The Narcostate


It’s perhaps not surprising that Tajikistan, which shares a poorly guarded, 750-mile border with opium-rich Afghanistan, has become a major global drug-trafficking hub—in fact, more than 80 percent of Afghanistan’s heroin exports to Russia and Europe now pass through Tajik territory. Over the past decade, the United States, worried that the drug trade would soon be accompanied by all the other security problems that plague Afghanistan, has cooperated closely with Tajikistan’s government to help it stem the narcotics trade. Seems reasonable, right?

Unfortunately, that government is such a dubious partner that hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. aid have done little to solve the country’s problems or stop the drug business—while helping to shore up its apparatus of repression. The United States has spent nearly $200 million since 2001 on security assistance for Tajikistan, increasingly focused on training and arming special military and police units. In 2012, for example, U.S. Special Forces trained 350 members of the State Committee of National Security, the successor agency of the Soviet-era KGB, including courses in marksmanship, close-quarters combat and weapons.

But while the GKNB is on the front lines of fighting drug traffickers, it is also the primary organ of political repression in the country—and many observers see it as more engaged in the latter. That includes the detention and torture of dozens of dissidents, according to human rights groups.

And besides, a substantial portion of the drugs that transit through Tajikistan—accounting for as much as 30 percent of the country’s GDP—do so through legal border crossings. No surprise, as the largest drug traffickers in Tajikistan are widely believed to be closely tied to high-level officials in the deeply corrupt Tajik government. The man thought to be founder of Tajikistan’s first major drug-trafficking group, for instance, was the lieutenant to the founder of the political party that brought President Emomali Rahmon to power in 1992. “In no other country of the world, except perhaps contemporary Afghanistan, can such a superimposition between drug traffickers and government officials be found,” a 2007 research paper concluded.

Officially, the United States is critical of the human rights record of Tajikistan’s security services, pointing to ineffective law enforcement compromised by drug lords’ “high-level connections with government officials and security agents.” But in reality, Washington is complicit in this vast network of illegal trading: The majority of the trafficking in Tajikistan is believed to occur on the country’s few good roads and bridges—one of which was built in 2009 with $35 million in U.S. Central Command funds. The U.S.-trained and -equipped GKNB targets not the big-time smugglers with ties to the government, but the smaller pushers who have to sneak across the Afghan border. In the most cynical interpretation, the United States is helping the government of Tajikistan take out its drug-trafficking competition.

Congressional restrictions limit military aid to Uzbekistan, the most repressive U.S. partner in Central Asia. But Tajikistan—with a human rights record that is nearly as bad—has been able to slide under the radar and become a major beneficiary of Pentagon largesse. And Tajikistan has benefited even though its strategic utility to the United States is relatively small compared with its Central Asian neighbors. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan host the lion’s share of overland U.S. military transit to Afghanistan (leaving Tajikistan as a backup supply route for the Uzbekistan route), and Kyrgyzstan hosts a U.S. Air Force base (at least until July).

Tajikistan’s leading opposition politician, Muhiddin Kabiri, says the U.S. focus on military issues in his country has come at the expense of America’s purported interest in human rights. Before Central Asia assumed such a large role in the Afghanistan operation, “the main question between Tajikistan and U.S. representatives was economic questions, human rights, democracy and stability,” Kabiri told me recently. And indeed, while security assistance was less than 5 percent of total U.S. spending in Central Asia in the 1990s, it has climbed to more than 30 percent since 2007. Now, Kabri says, the focus—and spending—heavily leans toward military operations. “Human rights, democracy, free elections—these kinds of problems, maybe they will touch these questions, but only last, only for protocol,” he says. All of which makes the Tajik government “very lucky.”