Afghan Opium Production Falls, Despite Problem Provinces

By Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 27, 2008

UNITED NATIONS, Aug. 26 -- Afghanistan this year experienced the sharpest decline in opium production since the United States toppled the country's Taliban rulers, according to a U.N. report.

Afghan opium production declined by 500 tons, or about 6 percent, from the 2007 season, according to the U.N. 2008 Afghanistan Opium Survey. The amount of land dedicated to opium poppies fell even more dramatically, dropping 19 percent because of severe drought and the efforts of Afghan governors, tribal elders and religious leaders to persuade farmers to abandon opium crops.

The U.N. report cautioned that Afghanistan remains the world's top source of opium and continues to produce more of the illicit drug than the world consumes. It said Afghan growers had stockpiled enough opium to guarantee large amounts on the international market even if new supplies dwindle.

Still, U.S. and U.N. officials characterized the decline as a watershed. "The opium flood waters in Afghanistan have started to recede," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, wrote in the report.

The Bush administration said the report's findings provided some vindication for its much-criticized counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan. But State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said that "the drug threat in Afghanistan remains unacceptably high," adding: "We are particularly concerned by the deterioration in security conditions in the south, where the insurgency dominates."

The thriving Afghan drug trade has emerged as one of the most embarrassing aspects of the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Afghanistan's Taliban rulers had nearly eradicated the opium trade before they were overthrown by the United States for providing a safe haven to al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. In 2001, the Taliban had reduced the amount of Afghan land where opium poppies were grown to less than 20,000 acres.

But since the Taliban's ouster, the Afghan opium industry has made massive strides. Last year, Afghanistan had planted more than 476,000 acres of opium poppies, providing Europe with its chief source of heroin. But the number dropped by almost a fifth, to about 388,000 acres

The number of Afghan provinces where opium cultivation has ceased increased last year from 13 to 18, including Badakshan and Balkh. The most significant turnaround occurred in Nangahar, Afghanistan's second-largest opium producing province in 2007. This year, Maria Costa wrote, Nangahar "has become poppy free."

More than half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are now considered opium-free, the report noted. Most of the country's opium cultivation -- about 98 percent -- is concentrated in seven provinces in the southwest that house permanent Taliban settlements and have organized crime groups that pay taxes to the Islamist movement in exchange for a free hand in running their illicit trade.

Maria Costa wrote that the most glaring example of that is in Helmand province, where about 255,000 acres of opium poppies were cultivated, accounting for two-thirds of the nation's production. If the province were a country, he wrote, "it would once again be the world's biggest producer of illicit drugs."

The Taliban earned $200 million to $400 million last year through a 10 percent tax on poppy growers and drug traffickers in areas under its control, Maria Costa said in an interview in June. He said Afghan poppy farmers and drug traffickers last year earned about $4 billion, half the national income.

The report released Tuesday said the earnings of poppy farmers dropped from about $1 billion last year to $732 million this year. It encouraged the United States and other international donors to provide additional financial assistance to help Afghan farmers shoulder the burden of dwindling opium revenue and to dissuade them from cultivating other illicit crops such as marijuana, which has become a more popular crop on land once used to plant opium poppies.

Britain's ambassador to Afghanistan, Sherard Cowper-Coles, told the BBC, "We're not satisfied, and we will never be satisfied until we really start squeezing poppy cultivation out of the Helmand economy."

"We have an extremely competent governor in Helmand who has a plan in the next few months for getting farmers to switch from poppy cultivation in the coming season," he said.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company