August 26, 2007 / 2:10 AM / 12 years ago

Record-breaking opium crop destabilizes Afghanistan

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s poppy harvest is expected to top all records this year as the country spirals deeper into a vicious circle of drugs, corruption and insecurity.

A United Nations report due on Monday will announce that Afghanistan is now producing nearly 95 percent of the world’s opium, up from 92 percent in 2006, officials and diplomats say.

This marks the sixth straight year of rises since U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 — despite hundreds of millions of dollars pumped into programs to halt cultivation, processing and trafficking of the drug.

“It is a very bad situation definitely, and the government has not been able to deal with it in the right way, otherwise it should have at least been stabilized or contained,” said Christina Oguz, the head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan.

“The same goes for the international community.”

Afghanistan is locked in a vicious circle in which drug money corrupts government and helps fund the Taliban insurgency. That weakens state control over parts of the country, which in turn leads to more insecurity and more drug production.

The scale of the problem is huge. Opium and the heroin made from it are estimated to be worth some $3 billion to the Afghan economy, about a third of its gross domestic product.

SECURITY WEAK

Security is key. The Taliban managed to drastically reduce the 2001 poppy crop as they held most of the country firmly under their control and implemented strict punishments for offenders.

Now, some 70 percent of opium production comes from provinces in the south where the Taliban insurgency is strongest.

People who have seen the UNODC and Afghan Counter-Narcotics Ministry report say one of the few bright spots in it is the rise in opium-free provinces from six last year to around 10 in 2007 — all in the north where security is best.

Both traffickers and the Taliban have a common interest in instability and lawlessness, Afghan and foreign officials say.

“Traffickers are equipping and providing funds for terrorist organizations that are responsible for many attacks in Kabul, other parts of the country and other parts of the world,” said Counter-Narcotics Ministry spokesman Zalmay Afzaly.

Insecurity also leads farmers to plant poppy, as fighting may prevent them from getting perishable crops to market.

“The great thing about opium is that it lasts for 20 to 30 years — it’s money in the bank,” said a senior Western diplomat. “So if you’re not sure you can get your onions or carrots to market as they may go off because it’s too insecure to move, then you grow opium and put it under your bed — it’s a currency.”

While foreign forces regularly inflict crushing battlefield defeats on the Taliban, even optimists do not expect an end to the insurgency anytime soon.

CARROTS AND POPPIES

Meanwhile, the notoriously corrupt, poorly equipped and badly paid Afghan police are unlikely to be able to do much to stop drug producers and traffickers, let alone the kingpins that run the trade and have thus far remained free from prosecution.

The Afghan Counter Narcotics Ministry says it has not had enough evidence to bring corrupt officials to book.

The United States had championed aerial spraying to eradicate poppy crops, but that idea has been quietly dropped for another year due to objections from the Afghan government, worried about adverse public reaction, diplomats say.

Instead, Washington unveiled a carrot-and-stick strategy this month giving greater financial incentives to Afghan provincial governors to combat drugs while stepping up coordination between counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency forces.

That should help governors in the north who have successfully fought poppy cultivation, but have missed out on most of the aid which is spent in the south where drug production has spiraled.

Total U.S. aid for Helmand, the biggest opium-producing province, is $200 million this year. If Helmand were a country it would be the fifth biggest recipient of U.S. aid, diplomats say.

But better irrigation and agricultural methods can sometimes backfire. “They use it for growing opium,” said Oguz. “This is telling the rest of the country ‘grow opium and we’ll give you a lot of rewards, we’ll give you aid’.”

The decision to plant opium is often not related to poverty and the lack of alternative crops. The lush strip of land along the banks of the Helmand River is one of the most fertile farming areas in Afghanistan and was once the country’s bread-basket.

Rather, the driving force behind opium production is a nexus of traffickers, insurgents, powerful landowners and corrupt officials, experts say.

The plan agreed by the Afghan government and major donors is to break the links between these elements in what is likely to be a prolonged campaign of public awareness, alternative development, crop eradication, tackling traffickers, law enforcement and judicial reform.

“The problem is enormous and progress is very small,” said Oguz. “Unless the international community and the government together are very determined ... we will not see enough change for a very long time.”

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