Sunday, September 03, 2006

`Very bad' news on opium war - UN drug report finds `staggering' rise in Afghanistan output

`Very bad' news on opium war - UN drug report finds `staggering' rise in Afghanistan output
By Kim Barker
Copyright © 2006, Chicago Tribune
Published September 3, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased 59 percent this year, producing a record-breaking 6,100 metric tons of opium, in part because of efforts by the Taliban and other insurgents in the troubled south, according to a UN survey.

Antonio Maria Costa, the United Nations anti-drug chief, called the crop "staggering." Afghanistan now produces 92 percent of the world's opium supply. If security in the south does not improve, entire provinces could fail. The southern part of the country is "displaying the ominous hallmarks of incipient collapse," Costa said Saturday.

"The news is very bad," he said.

It is difficult to overstate the problem with poppies, the raw product for opium and heroin. Opium is the biggest employer in Afghanistan and the largest export. The drug trade makes up at least 35 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Police chiefs, governors and other government officials profit from the trade, Costa said. So do the Taliban and other insurgents, who urged farmers to grow poppies in southern Afghanistan this past year to destabilize the government and make money.

Insurgents, whether Al Qaeda or the Taliban, also protect drug traffickers, even riding along with convoys in the south and west, Costa said. In exchange, they demand money.

"The insurgency derives a significant amount of revenue from drugs," Costa said.

The annual survey, by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, showed the area for growing poppies in Afghanistan ballooned to 407,724 acres in 2006 from 256,989 acres in 2005. The previous highest total in Afghanistan was 331,360 acres in 2004.

Afghanistan also had record opium yields. Production increased 49 percent from the year before. The estimated 6,100 tons even broke the world record of 1999, when 5,764 tons of opium were produced globally.

The numbers shocked Western officials who have worked for years to tackle the drug problem. "This country could be taken down by this whole drugs problem," said Doug Wankel, the U.S. drug czar in Afghanistan.

President Hamid Karzai said he was disappointed by the increase in poppies. "Regrettably, over the last year, our efforts to fight narcotics have proved inadequate," Karzai said in a statement.

Costa urged the Afghan government to take tougher action to get rid of corruption and arrest major drug traffickers. He said some aid money was misused or stolen by incompetent intermediaries or corrupt administrators.

The growth in poppies is directly linked to corruption and insecurity, officials said. It shows just how dire the situation has become in Afghanistan almost five years after the Taliban fell. A renewed insurgency is mounting its most serious challenge to the U.S.-backed government.

Although the Taliban regime once successfully reduced poppy production, it now encourages cultivation. Farmers are growing poppies despite hundreds of millions of dollars in international aid spent on prevention, eradication and alternative-livelihood programs.

Not all the news is negative. Six of the country's 34 provinces are now opium-free. Cultivation fell in eight provinces, most in the north. Three of the most corrupt governors in the south were replaced after the poppy growing season last year.

But that is the only good news in the south. In the southern province of Helmand, where several districts have fallen under Taliban control, opium cultivation increased 162 percent this year, to 171,303 acres. That is 42 percent of the opium cultivation in the country.

A senior U.S. official said poppies are grown on almost 30,000 acres of government land in Helmand province, showing the problem with government corruption and drugs.

Punishment for drug crimes has been minimal. The Afghan government has been reluctant to jail poppy farmers. It has had little luck going after traffickers. Investigation is difficult -- Afghanistan doesn't have the capability to use fingerprints.



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