Afghanistan’s world-leading opium cultivation rose a “staggering” 60 percent this year, the U.N. anti-drugs chief announced Saturday in urging the government to crack down on big traffickers and remove corrupt officials and police.
The record crop yielded 6,100 tons of opium, or enough to make 610 tons of heroin — outstripping the demand of the world’s heroin users by a third, according to U.N. figures.
Officials warned that the illicit trade is undermining the Afghan government, which is under attack by Islamic militants that a U.S.-led offensive helped drive from power in late 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida bases.
“The news is very bad. On the opium front today in some of the provinces of Afghanistan, we face a state of emergency,” Antonio Maria Costa, chief of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said at a news conference. “In the southern provinces, the situation is out of control.”
He talked with reporters after presenting results of the U.N. survey to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who voiced “disappointment” over the figures. “Our efforts to fight narcotics have proved inadequate,” Karzai said in a statement.
With the economy struggling, there are not enough jobs and many Afghans say they have to grow opium poppies to feed their families. The trade already accounts for at least 35 percent of Afghanistan’s economy, financing warlords and insurgents.
Threat to democracy?
The top U.S. narcotics official here said the opium trade is a threat to the country’s fledgling democracy.
“This country could be taken down by this whole drugs problem,” Doug Wankel told reporters. “We have seen what can come from Afghanistan, if you go back to 9/11. Obviously the U.S. does not want to see that again.”
The bulk of the opium increase was in lawless Helmand province, where cultivation rose 162 percent and accounted for 42 percent of the Afghan crop. The province has been wracked by the surge in attacks by Taliban-led militants that has produced the worst fighting in five years.
Opium-growing increased despite the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to fight the drug over the past two years. Costa criticized the international effort and said foreign aid was “plagued by huge overhead costs” in its administration.
Searching for answers
Costa said Afghanistan’s insecurity is fueling the opium boom, saying he has pleaded with the NATO force that took over military operations in the south a month ago to take a “stronger role” in fighting drugs. NATO says it has no mandate for direct involvement in the anti-drug campaign.
“We need much stronger, forceful measures to improve security or otherwise I’m afraid we are going to face a dramatic situation of failed regions, districts and even perhaps even provinces in the near future,” Costa said.
The U.N. report, based on satellite imagery and ground surveys, said the area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached 407,700 acres in 2006, up from 257,000 acres in 2005. The previous high was 323,700 acres in 2004.
The estimated yield of 6,100 tons of opium resin — described by Costa as “staggering” — is up from 4,100 tons last year, and exceeds the previous high for total global output of 5,764 tons recorded in 1999.
Last year, about 450 tons of heroin was consumed worldwide, 90 percent of it from Afghanistan, according to the U.N.
The report will increase pressure on the beleaguered Afghan president. Karzai has often talked tough on drugs, even declaring a “holy war” against the trade, but he is increasingly criticized for appointing and failing to sack corrupt provincial governors and police.
Costa urged the arrest of “serious drug traffickers” to fill a new high-security wing for narcotics convicts at Kabul’s Policharki prison. “It has 100 beds. We want these beds to be taken up in the next few months,” he said.
Going after the ‘big fish’
At the same news conference, the Afghan counternarcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, said the government had the will to make arrests, but lacked the capacity to gather evidence to prosecute “the big fish.”
Yet he maintained that with its newly unveiled national anti-drugs strategy, Afghanistan could “control” drug production within five years.
Costa was less upbeat. “It’s going to take possibly 20 years to get rid of the problem,” he said, citing the experience of former opium producers like Thailand, Turkey and Pakistan.
In an indication of the alarming extent of official complicity in the trade, a Western counternarcotics official said about 25,000 to 30,000 acres of government land in Helmand was used to cultivate opium poppies this year.
The official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said police and government officials are involved in cultivating poppies, providing protection for growers or taking bribes to ensure the crops aren’t destroyed.
He said the Taliban — which managed to nearly eradicate Afghanistan’s poppy crop in 2001, just before their ouster for giving refuge to Osama bin Laden — now profit from the trade.
In some instances, drug traffickers have provided vehicles and money to the Taliban to carry out terrorist attacks, he said. But added that the ties seem to be local and that there is no evidence of coordination between drug lords and the Taliban leadership.