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.
Opium gold unites US friends and foes
By Syed Saleem Shahzad
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 six months.
The golden arteriesInformation 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 underworldNear 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 Mazar-i- Sharif.
Drugs connect the Taliban and Northern AllianceTop 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 away.
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 on terror".
Note  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.
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