Exit Strategies

Liberty, Equality, Heroin


This week Croatian police netted an impressive haul at a customs post on the border with Serbia. A Norwegian man driving into the country was arrested with 88.6 kilograms of heroin stored away in his vehicle, along with over a thousand boxes of cigarettes. The value of the narcotics amounts to 3.7 million Euros, about 4.75 million dollars. The suspect was looking to bring the drugs into the European Union with his family in tow. Apparently having the wife and three kids along for the trip was supposed to draw attention away from the 200-pound payload of heroin stuffed into his car. This may well have been a reasonable calculation on the Norwegian’s part, since the great majority of narcotics flowing from east to west do indeed reach their intended destination in Europe’s cities.

It is still undisclosed where the courier received the drugs, but we can make some reasonable conclusions about the shipment’s journey westward and who facilitated it. The logistics comprise the infamous Balkan Route.

  • Like 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium harvest and its derivatives, the heroin originated in Afghanistan. Lest one think it was sent on its way to Europe courtesy of the Taliban, the chances of that are rather low. The insurgency gets an approximate 5 percent cut of opium revenues to finance its cause, around $125 million per annum out of $3 billion (NATO eradication efforts are centered on Taliban poppies, not those of local partners). The crop was much more likely to be cultivated under the control of regional warlords and U.S.-allied government officials in Kabul. People like Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president’s brother.
  • After the sap from opium poppies is gathered and packaged, it will be smuggled in bulk loads across the Iranian border, usually by well-armed convoys of trucks. Iranian criminal groups will then receive the opium shipment and move it further west through Iran, sometimes with the complicity of corrupt officers of the security forces. Some of the product will be siphoned off and distributed to Iranian dealers- the country has the world’s highest rate of opiate addiction.
  • At some point in its journey through southwest Asia, whether in a lab in Afghanistan, Iran or Turkey, the opium will be processed and converted into heroin with the aid of chemical precursors such as acetic anhydride. The heroin will be transported from Iran into Turkey. Since the nation’s geography is so critical to the Balkan Route, the government in Ankara can boast a relatively high rate of seizures. At the same time, elements within Turkey’s military and intelligence apparatus maintain well-established ties with Turkish and Albanian criminal organizations and benefit from guiding narcotics shipments into Europe.  
  • The heroin will then be shipped from the central Turkish hub Istanbul and cross into southeastern Europe. As it edges closer to E.U. frontiers, the cargo will be broken down into more manageable and concealable loads so that couriers can evade border inspections. Kosovar Albanian gangs are largely responsible for running logistics and distribution of the drug in Europe, from smuggling routes in the Balkans to front companies in Paris and Rotterdam. NATO-protectorate Kosovo, the government of which is intimately connected with the Albanian crime clans, provides an excellent base of operations for channeling shipments into the E.U.

An in-depth look at the Balkan Route shows a narcotics-trafficking system spanning Eurasia with especially debilitating effects. Of the all the Afghan heroin that flows into the nations of Europe on an annual basis, 80 percent (around 85 tons) transits through this corridor. The ultimate result is that 10,000 Europeans (and 30,000 Russians) die every year from their addictions. The Balkan Route also conveys a geopolitical reality: key U.S. allies are major players in the global heroin trade. From the poppy fields of Kandahar to CampBondsteel in Kosovo, Washington is heavily invested in its agenda of controlling Eurasia and its energy networks. It is possible that U.S. policymakers simply prefer to overlook the disagreeable activities of favored clients, though researchers like William Engdahl have also noted that Afghan heroin functions well as a weapon against America’s great-power competitors. In either circumstance, Western banks can turn a handsome profit.

Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation has suffered setbacks this season due to crop blight. Regional warlords and powerbrokers in Kabul have prepared for such contingencies, though they’ve stockpiled enough opium around the country to supply world markets for two years.

The American attempt to occupy Afghanistan and impose upon it the ideology of the Open Society -- to gradually transform Tajiks, Pushtuns, and Hazara into secularized, hip-hop dancing democracy enthusiasts -- has been a prideful temptation of fate. Like Marxism-Leninism a generation earlier, the liberal universalist project is shattering on the crags of the Hindu Kush. What’s left is a trail of death and despair, complemented by massive quantities of soul-killing heroin.