ISLAM QALA, AFGHANISTAN // For a windswept, ramshackle border town surrounded by miles of desert, Islam Qala has a suspicious number of big houses springing up.
The town may see hundreds of lorries laden with goods cross each day, but anti-drugs officers say the incongruous prosperity is really a sign of another, hidden trade. Here, along the border between Afghanistan and Iran, opium is king. Civil chaos has made Afghanistan the undisputed world capital of opium production and the origin of more than 90 per cent of the global supply. While drugs busts in other countries may be measured in pounds and ounces, here, seizures weigh in at tons.
From the poppy fields of Helmand and Kandahar the crop travels into Iran and onwards via Turkey and the Balkans to Europe and the US. Along the way it channels hundreds of millions of dollars into the Taliban-led insurgency and feeds millions of addicts. And the scale of the trade has now become so vast it is providing common ground between Afghanistan, its international backers and their most mistrusted neighbour, Iran.
Iran has paid a high price for finding itself on a major drug trafficking route from its small neighbour. Last month the government of the Islamic republic admitted it had 1.2 million drug addicts and pleaded for more international help to fight smugglers. The country's relentless, decades-long war against ruthless heavily armed traffickers has cost the lives of 3,700 border guards, soldiers and police.
In the past three years it has spent US$800 million (Dh2.94 billion) securing its porous eastern frontier, including more than 145 kilometres of a three-metre-high, barbed wire-topped cement wall, 160 watchtowers and nearly 500km of trenches. Yet, according to UN estimates, 3,000 tons of Afghan narcotics were smuggled into Iran last year, with the majority escaping Iranian counter narcotics police.
On the Afghan side of the border, progress has been even more frustrating. The 930km desolate border has only 1,700 border guards, who are paid just $100 a month. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has only two international advisers in the region, while all efforts to tackle the problem are hamstrung by corruption that officers believe "goes to the top". Border guards are easily bought off. Those that refuse bribes are killed or framed by their less principled colleagues.
"The challenge of securing the border is enormous," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, special representative in Afghanistan for the UNODC. "Not only because of the physical conditions, but even more because of the political conditions. We are dealing with criminal interests, political interests and business interests." To make the situation worse, already frosty long-term relations between Afghanistan's US backers and Iran have plummeted over Iran's nuclear programme, the US invasion of Iraq and Iranian support for insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"You don't have to be a political scientist to see the difficulties," said Mr Lemahieu. "Within the regional context it is clear that the presence of US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan has created some suspicion." However after years of tense standoff, he said he now sensed a "more positive" new phase of cautious co-operation based around the war on drugs. Barack Obama, the US president, has acknowledged that Afghanistan's problems can only be solved with the aid of its neighbours.
Despite its differences with the US, analysts say Shia Iran has no desire to see an unstable narcostate on its eastern border which is a breeding ground for Sunni Muslim militants. As Mr Obama was making a diplomatic overture to Tehran, the presidents of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan were holding their own security summit to tackle the traffickers, rebuild Afghanistan and secure their borders. It was just the latest sign of a growing awareness by the three countries that they cannot solve their problems in isolation.
Two months ago, Esmaeel Ahmadi-Moghadam, Iran's national police chief, announced that his officers would train Afghan border police to tackle drug traffickers. And the two countries are now in talks to train Afghan border police radio operators in Tehran to improve communications. Iranian customs officials are also to share their expertise at a new Kabul Customs Academy. The multimillion-dollar customs post opening at Islam Qala later this month will have a liaison office where Afghan police and border guards sit next to their Iranian counterparts.
But suspicion of Iran runs deep. Afghans liken their vigilance of powerful neighbours to the paranoia of a poor man with a young and beautiful wife. Though poor, they believe their country, at the crossroads of international trade between Europe and Asia for millennia, is an irresistible prize coveted by scheming, richer nations. This vigilance is never more intense than concerning Iran. International attention may be focused on the threat from a destabilised nuclear-armed Pakistan, but it is Iranian intrigue that many Afghans say they fear more.
In spite of, or because of, the fact they share much of their language, heritage and culture, Afghans are deeply suspicious of Iran's motives. In Herat province, the crossroads of Iranian-Afghan trade in north-west Afghanistan, Iran has invested millions of dollars building a road to the border, which will soon be followed by a railway. The drive to the border follows a snaking line of pylons carrying Iranian electricity to power-starved Afghans.
But this largesse only feeds more suspicion. "They have a plan for us, but we will not know what it is for 20 years," said Mohammad Jamil, a Herat taxi driver. "They are more dangerous than Pakistan." Iranian television, films, books and textbooks dominate the Persian-speaking world in the same way American culture dominates the English-speaking world. Afghans fear Iran is using its cultural and social muscle to champion the country's Shia minority and sow dissent between Afghanistan's ethnic factions.
Last month the Afghan government dumped 1,000 Iranian history books being transported in a container to Kabul into the Helmand river, saying that they promoted Shia Islam and undermined national unity. Ghulam Dastagir Azad, the governor of Nimroz province, declared the books "more dangerous than Taliban bullets". The forcible repatriation of hundreds of thousands of illegal migrant workers from Iran also stokes resentment.
In poverty-stricken rural Afghanistan, young men frequently have little choice but to leave for work abroad in Iran. Visas and work permits are too expensive for most and they enter illegally. When discovered, often after tip-offs by Iranian bosses who do not want to pay their illegal workers, they are herded into detention camps and bussed back to the border. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees post at Islam Qala says around 900 are sent back each day. Many allege they have been beaten and robbed.
Khadem Haideri was sent home with a smashed wrist in plaster after an accident in a quarry near Isfahan. The 37-year-old from Ghazni left his wife and three sons to work in Iran a year ago, but was of no use to his boss after his accident and was reported to the police. While in Iran he earned $400 a month, an unthinkable wage in rural Afghanistan, but said he faced racism, discrimination and abuse from ordinary Iranians.
"When you leave your country you have to accept it," he said. The battle against drugs may be a first step to involve Iran in solving Afghanistan's problems, but Heratis urge caution. "It's clear that everyone interferes in Afghanistan," said Humayoun Azizi, head of Herat's provincial council. "We don't have any good neighbours." * The National