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U.N.: Rapid opium growth in south Afghanistan

Opium cultivation in rebel-controlled areas in southern and southwestern Afghanistan is expected to grow this year, fueling the Taliban insurgency with more drug money, a U.N. report said Wednesday.
Image: Man tending poppy field in Afghanistan
A boy works in a poppy field in the Panjwayi district of Kandahar, Afghanistan, in April 2006.John D. Mchugh / AFP - Getty Images file
/ Source: The Associated Press

Opium cultivation in rebel-controlled areas in southern and southwestern Afghanistan is expected to grow this year, fueling the Taliban insurgency with more drug money, a U.N. report said Wednesday.

The report, by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said that Afghanistan, in turmoil since a U.S.-led military operation toppled the repressive Taliban regime in 2001, is also steadily increasing its production of marijuana.

Afghanistan supplies some 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium, the main ingredient in heroin, and the Taliban rebels fighting the U.S.-led forces receive up to $100 million from the drug trade, the U.N. estimates.

‘Enormous funding for their war’
“Indeed, it is the insurgents, the Taliban, that are deriving an enormous funding for their war by imposing ... a 10 percent tax on production,” said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. agency.

Afghanistan cultivated a record 477,000 acres of opium in 2007, a 14 percent increase over the previous year. Total production, spurred by unusually high rainfall, increased even further, by 34 percent.

The one bright spot in the report, which was released on the sidelines of an international meeting on Afghanistan in Tokyo, was that the area under cultivation outside of the rebel strongholds was expected to fall.

That meant overall cultivation area would stay even or fall slightly in 2008, the report said, though wet weather could boost the productivity of each poppy plant.

Costa and Gen. Khodaidad, Afghanistan’s acting counter-narcotics minister, attributed the stall in overall growth of cultivation to eradication efforts and programs aimed at convincing farmers to switch to legal crops.

“The pre-planting campaign is the best way to fight drugs in Afghanistan because we involved the local people ... and we’re encouraging people not to grow poppy,” said Khodaidad, who, like many Afghans, uses one name.

The report showed mixed results in the battle against opium in 2007. Poppy cultivation increased in eight provinces and decreased in 26, including 13 that became poppy-free.

For the coming year, 12 of Afghanistan’s provinces — mainly in the central and northern regions — are likely to remain poppy-free, and decreases recorded elsewhere in the east, north and northeast “may result in an overall decrease in poppy cultivation in 2008,” the report said.

Nearly a third of villages said they had received cash advances from drug traffickers to grow poppy. All respondents in the southern region and 72 percent in the west said they paid taxes to anti-government entities, including mullahs, local commanders and the Taliban, the report said.

The U.N. report suggested “effective prevention campaigns and eradication efforts” could help control spring cultivation and rid more regions of the crop.

Counterproductive approaches?
The Senlis Council international policy think tank said, however, that the report showed current approaches were ineffective and counterproductive.

“You need short-term economic incentives and solutions, such as trying to make use of the poppy crop for medicinal use, and producing crops with a high market value, such as saffron,” said Jorrit Kamminga, Senlis’ director of policy research.

However, none of Afghanistan’s legal crops — such as maize, rice or cotton — can match the income from opium poppies, estimated at $2,024 per acre, the report said.

In addition to opium, the survey found an increase in cannabis cultivation, with 18 percent of villages planning to grow it in 2008, compared with 13 percent last year, when some 172,970 acres of cannabis crops were cultivated.

Christina Gynna Oguz, a U.N. representative in Afghanistan, said the study suggested officials should offer incentives to farmers in the more secure north not to grow poppy.

Troublesome alliance
But in the south, officials have to face an alliance between drug traffickers, corrupt officials, and insurgents.

“So there you will have to fight all these three elements, meaning that you must have much more emphasis on interdiction and fighting corruption,” she said.

The report was issued as Tokyo hosted an annual international conference on the country’s reconstruction on Tuesday and Wednesday.

The 24-member Joint Coordinating and Monitoring Board monitors the Afghanistan Compact, a five-year blueprint to promote security, the rule of law, human rights and development.