Opiate smuggling routes from Afghanistan to Europe and Asia

Opiate smuggling routes from Afghanistan to Europe and Asia

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Jane’s Intelligence Review
March 1, 2003
Vol. 15 N° 03, March 2003, pp. 32-35.

Despite the fall of the Taliban and attempts to reintegrate Afghanistan into the international community, the country remains the world’s main source of opiates – opium, morphine and heroin – with Central Asia and Iran retaining their role as key transit routes for their export. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy reports.

Afghan heroin and the trafficking routes that bring it into Europe remain a serious problem despite the fall of the Taliban, especially now that the EU is extending membership to eastern European states through which Afghan heroin transits.

Although the Taliban regime has been replaced by a pro-Western administration, Afghan trafficking has not abated. In 1999 Taliban-controlled Afghanistan produced 4,600 tons of opium and was the source of 75% of the world’s heroin. In 2002 the country produced 3,400 tons of opium and provided about 90% of the heroin consumed in the UK.

An examination of the trafficking routes taken by Afghanistan’s illicit products suggests that the task of curbing the entry of Afghan drugs into Europe is complex. The pattern of opium production has undergone significant changes within Afghanistan and, consequently, trafficking routes have evolved to reflect these changes. The rise of the northeastern province of Badakhshan as a major production centre, for example, clearly puts more pressure on Central Asia as a main drug trafficking route, with an estimated 200% increase in volumes traded in 2002. The Pakistani and Iranian routes are also still plied by drug traffickers, in spite of close monitoring and patrols along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by US special forces.


Between 2000 and 2003 heroin as well as opium was still exported to Pakistan through North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Balochistan province in the south.

One of the main opium markets in northern Afghanistan was, until it was closed down in April 2002, in the village of Ghani Khel, southeast of Jalalabad, the provincial capital of one of the main opium-producing areas of Afghanistan, Nangrahar. Two other such regional markets were Achin and Kahi, located further away from the Kabul-Jalalabad-Peshawar road and thus less convenient, until the closure of Ghani Khel.

As the UN Drug Control Programme reported, in southern Afghanistan, where most of the opium production is concentrated (in Kandahar and Helmand provinces), the opium market was less centralised than in the north (Nangrahar) where the Pashtun (the Shinwari tribe in Afghanistan and the Afridi in NWFP) tend to monopolise the trade. In the south, Sangin in Helmand province was the biggest opium market in 2002, followed by Musa Qala, north of Sangin.

Northern Afghanistan’s regional market is dominated by the heroin trade, mainly because of the leading role taken by both the Shinwari and the Afridi in heroin conversion. In the south of the country, the principal trade is in opium and morphine base (converted into heroin using acetic acid anhydride), mostly conducted by Balochi and Pashtun merchants who are not members of the Afridi and Shinwari tribes.

The result is that NWFP and Central Asia are experiencing heroin trafficking on a larger scale than southern Pakistan (Balochistan) and Iran, where seizures tend to relate to opium and morphine base. Heroin is easily trafficked in NWFP from Afghanistan across Afridi territory and the Khyber Pass, through what has been termed a ‘drug pipeline’.

In southern Pakistan, Balochistan shares a 1,200km border with Afghanistan and touches two of its biggest opium-producing provinces, Helmand and Kandahar. Important quantities of opiates go through Balochistan to be exported from the Makran coast, 700km long and sailed by thousands of fishing boats and cargo and passenger vessels. However, opium, morphine base and heroin also cross into Iran from Balochistan, if not directly from Afghanistan. Balochistan is thus at the crossroads of Afghan opiates trafficking and is plied by countless caravans of camels, crossing the deserts of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran by night. Groups of drug traffickers relay one another; for example, from Afghanistan to Panjgur in Pakistan then to Turbat and eventually to Mand, Pasni or Gwadar. Dalbandin is a major centre of regional drug trafficking from Afghanistan to the Makran coast or to Iran, with Balochis said to take a leading role in the trade.


Heroin is imported into Pakistan either to supply its large domestic consumer market or to reach destinations further afield. India is one such destination, with heroin coming into the country through the Punjab, Rajasthan and Gujarat: the districts of Jaisalmer and Barmer in Rajasthan are among traffickers’ favourite crossing points. The Thar desert offers many hideouts for illicit drugs, often buried in the sand before being retrieved and moved inside the country. Prior to the closing of the only train link between the two countries, in December 2001, the Samjhauta Express between Lahore and Delhi was widely used by drug and fake currency traffickers. Amritsar in Punjab is still an important node in drug trafficking routes to India – its emergence linked to Pakistani secret services fostering Sikh separatism in the province. After 1992, when Sikh militancy died down and insurgent violence increased in Kashmir, Indian drug seizures showed a sudden increase of Afghan and Pakistani heroin moving through Jammu and Kashmir, mainly via Ranbirsingh Pura, Samba and Akhnoor. Acetic acid anhydride also goes through these areas, although in the opposite direction, from India – an important industrial manufacturer – to Pakistan and Afghanistan.


Iran is arguably the main route for Afghan opiates trafficking, across Khorasan or Baluchestan va Sistan provinces. In Khorasan in 1998, opiate seizures by Iranian authorities accounted for about 40% of all such seizures worldwide, with the country as a whole accounting for 85% of worldwide opiate seizures. Iran shares borders with both Afghanistan and Pakistan and is a strategic outlet for Afghan opiates on their way to the main consumer market, Europe. A 2,440km-long coastline also makes Iran a natural springboard for maritime drug trafficking, towards the United Arab Emirates and east Africa. Along Afghanistan and Pakistan, Iranian borders are manned by 30,000 law enforcement personnel, equipped with elaborate countertrafficking infrastructures such as patrol roads, concrete dam constructions, ditches, sentry points, observation towers, barbed wire, electrified fences and even electronic surveillance devices. Iran says it spends US$400m annually on anti-drug operations and has so far invested $800m in efforts to increase control over the Afghan border.

In Iran, as well as in Pakistan, anti-drug trafficking operations are characterised by their extreme violence: drug traffickers are typically armed with weapons such as rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and large-scale battles are regularly waged with Iranian law enforcement authorities. In Khorasan alone, in 1999, 285 drug traffickers and 33 members of the Iranian armed forces were killed during such engagements. In November 1999, 35 policemen were killed in Baluchestan va Sistan while making an assault on Pakistani drug traffickers. During 20 years of anti-drugs operations Iran has lost 2,700 men on active duty.

Iran’s anti-trafficking efforts have been subsidised by the UK, Germany and Switzerland. The USA, in a 1999 report, recognised that, although Iran was “a major transit route for opiates smuggled from Afghanistan and Pakistan”, it was pursuing “an aggressive border interdiction effort”. Despite its efforts, Iranian authorities claim that 65% of the trafficking in Afghan opiates goes through its territory. As opium production is concentrated in southern Afghanistan, the Iranian route remains the major route through to Turkey and eastern Europe, where heroin laboratories are known to operate, and thence to the EU.


Afghan opiates enter Turkey mostly through the provinces of Igdir, Agri, Van and Hakkari. In August 1999 Turkish authorities seized 500kg of heroin in Agri. However, Turkey is not only an entry point and transit route for heroin, it is also home to many heroin refineries. In March 2000 three tons of morphine base were seized in Iran, between Yazd and Kerman, supposedly on the way to Turkey. In May 2000 the Turkish police found 250kg of morphine base in Baskale, in the province of Van, close to the Iranian border, while drug traffickers were arrested in Istanbul with 80kg of heroin destined for the UK. Such shipments of morphine base or even opium from Afghanistan to Turkey via Iran are increasing, reinforcing the belief that heroin production occurs in Turkey as well as eastern European countries, before being traded on the European consumer market.

Central Asia

The UN estimates that Central Asia is the outlet through which 65% of Afghan opiates pass. While this estimate is probably somewhat exaggerated, there is no doubt that the Central Asian route is growing in importance.

With the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Afghanistan saw its northern border split three ways, between Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The old silk routes were revived and Afghan opiates were quickly taken through this northern outlet. Rashid Alimov, Tajikistan’s UN representative, said his country was a victim of an “opium tsunami” and “narcotic aggression”. Tajikistan claimed to have experienced a 250% increase in drug trafficking between 1998 and 1999 alone. His Uzbek counterpart, Kamol Dusmetov, reported a 600% increase for the same period, while in Kyrgyzstan the interior minister reported a 1,600% increase in illicit drugs seizures between 1999 and 2000, including an 800% increase in heroin alone.

Tajikistan, experiencing civil war between 1992 and 1997, became the main corridor for Afghan opiates exported to the emerging Russian market and the traditional European market. From Ishkoshim to Nijni Pandj, drug trafficking was fast developing across the Amudar’ya (formerly Oxus) river, turning Khorog into the main transit town from where the only major road from Badakhshoni Kuhi province in Tajikistan led, via Dushanbe, to Osh in Kyrgyzstan and the Ferghana valley. Afghan opiates could then go west, to the Caspian Sea, Azerbaijan and Georgia, or north, through Kazakstan and to Russia. Turkmenistan has also become a major passageway for Afghan opiates. Many major seizures have occurred in Kushka, the main border post between Afghanistan and Turkmenistan.

The re-opening of the Quetta-Kandahar-Herat-Ashgabat road by the Taliban, partially financed by the Pakistani (Pashtun) mafia, considerably helped the development of drug trafficking in Turkmenistan. However, it is through Tajikistan that trafficking has most increased over the past two years. Indeed, after the Taliban proscribed opium production in 2000, the 2001 harvest was a mere 185 tons and, of this, only 35 tons were produced in Taliban-held areas while 150 tons came from United Front-controlled regions. In northeastern Afghanistan – mainly in Badakhshan – opium poppy cultivation more than doubled between 2000 and 2001.

In 2002 poppy cultivation again increased in Badakhshan and opium yields rose from 17kg/ha in 2000 to 24kg/ha in 2001 and 36kg/ha in 2002. This increase turned the remote province into Afghanistan’s third biggest opium-producing province in 2002, considerably increasing its role as a stepping stone for conveying opiates to Russia and Europe, via Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Central Asian railways.

Increased drug trafficking through Central Asia and opium production in Afghanistan has encouraged heroin consumption along drug trafficking routes. Intravenous heroin consumption has surged both in Central Asia and Russia, as far as Novosibirsk and Irkutsk, in Siberia, where heroin first appeared in 1999. Russian and Kazak authorities mention the leading role of Tajik drug traffickers in the regional trade: one third of traffickers arrested on the Dushanbe-Saratov train are Tajik, and Russian police forces in Irkustk have declared that they seized heroin in trucks driven by traffickers suspected of being Tajik special services personnel. In Kazakstan, in January 2000, a Tajik police officer was caught preparing to deliver seven kg of heroin to a senior Tajik official, while in May of the same year 62kg of heroin was seized from the car of the Tajik ambassador to Kazakstan, who was not himself implicated in the seizure. According to the Russian interior ministry, in 2000, half the heroin penetrating Russia came through Kazakstan: shipments cross via Troitsk (in Chelyabinskaya oblast) to go to Iekaterinburg, or via Orenburg and Oral to Samara. Further east, Barnaul is a trafficking relay before Novosibirsk and, eventually, Irkutsk.

About the author

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy

Dr. Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy holds a Ph.D. in Geography from the Sorbonne University (Paris) and an HDR (Habilitation à diriger des recherches or "accreditation to supervise research"). He is a CNRS Research Fellow attached to the PRODIG research team (UMR 8586).

Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy est docteur en géographie, habilité à diriger des recherches (HDR), et chargé de recherche au CNRS. Il est membre de l'équipe PRODIG (UMR 8586).

1 comment