By Pamela Constable
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.
"Most of the trafficking we see is in Kandahar, and we have no control there," Ahmadi said. "We have a lot of security checks at the airports, with special scanners and equipment, but the VIPs and the organized crime people know how to avoid them."
American military field commanders tell a somewhat different story, however. In Marja, a district in Helmand where U.S. forces have been operating for months, Marine officers said they expect poppy cultivation to fall because they have pushed the insurgents to the periphery of prime farmland.
Marine Col. David Furness, the regimental commander in the area, said he expected that 85 percent of Marja, once a thriving opium region, would soon be poppy-free. However, he noted that in the long term, keeping farmers away from growing poppies would require finding cheaper and safer ways for them to grow legal crops such as wheat.Victims of drug culture
In Kabul, the most visible sign of the flagging war on drugs is the burgeoning population of addicts living under bridges and overpasses. While the use of hashish and opium is a traditional part of Afghan society, experts say the introduction of heroin - especially by exiles returning from Iran - has brought crime, homelessness, disease and mental illness to the drug culture.
"When we started here in 2002, it was hard to find a single drug user on the streets of Kabul. Now there are close to 1 million all over the country," said Tariq Suliman, a doctor and the director of the Nejat Center, a program for addicts in Kabul. "This is a population that is using dangerous drugs, getting thrown out of their jobs and families, and suffering from social stigma."
Inside the center, half a dozen gaunt men with newly shaved heads sipped tea and spoke about their drug habits, most of which were directly related to wars past and present. Two men in their 20s said they had become addicted while serving in the Afghan army or police - one after he was wounded in battle and needed to kill the pain, the other to keep awake on night watches.
A longtime addict who said his name was Ghaffour, 45, said he had fled to Iran during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s and spent years as a refugee. He became a courier and smuggled drugs into Afghanistan hundreds of times, while gradually becoming addicted to heroin.
"I had a luxurious life, with bags of money and cars. I miss those old days, but not the nights I had to spend sleeping under bridges," he said, laughing uproariously. "Now I am very different. I tell the boys not to forget God and to earn a living the honorable way."
Staff writer Josh Boak in Marja contributed to this report.