As opium prices soar and allies focus on Taliban, Afghan drug war stumbles

Continued photo coverage from the front lines of the U.S., Afghan and NATO military effort in Afghanistan.
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 14, 2011; 12:00 AM

KABUL - After several years of steady progress in curbing opium poppy cultivation and cracking down on drug smugglers, Afghan officials say the anti-drug campaign is flagging as opium prices soar, farmers are lured back to the lucrative crop and Afghanistan's Western allies focus more narrowly on defeating the Taliban.

That combination adds a potentially destabilizing factor to Afghanistan at a time when the United States is desperate to show progress in a war now into its 10th year. The country's Taliban insurgency and the drug trade flourish in the same lawless terrain, and are often mutually reinforcing. But Afghan officials say the opium problem is not receiving the focus it deserves from Western powers.

"The price of opium is now seven times higher than wheat, and there is a $58 billion demand for narcotics, so our farmers have no disincentive to cultivate poppy," said Mohammed Azhar, deputy minister for counternarcotics. "We have gotten a lot of help, but it is not enough. Afghanistan is still producing 85 percent of the opium in the world, and it is still a dark stain on our name."

International attention to Afghanistan's drug problem has waxed and waned over the course of the war, often as a result of shifts in Western priorities as elected governments have changed and conflict with Islamist insurgents has intensified.

In the first several years after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, U.S.-led policy was military-driven and drugs were not seen as a critical issue. Poppy cultivation, once banned by the Taliban, surged. By 2004, the U.S. and British governments stepped in with programs to eradicate poppy, encourage farmers to grow other crops and train Afghan police and prosecutors in how to combat drug trafficking.

Those efforts met with mixed success. Afghanistan eliminated poppy cultivation in 20 of 34 provinces, but it continued to flourish in the south and west, where the insurgency was strongest. Anti-drug police arrested hundreds of smugglers, but few major traffickers were caught and some were released under high-level political pressure. Insecurity and Taliban threats made some alternative crop programs hard to carry out.

Now, Afghan officials say, the latest NATO push to wipe out the Taliban leadership and focus on military goals has once again led to a reduced international interest in the drug war.

According to a U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime report released in September, the value of Afghan opium skyrocketed from $29 per pound in 2009 to $77 per pound in 2010, fueling fears that production levels will soon follow upward. Although the amount of land devoted to growing poppies has remained the same over the past year - about 304,000 acres - the number of families producing the crop has grown. In all, more than 1.5 million Afghans depend on the sale of drugs for their livelihoods.

"I was excited when I took this job, but it seems narcotics is no longer a priority," said Lt. Gen. Bazz Mohammed Ahmadi, who was named to head the anti-narcotics police in September. "All the attention now is on security, but people don't realize that drugs and insecurity go together."

Chipping away at success

Ahmadi's troops, trained by the British and now working closely with American anti-drug agents, have achieved considerable success in detecting and confiscating drugs. One recent week, for example, they carried out five raids across the country and seized 4,782 pounds of opium, 1,246 pounds of heroin - some of it hidden in a shipment of blenders at Kabul airport - and a whopping 41 tons of hashish, which they captured in a helicopter raid on a rural nomad camp. Their efforts have been aided by a fungus that blighted hundreds of thousands of poppy plants last year.

But Afghan officials said they face a double challenge from the Taliban, whose fighters protect and profit from poppy cultivation in areas they control, and from the country's powerful drug mafia, which is often able to circumvent law enforcement efforts and intimidate or compromise even well-trained anti-drug forces.

The successful effort to wipe out poppy farming in secure northern and eastern provinces, they said, has had the unintended effect of concentrating production in a handful of southern provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar, where both insurgents and traffickers are most active. They said NATO forces, eager to win cooperation from local farmers, sometimes turn a blind eye to the crops they grow, and fighting provides convenient cover for smuggling.

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