Opium Harvest at Record Level in Afghanistan
Afghanistan’s opium harvest this year has reached the highest levels ever recorded, showing an increase of almost 50 percent from last year, the executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said Saturday in Kabul.
He described the figures as “alarming” and “very bad news” for the Afghan government and international donors who have poured millions of dollars into programs to reduce the poppy crop since 2001.
He said the increase in cultivation was significantly fueled by the resurgence of Taliban rebels in the south, the country’s prime opium growing region. As the insurgents have stepped up attacks, they have also encouraged and profited from the drug trade, promising protection to growers if they expanded their opium operations.
“This year’s harvest will be around 6,100 metric tons of opium — a staggering 92 percent of total world supply. It exceeds global consumption by 30 percent,” Mr. Costa said at a news briefing.
He said the harvest increased by 49 percent from the year before, and it drastically outpaced the previous record of 4,600 metric tons, set in 1999 while the Taliban governed the country. The area cultivated increased by 59 percent, with more than 400,000 acres planted with poppies in 2006 compared with less than 260,000 in 2005.
“It is indeed very bad, you can say it is out of control,” Mr. Costa said Friday in an interview before the announcement.
President Hamid Karzai expressed disappointment at the results in a statement issued on Saturday and urged the international community to expand its commitment to strengthen the Afghan police and law enforcement agencies.
The Bush administration has made poppy eradication a major facet of its aid to Afghanistan, and it has criticized Mr. Karzai for not doing more to challenge warlords involved in opium production.
On Saturday, a State Department spokeswoman, Joanne Moore, had no immediate comment on the United Nations report, but she pointed to a fact sheet posted on the department’s Web site that outlined efforts to support Afghanistan’s counternarcotics campaign.
The increase in cultivation was mainly a result of the strength of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, which has left whole districts outside of government control, and the continuing impunity of everyone involved, from the farmers and traffickers to corrupt police and government officials, Mr. Costa said.
Afghanistan is already the world’s largest producer of opium, and 35 percent of its gross domestic product is estimated to come from the narcotics trade.
Most of the heroin made from Afghan poppies is sold in Europe and Asia, drug officials say. Most of the increase in poppy cultivation has occurred in five provinces in southern Afghanistan, in particular Helmand, Kandahar and Oruzgan, where security has sharply deteriorated this year because of Taliban attacks, Mr. Costa said.
“The southern part of Afghanistan was displaying the ominous hallmarks of incipient collapse, with large-scale drug cultivation and trafficking, insurgency and terrorism, crime and corruption,” he said in a statement released by his office.
“We are seeing a very strong connection between the increase in the insurgency on the one hand and the increase in cultivation on the other hand,” he explained in the interview.
The Taliban had distributed leaflets at night, inviting farmers to increase their poppy cultivation in exchange for protection, Mr. Costa said. The rebels also profit from levies in return for protection of drug convoys passing through the border areas they controlled.
There were also signs of a pernicious strategy to encourage farmers to increase poppy cultivation in an effort to force a government reaction, which would then turn the population further against the government, Mr. Costa said.
But he did not blame only the Taliban for the increase. He specifically accused the former governor of Helmand Province, Sher Muhammad Akhund, of encouraging farmers to grow more poppies in the months before he was removed from office. The result was an increase of 160 percent in that “villain province” from its harvest last year, he said, the highest rise in the country.
“There is evidence of major pressure exerted by him in favor of cultivating opium,” Mr. Costa said.
In the news briefing on Saturday, Mr. Costa also criticized the government’s action of removing the governor and giving him a position in the upper house of Parliament.
“I have been on record for asking the president for corrupt officials not to be moved around but to be removed, to be neutralized; if records can prove conviction, to be arrested and convicted. So far we do not have much evidence for that And we hope that more forceful initiatives will be taken exactly in that area,” he said.
One province in the north, Badakhshan, where there is no problem of an insurgency, also had a significant increase in poppy cultivation.
Mr. Costa attributed that mostly to the lack of government control and the presence of powerful warlords and corrupt local officials. A substantial drought also played a part, because no alternative crop could survive as the poppies did.
While the government had improved its performance at eradication of the poppy crop, it had failed to do enough to catch traffickers and corrupt officials, he said.
The United Nations drugs office, which measures the eradication program, said about 38,000 acres of poppy fields were confirmed to have been destroyed, whereas only about 12,000 acres were confirmed destroyed last year. Government reporting on how much was eradicated was also less exaggerated, Mr. Costa said. In 2005, province governors had reported eradicating about 87,000 acres and the United Nations could only confirm 12,000 destroyed. In 2006, governors reported 57,000 acres destroyed, and the drug office confirmed 38,000, he said.
The United Nations drugs office surveys cultivation in Afghanistan through satellite imagery and with teams on the ground, who have even worked in Taliban-controlled areas. Usually they travel undercover on motorbikes, and they interview farmers and traders in more than 2,000 villages across the country.
International donors have put a lot of money into training judges and investigators and preparing high-security detention facilities for drug traffickers, and it was now time for the government to act, Mr. Costa said.
“I am pleading with the government to be much tougher,” he said. A new high-security prison block would be inaugurated in a few weeks, he said. “We have room for 100 people and I am asking the government to fill it within six months,” he said.
Afghanistan’s minister for counternarcotics, Habibullah Qaderi, said at the news briefing that the news was a setback for his ministry and for the country. But he said the government’s strategy to combat opium production would start to show results in the next three years.
He said he hoped the government would be able to capture more high-level traffickers and corrupt officials. But he said it still lacked the capacity to investigate and catch the “big fish.”
Several hundred people have been arrested and convicted for drug offenses in recent months, but Mr. Qaderi admitted most were people who were caught carrying the drugs.
One significant prosecution involved an Interior Ministry official, Lt. Col. Nadir Khan, who was sentenced to 10 years in prison two months ago for stealing 110 pounds of heroin that had been impounded by drug enforcement authorities and selling it, a Western counternarcotics official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Please help our fight against the New World Order by giving a donation. As bandwidth costs increase, the only way we can stay online and expand is with your support. Please consider giving a monthly or one-off donation for whatever you can afford. You can pay securely by either credit card or Paypal. Click here to donate.