NIZHNY PANJ, Tajikistan — In August 2007, the presidents of Afghanistan and Tajikistan walked side by side with the U.S. commerce secretary across a new $37 million concrete bridge that the Army Corps of Engineers designed to link two of Central Asia's poorest countries.
Dressed in a gray suit with an American flag pin in his lapel, then-Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said the modest two-lane span that U.S. taxpayers paid for would be "a critical transit route for trade and commerce" between Afghanistan and Tajikistan.
Today, the bridge across the muddy waters of the Panj River is carrying much more than vegetables and timber: It's paved the way for drug traffickers to transport larger loads of Afghan heroin and opium to Central Asia and beyond to Russia and Western Europe.
Standing near his truck in a dusty patch on the Afghan side of the river, Yar Mohammed said it was easy to drive drugs past the Afghan and Tajik border guards.
"It's an issue of money," Mohammed said, to the nods and grins of the small group of truckers gathered around him near the bridge at Nizhny Panj. "If you give them money, you can do whatever you want."
The roots of the global drug trade are often a murky tangle of poverty, addiction, violence and corruption. However, it's clear why the dirt-poor former Soviet Central Asian republic of Tajikistan is on the verge of becoming a narco-state.
After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States and other Western powers looked the other way as opium and heroin production surged to record levels, making Afghanistan by far the world's biggest producer.
Much of the ballooning supply of drugs shipped across Afghanistan's northern border, up to one-fifth of the country's output, has traveled to and through Tajikistan. The opium and heroin funded rampant corruption in Tajikistan and turned the country, still hobbled by five years of civil war in the 1990s, into what at times seems like one big drug-trafficking organization.
Every day last year — extrapolating from United Nations estimates — an average of more than 4 metric tons of opium, which can be made into some 1,320 pounds of heroin, moved on the northern route. Put another way, the equivalent of nearly 6 million doses of pure heroin — at 100 milligrams each — is carried across the northern Afghan border each day.
After it's cut with other substances and sold on the street corners and in the apartment stairwells of Russia and Western Europe, the main retail markets for Central Asian heroin, that could produce at least 12 million doses.
Nevertheless, it's clear even to a casual visitor at the bridge that neither the Afghan or the Tajik border guards have much interest in curbing, or even inspecting, the exports that pass in front of them.
In fact, as the Afghan drug supply has grown, Tajik seizures have fallen. In 2004, Afghanistan produced 4,200 metric tons of opium, and some 5 metric tons of heroin or its equivalent in opium were seized in Tajikistan, according to U.N. figures. Last year, with Afghan cultivation rising to 7,700 metric tons of opium, Tajik authorities seized less than 2 metric tons of heroin.
Although the United States wields enormous influence in both countries, their drug problems have taken a back seat to the war against the Taliban. Until the past year, Afghanistan's growing drug production was at best a midlevel priority for Washington, and the U.S. hasn't pressed Tajik President Emomali Rahmon to rein in his country's drug trafficking, Western officials said. Nor, they said, has any other Western government with troops in Afghanistan.