U.N. Report Cites Sharp Drop in Opium Cultivation in Afghanistan
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
KABUL, Sept. 1 -- Cultivation in Afghanistan of opium, the nation's most lucrative cash crop and a major funding source for the Taliban, has fallen sharply this year in large part because an excess supply of the drug has pushed down prices to a 10-year low, according to a U.N. report scheduled to be released Wednesday.
The Obama administration has changed course on its opium policy here, moving away from eradication efforts favored by the Bush administration that senior officials now say wasted millions of dollars. Instead, funding is being directed toward programs to persuade farmers to grow other crops. But more than those nascent efforts, U.N. officials said, the cause of the decline in opium cultivation this year was a deteriorating market for the drug.
"Overall, you could say we are now profiting from a fantastic market correction," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the Afghanistan office of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "There is just too much supply around, so the attractiveness is diminishing."
The area under opium poppy cultivation fell this year by 22 percent, to 123,000 hectares, or about 304,000 acres, the second consecutive year of decline after a rapid growth of opium farming since the war began in 2001, according to the United Nations' 2009 Afghanistan Opium Survey. Twenty of the country's 34 provinces are considered poppy-free, two more than last year.
Much of the decline was in Helmand province, in the south, where U.S. Marines have launched an offensive against the Taliban. Helmand still accounts for nearly 60 percent of all opium grown in Afghanistan, and drug money continues to fuel the Taliban and the corruption that plagues the Afghan government.
Although the area under opium cultivation declined sharply, the drop in the production of the drug was less dramatic because farmers were able to extract more opium per poppy bulb. Driving both declines, officials said, is a drop in prices to levels not seen since the Taliban ruled Afghanistan from the late 1990s to late 2001. The report found a 40 percent drop in the total value of opium produced, down to $438 million, or 4 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. This helped push more than 800,000 people out of the opium business.
"There's only so much the Taliban can store in the caves," Lemahieu said.
The amount of surplus opium still stashed in Afghanistan is staggering, officials said. The U.N. report said the world's annual demand for opium derivates such as heroin is not more than 5,000 tons, but the drug stockpiles in Afghanistan may be double that. And these stockpiles are durable, Lemahieu said, able to last in good condition for 10 to 15 years. In some areas along the border with Pakistan, opium is used as currency, he said.
The drug industry is so prevalent in places such as Helmand that coalition commanders there say it is often difficult to distinguish between Taliban members, drug traffickers and criminal gangs, all of which take part in the business.
Col. George Amland, deputy commander of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Brigade, which operates in Helmand, said that "all those people will coexist very happily as a partnership, while there is a level of chaos," but that his troops are attempting to interrupt and split the networks.
The U.N. report praised Afghan and NATO troops for destroying tons of chemicals, seeds, drugs and 27 labs this year, as well as for moving away from eradication as a policy.
"You've seen some pretty sizable operations down south in Helmand," said Col. Wayne Shanks, a U.S. military spokesman in Kabul. "Our presence there and our activities in the area may have contributed to some of those figures" of declining opium cultivation.
U.N. officials estimate that the Taliban collects at least $125 million a year from opium production, including by taxing farmers and levying "protection" fees for cargo trucks transiting its territory. There are also signs that the group is increasingly involved in the high-end value aspects of the business, including converting opium to heroin and trading in precursor chemicals, such as acetic anhydride. Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UNODC, wrote in the report that there is "growing evidence" that "some anti-government elements in Afghanistan are turning into narco-cartels."
Still, officials said the Taliban is wary of compromising its Islamic ideology and placing in jeopardy funding sources from other Muslim countries by fully committing to the drug trade, Lemahieu said.
"Mullah [Mohammad] Omar is still the leader of the Taliban, and he is not a drug trafficker," Lemahieu said. "That ideological sharpness is so important for them. So you cannot compare them yet with the FARC," he said, referring to the Colombian guerrilla group heavily involved in cocaine trafficking.
The U.S. and British governments are rushing to develop programs before the planting season begins in October to encourage Afghan farmers to grow crops such as wheat and fruit instead of opium. The programs offer vouchers to buy cheap seeds and provide farm workers with infrastructure jobs. The U.N. report said a rural development program to employ farmers needs to be as ambitious as the military offensive.
"There is no need to bribe farmers to stay away from drugs: market forces are already doing this," the report said.