TURBAT, Pakistan The smugglers moved their caravan at sunset through the desolate moonscape of western Pakistan, the backs of a dozen camels piled high with nearly a ton of heroin and morphine originating in Afghanistan.
Lying in ambush, soldiers from Pakistan’s Anti-Narcotics Force shouted orders to halt. The smugglers responded with gunfire.
When the shootout a week ago was over, two smugglers lay wounded, one mortally. Six were captured, and a few escaped.
The haul 1,430 pounds of heroin and 550 pounds of morphine with an estimated value of $550 million if it had reached the streets of Europe or America is believed by U.N. drug officials to be one of the biggest ever.
The U.S.-led war against the Taliban had disrupted the world’s biggest heroin trafficking route, from Afghanistan through Pakistan and onward to Europe. The flow of Afghan heroin already pinched by an edict from Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar banning opium poppy cultivation dried to a trickle.
But now, with the Taliban defeated and the international community pressuring Afghanistan’s new government to mount a comprehensive crackdown on drugs, traffickers have been moving huge amounts of heroin out of Afghanistan in the past two weeks, officials say.
“After several months of calm on the drug front, traffickers have decided to move their stocks out of Afghanistan,” Bernard Frahi, the senior U.N. anti-narcotics official in Pakistan and Afghanistan, told reporters on Saturday.
“They know that their stockpiles are going to be destroyed along with terrorist hiding places,” Mr. Frahi said.
Although Mullah Omar ordered a halt to cultivation 18 months ago, the United Nations said it believed opium stocks remained from previous harvests, and some likely were grown illegally. Also, U.S. officials said in March that it appeared the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance had done nothing to stop cultivation or trafficking in the areas it controlled at the time.
Western dignitaries visiting Afghanistan during the past week, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair and nine U.S. senators, told Prime Minister Hamid Karzai’s interim administration that one outcome of the U.S.-led war must be an end to Afghanistan’s role in the heroin trade.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said from Kabul yesterday on NBC’s “Meet The Press” that Mr. Karzai had promised to do all he could to halt the heroin traffic.
But, Mr. Biden said, Mr. Karzai “smiled at me, he said, ‘But, Senator, I don’t have a nickel to pay one cop.’ So he’s got a problem, and he’s got a point. And if he doesn’t have a military, and if he doesn’t have a police corps, he’s going to have no ability to be able to deal with that very problem of poppies.”
Afghans have increasingly relied on opium poppy cultivation since the war against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. For many farmers, growing opium is the only way of making a living in a shattered society where no other crops can be brought to market.
In 1985, Afghanistan produced 31 percent of the world’s opium, according to the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention. By 1999, that had grown to 73 percent.
Warlords and tribal leaders paid their followers with opium money, and Pakistani and Russian traffickers grew rich getting the drug to market. About 90 percent of Afghanistan’s heroin ended up in Europe.
In July 2000, Mullah Omar issued one of the most internationally friendly edicts of his rule, banning the cultivation of opium as being against Islam. Opium production fell 94 percent last year to 185 tons, the United Nations estimates.
But Mullah Omar never cracked down on trafficking. The Taliban earned revenue from levies on shipments. Opium and heroin still moved from Afghanistan southward into Pakistan, then took sea routes or went overland through Iran and Turkey into Europe. Other Afghan opium moved north into Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Since the Taliban collapsed, Mullah Omar’s edict has been ignored by tribal leaders eager to get back into the business. Poppy fields already have been planted in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the Taliban’s southern heartland.