Afghanistan sees increased poppy cultivation



Iqbal Khattak

Warlords backed by the US also support farmers cultivating poppy

fghan farmers have begun cultivating a new poppy crop this year which is likely to fetch them about US$ 2.3 billion, or about half of the country’s legitimate gross domestic product in 2003. “The farmers couldn’t care less about the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report that Afghanistan risks becoming ‘a failed state’ if Kabul does not curb its rising trade in illicit narcotics,” says a source in Peshawar.

Incidentally, TFT witnessed Afghan farmers at work days after the Vienna-based UNODC’s annual report warned that Afghanistan, producing three-quarters of the world’s illicit opium – the raw material for heroin – and two-thirds of all opiate abusers runs the “palpable risk” of “again turn[ing] into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists.”

“Out of this drug chest, some provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share. The more they get used to this, the less likely it becomes that they will respect the law, be loyal to Kabul and support the legal economy,” the agency’s director, Antonio Maria Costa, said in an executive summary of the report.

He continued: “Terrorists take a cut as well: the longer this happens, the greater the threat to security within the country and on its borders.”

According to the UNODC report, Afghanistan’s opium poppy farmers cultivated 197,680 acres in 2003, an increase of eight percent compared to last year. Opium production increased by 6 percent to 3,968 tons, it added.

“When this crop [poppy] offers a much bigger margin of profit why should we not go for it,” Rahimullah alias ‘Kandahari’ told TFT in Kandahar city. “Like other farmers, I am cultivating poppy this year also to make a quick and easy buck,” he said.

TFT information reveals that poppy is being cultivated in the provinces of Nangrahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, Kandahar, Badkhshan, Paghman, Leghman, Balkh and Medan. “It’s all about the price of one kilogram opium,” says a source explaining why poppy cultivation has again become so important in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Only last week, one-kilogram opium was priced at 300 US dollars in Afghanistan’s open market. A piece of land measuring four kanals produces seven kilograms of opium whereas it produces 700 kilograms of wheat, which earns just 80 US dollars. “There is a big difference of profit and in the absence of other economic activities and incentives, the Afghan farmers have no choice but to go for poppy cultivation. Of course, they are fully backed in this by the warlords,” says an insider.

The UN agency has surveyed opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan since 1994. This year, for the first time, the study was carried out jointly with the government of President Hamid Karzai. “That signals that things are changing in Afghanistan,” Costa said in the summary.

“The preconditions for change are slowly being put into place,”’ he said, pointing to a national drug control strategy and a new drug control law as examples. Kabul in consultation with the UN agency and other donor agencies has planned to make Afghanistan poppy-free in the next 10 years. However, independent experts and some officials of Pakistan’s Anti-Narcotics Force [ANF] remain sceptical and say it will be difficult to achieve the target given the lack of a central authority and the US-backed warlords’ support to the farmers.

“Drug production and trade is so deeply ingrained in Afghanistan that it also endangers the country,” Costa said and added: “The country is at a crossroads: Either energetic interdiction measures are taken now, and supported by the international community, or the drug cancer in Afghanistan will keep spreading and metastasize into corruption, violence and terrorism - within and beyond the country’s borders.”

The UN agency official has recommended certain steps to battle the problem. “The country must take energetic measures to “repress the traffickers, dismantle the heroin labs, and destroy the terrorists’ and warlords’ stake in the opium economy – thus enabling the legitimate economy and the constitutional process to move forward. The [drug] trade is fueled by low risk and high profit.”

The Northern Alliance and other anti-Taliban factions – especially ethnic Pashtun groups in eastern Afghanistan – are fully involved in the drug trade. Indeed, if anything, the Northern Alliance has been more closely associated with narcotics than the Taliban.

The Taliban regime largely confined itself to taking a 10 to 20 percent levy on opium harvests, heroin production, and drug shipments, earning it a minimum of $40-45 million annually. By contrast, the Northern Alliance – or at least key figures in it – have actively engaged in the production, sale and trafficking of opium for factional and personal gain. In fact, by the year 2000, the Taliban had embarked on a massive programme to cut down on poppy cultivation and had made it stick. The effort was also acknowledged by the UN though the United Nations could only deliver on a part of the money it had pledged to the Taliban for alternative cash crops for Afghanistan.

Poppy cultivation is part of the livelihood for 1.7 million people, or about seven percent of Afghanistan’s population, according to the UN agency’s report. Though declining prices have reduced the average opium grower’s income by 15 percent to $594, the figure is still more than three times last year’s national per capita income of $184.

The 2003 harvest was the second biggest recorded since the agency began surveying the country in 1994. The biggest harvest was recorded in 1999, when 4,565 tons were produced.

Poppy cultivation, which covers about three percent of Afghanistan’s irrigated arable land, has spread to 28 of the country’s 32 provinces, up from 24 in 2002 and 18 in 1999. The extension is “worrying,” says the report. The agency used satellite images and fieldwork to collect data for the survey.

This year’s production of 3,600 tonnes represents a six percent year-on-year increase, while poppy cultivation, at almost 81,000 hectares (200,000 acres), was up eight percent. Afghanistan is by far the biggest source of heroin trafficked to and within Western Europe, supplying 90 percent of the market. The statistics are given out in the global trade in illicit drugs.

The alarming report followed President Hamid Karzai’s first moves on taking office in December 2001 to outlaw opium poppy cultivation, trafficking and consumption while charities and other outsiders sought to develop crop substitution projects and payments to farmers to eradicate poppy growing.

To judge by the UNOCD figures, there is scant evidence of success of President Karzai’s resolve or any alternate programmes. The bumper harvest of 1999 was followed in 2000 by the Taliban prohibition. Since their ouster from power and the ensuing confusion, poppy has again reared its ugly head.

The report found that Afghanistan produces 75% of the world’s illicit opium and that two in three opiate users take drugs from Afghanistan. The poppy industry generates around half the official gross domestic product of Afghanistan.

The industry is controlled by warlords and crime cartels who use two prime routes to ferry the contraband to Western Europe. Raw opium is refined into heroin at illicit laboratories all over Afghanistan. The heroin is taken north, through the former Soviet states of Central Asia and up into the Russian Urals, before heading for Western Europe via Moscow and St. Petersburg, say ANF officials. “Alternatively, it is taken to Turkey and then smuggled into Western Europe via the Balkans,” they added.

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