Pakistan struggles to stop Afghan heroin
Islamabad - A small airplane with a heat-seeing camera flies over moonlit, craggy desert along the Pakistan-Afghan frontiers circling suspicious convoys of vehicles that appear with amazing clarity on a monochrome screen.
In an effort to improve border security and stanch the flow of heroin trafficked from top world producer Afghanistan, the U.S. has supplied Pakistan with 10 Huey helicopters and three Cessna Caravan planes with high-tech surveillance equipment.
But a chronic shortage of dedicated ground forces to pounce on smugglers limits their impact. And rampant corruption that a former Afghan trafficker says infects security forces and officials on both sides of the border helps fuel the booming narcotics trade to Pakistan, across Europe and the United States.
The war on drugs plays second fiddle to the war on terror along Pakistan’s border and draws little foreign funding, though this is a key route for narcotics coming from Afghanistan, which grew enough opium last year to refine about 450 tons of heroin.
While tens of thousands of Pakistani troops are deployed against al-Qaida-linked militants and rebellious tribesmen, the Anti-Narcotics Force has just 300 personnel in southwestern Baluchistan province, a barren region the size of Germany. Much of Afghanistan’s heroin is spirited out in nighttime caravans of SUVs through this desert, headed south for Pakistan’s Arabian Sea coast or west into Iran, toward Turkey and Europe.
Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao said the government’s paramilitary forces were focused on security rather than narcotics. "We just don’t have enough forces right now," he told The Associated Press. "Our hands are full."
To improve mobility across the vast terrain, the U.S. State Department funded Pakistan’s first "night-capable" air squadron. It started operating in late 2004, piloted and maintained mostly by Pakistanis with support from American contractors.
Since then, the 50th Aviation Squadron has often been drawn into service ferrying forces and casualties during counterterrorism operations, and until recently, against tribal renegades. It also helped relief efforts during October’s earthquake in northern Pakistan.
Geoffrey Krassy, a State Department senior aviation adviser, said the squadron was now focusing on its counternarcotics mandate: surveying poppy fields, supporting drug busts and monitoring the border.
The AP joined a recent surveillance mission along Pakistan’s frontier with the southern Afghan province of Kandahar.
The pilots - one Pakistani, one American instructor - took off using night-vision goggles. The infrared camera on the underbelly of the unarmed Cessna zeroed in on convoys threading along dirt tracks and dry river beds, offering clues - if not proof - to whether they are regular long-haul trucks or more suspicious, faster vehicles carrying illegal cargo.
"There’s actually a couple of cars down there that might be (drug) smugglers, and that could be the scout car out ahead," Krassy said, spotting lights glowing in the desert. "There aren’t so many routes to take, so if we can identify a trafficker, forces can be sent to block the way."
That, at least, is the hope, but Pakistan lacks the capacity to act on real-time tip-offs from such flights. Also, Western diplomats say bickering neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan share little intelligence on heroin moving through the frontier. Relations have worsened over Afghan allegations that Taliban militants launch cross-border attacks from Pakistan.
Yet graft is likely the biggest obstacle to battling traffickers.
A State Department narcotics control strategy report published in March said Pakistan reported heroin and opium seizures by its various security forces totaling more than 30 tons in 2005. But low government salaries and endemic graft in Pakistan meant "narcotics-related corruption is likely to be associated with the movement of large quantities of narcotics."
An Afghan whose father ran a heroin laboratory in the southern Afghan province of Helmand told AP it was customary for traffickers to bribe officials and security forces on both sides of the border.
He said bribes were usually $250-$415 per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of heroin, which is sold to dealers inside Pakistan at $3,335 per kilo. Traffickers paid off local administrators, police, border patrols, customs officials and tribal chiefs to smooth the way, said the Afghan, an educated man in his late 20s who sought anonymity for his own safety.
"You give bribes from the small fish, right up to the big sharks," said the Afghan, who worked in his father’s lab and joined armed drug smuggling convoys. "Just give the bribes and you can do what you want."
Still, he recalled two incidents in Pakistan and Iran where bribes were paid yet a trafficking group was caught with large heroin stashes after a gunbattle. The haul was handed over to corrupt officials who freed the smugglers.
In one case in 2003, Pakistani security forces seized 535 pounds of heroin after a gunbattle near Chagai in Baluchistan. The traffickers were released under a deal with authorities, the Afghan said.
Chagai top administrator Qamar Masood said administrative changes in the area in 2004 left no record of the alleged incident.