says he barely gets by selling goats and picking nuts in his village of Parvar and has not been able to afford sugar in years.

"Of course, everyone here would do it," he said. "What's the difference if the government shoots me? Either I'll die from illness or from them."