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World News

Q+A: Opium and Afghanistan's insurgency

KABUL (Reuters) - Controlling the opium trade in Afghanistan, the world’s leading producer of the drug, is a key element in the fight against Taliban militants.

With thousands of U.S. Marines launching a major new offensive against the Taliban-led insurgency in southern Helmand province, the epicenter of world opium production, the U.S. envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, has also foreshadowed a new approach to controlling the trade.

Following are questions and answers about Afghanistan’s poppy production, its role in the insurgency and efforts to combat it.

HOW MUCH POPPY IS GROWN?

Afghanistan produces 93 percent of the world’s opium, a thick paste made from the poppies that is processed to make heroin, according to United Nations figures.

In 2008, 157,000 hectares of opium were cultivated, down 19 percent from 193,000 hectares in 2007. Opium production only declined 6 percent to 7,700 tonnes because of record high yields.

Helmand cultivated 103,000 hectares in 2008.

In the same period, prices fell by about 20 percent, meaning the value of the opium to Afghan farmers fell by about a quarter from roughly $1 billion to about $730 million.

The export value of opium, morphine and heroin at border prices in neighboring countries fell to $3.4 billion in 2008 from $4 billion in 2007, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2008 Afghan Opium Survey.

WHAT IS THE LINK BETWEEN OPIUM AND THE TALIBAN?

The Taliban are mainly funded by the opium trade.

Despite the drop in cultivation, production and prices, the UNODC says the Taliban and other “anti-government forces” still make “massive amounts of money from the drug business.” Their take, mainly from levies on processing and trafficking, has been put at between $200 million and $400 million, with up to $70 million more from “ushr,” or charges on economic activity.

UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa has also pointed to the danger of opium stocks held by the Taliban. “For a number of years, Afghan opium production has exceeded world demand. The bottom should have fallen out of the opium market, but it hasn’t,” he said in the UNODC’s 2008 Afghan Opium Survey.

“So where is the missing opium? Lack of price response in the opium market can only be the result of stock build-ups, and all evidence points to the Taliban.”

HOW DOES IT AFFECT MILITARY STRATEGY?

Addressing the opium problem will no doubt form a big part of General Stanley McChrystal’s new counter-insurgency strategy, part of Washington’s wider effort to defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan.

McChrystal and other commanders say their new strategy is designed to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Afghans, “to talk more and shoot less.”

But the amount of money farmers can make from opium instead of other crops like wheat is a big problem. Destroying farmers’ livelihoods by eradicating opium crops would make it very difficult to win them over to the fight against the Taliban.

In 2007, the gross income ratio for farmers from opium to wheat was 10:1. In 2008 that narrowed to 3:1, although that was partly due to drought. The United Nations has called for greater international development to consolidate on gains, along with “more honest government” and more security, it says.

WHAT ABOUT ERADICATION?

Holbrooke told a G8 conference this week that Washington is to phase out poppy eradication in a dramatic overhaul of its anti-drug strategy.

“The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work,” Holbrooke said.

Haroun Mir, political analyst and co-founder of Kabul’s Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies, agreed.

“I’m sure this new (Holbrooke) decision to shift the counter-narcotics policy has something to do with the new General McChrystal,” he said.

In total, only 5,480 hectares -- less than 4 percent of all cultivation -- were eradicated in 2008 compared with 19,047 hectares in 2007, a 71 percent drop.

Eradication is also costly and dangerous. At least 78 people involved in eradication, most of them policemen, were killed in 2008, a 75 percent increase on 2007, according to the

UNODC.

Supporters of poppy eradication say it is only a small part of a wider counter-narcotics policy and is only carried out on targeted areas where farmers have access to alternative crops.

Holbrooke says Washington will now concentrate on intercepting drugs and chemicals and going after drug lords.

Editing by Paul Tait and Alex Richardson

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