KARACHI - Drug smugglers call it the golden route: from Afghanistan into Pakistan
and then into eastern Iran, it's the trail that takes Afghanistan's abundant opium,
and its derivative, heroin, to Western markets.
And all along the way there is strong political compromise in which officials turn a blind eye to the players visibly plying the notorious
route, and at each stage the commissions get bigger.
The route provides a funding lifeline for the Taliban resistance in Afghanistan,
and also enriches not only the United States-friendly Afghan warlords but also
elements of the Northern Alliance, the US's key ally in the country.
Afghanistan is estimated to produce 87% of the world's supply of opium (4,519
tons this season, down 2% from 2004 ), with nearly half of the country's US$4.5
billion economy coming from opium cultivation and trafficking.
Under the latter years of the Taliban before their ouster in the US-led invasion
of late 2001, opium production continued apace, but in the immediate post-invasion
period warlords blocked the smuggling routes.
The international smugglers were thus forced to make new deals
with the warlords to allow for the safe transportation of the narcotic. By the
end of 2002, the drug underworld further upgraded the deals under which opium
was smuggled into Pakistan, then back into Afghanistan and on to Europe.
A senior US Pentagon official who has been involved in US-supported low-intensity
war operations and insurgencies since the Vietnam war and involved in the reorganization
of the Northern Alliance  in Afghanistan to effectively pitch them against
the Taliban, admitted to Asia Times Online that the drug economy in Afghanistan
was more powerful than the official one.
He said that the only thing that linked pro-Taliban and pro-Northern Alliance
warlords was the black economy, from which money trickled down to the anti-US
resistance - which has intensified lately, with 1,100 people killed in the past
The golden arteries
Information obtained from the US Drug Enforcement Agency in Washington reveals
trafficking groups based in Pakistan smuggling multi-ton shipments of drugs
to Europe and the US.
These regional drug traffickers represent a diverse ethnic and tribal cross-section.
Couriers take some of the drugs out of Pakistan through its international airports
and the port of Karachi; the remainder goes overland along Pakistan's Arabian
Sea coast to Iran and on to Turkey, or up into the Central Asian states.
The general route for smuggling Afghan-produced opiates from Pakistan goes
overland from Pakistan's Balochistan province across the border into Iran, then
passes through the northwestern region, which is inhabited by Kurds, and finally
into laboratories in Turkey, where the opium is processed.
The shipments from Pakistan may be broken down into smaller shipments once
in Iran. Iran is both a transit country and a destination for opium products.
Iranian domestic production is believed to be quite low and unable to supply
domestic demand. Opiates not intended for the Iranian market transit Iran to
Turkey, where the morphine base is processed into heroin. Heroin and hashish
are delivered to buyers located in Turkey, who then ship the drugs to the international
market, primarily Europe.
Inside the underworld
Near the coastal belt of Makran along the Arabian sea in Balochistan province
lies the small town Mand, from where Pakistan's federal minister for special
education, Zubaida Jalal, hails. But for the local people, the name in the region
is Imam Deen. Imam Deen's influence spreads north, west, east and south of the
coastal highway lanes from Gadani (near Karachi) all the way along the coast.
Imam Deen is number one on the wanted list of Pakistan's Anti-Narcotics Force,
which registered cases against him in 2002 and 2003, which were then referred
to the Narcotics Suppression Court in Quetta, the capital of Balochistan. But
he never appeared and the court declared him an absconder. Nevertheless, he
is often seen in the corridors of power in Quetta, and with the province's chief
minister, shuttling between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Asia Times Online investigations reveal that Imam Deen lives without fear in
Mand, which is informally the heart of the "golden route". Drugs not
destined for the laboratories of Turkey end up in the Mand area, where they
are refined and sent back to Afghanistan en route to Uzbekistan and Tajikistan,
where Afghan drug lords hand their consignments over to the international underworld.
These are generally inferior quality drugs for the local market. The better
quality opium is smuggled to European destinations. In the north of Afghanistan,
the drugs generally pass through the hands of Uzbek warlord Sibghatullah in
Drugs connect the Taliban and Northern Alliance
Top US officials admit that despite sharp differences between the Pashtun Taliban
resistance and the Northern Alliance, some groups within these factions are
in touch with each other. Although there are no traces of any alliance that
would provide strategic support to the Taliban-backed resistance, the drug trade
is of mutual interest to both groups.
Iran, to date, does not support either the resistance or the Northern Alliance,
but US officials have their suspicions that the Iran end of the Afghanistan-Pakistan
drug route is purposely left open, which in their opinion is a sign of indirect
support for the warlords in southwestern Afghanistan who are hand-in-glove with
the Taliban. The largest areas of land under opium cultivation in Afghanistan
(256,880 acres countrywide in 2005) is in the southern regions, especially around
Kandahar, the former Taliban stronghold.
The Taliban resistance generally only targets military convoys or containers
carrying oil and goods for US and other foreign troops. By and large, other
road transport - especially vehicles carrying drugs - is safe as local warlords
receive money from the traffickers to ensure safe passage. In turn, part of
this is passed on to the insurgents (through tribal moderators) to keep them
Ironically, the US supports most of the warlords in Afghanistan. For instance,
former Taliban commander (of Nangahar province) Mullah Rocketi (infamous for
kidnapping Japanese engineers) was arrested after the fall of the Taliban and
changed sides to the US. He is a candidate in next month's parliamentary elections.
Despite this, Rocketi, the most powerful warlord in southern Afghanistan, is
still believed to have a soft spot for the Taliban.
Similar warlordism exists in eastern Afghanistan, where Hazrat Ali has a deal
with local commanders loyal to former Afghan premier Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hazrat
Ali is also a candidate in the elections. He has assumed control of most check
points in the Kunar Valley, this after a number of commanders loyal to Hekmatyar,
including Kashmir Khan, were arrested.
Jalalabad Highway Baraley is one of the brothers of slain Haji Abdul Qadeer,
whose other brother, Haji Deen Mohammed, is the governor of Nangahar. Baraley,
however, is the de facto power in the area and controls all posts and passes
from Jalalabad to Kabul.
The former governor of Khost, Gardez, Paktia and Paktika, Badshah Khan Zadran,
is the only warlord in that region; he stays mostly in the Pakistani town of
Dand-i-Darpakhail in North Waziristan. He has a deal with two powerful Taliban
commanders - Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani and Saifullah Mansoor - whose men regularly
receive big payments from drug dealers allowing them to operate in the area.
Through this network of Pashtun warlords, lots of money leaks to the Taliban,
whose other sources of finance have been choked as a result of the "war
 After the capture of Kabul by the Taliban on September 26, 1996, the non-Pashtun
forces allied into the Northern Alliance. Its members are predominantly of Tajik
and Uzbek origin. The Northern Alliance continued to fight against the Taliban
until the US-led invasion of late 2001.