Business is Blooming

A recent United Nations report shows that Afghanistan's poppy production is reaching worrisome new heights. As newly-inaugurated president Hamid Karzai steps into the spotlight, the problems of opium growth continue to increase. The effort to stop the drug trade has been hampered by local infighting, governmental corruption, and an unsuccessful attempt to wean farmers off the profitable, but illegal crop. The nation now provides 87 percent of the world's opium supply, contributing to domestic instability and organized crime and potentially increasing the international threat of terrorism. The UK and United States may intervene more aggressively in the months ahead, as Afghanistan's fledgling government attempts to stem the destructive trend. –YaleGlobal

Business is Blooming

Last week the United Nations announced that the number of farmers growing poppies in Afghanistan has now reached near record levels
Peter Willems
Wednesday, December 8, 2004

According to the recent Afghanistan Opium Survey produced by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), land being used for poppy cultivation reached 131,000 hectares in 2004, up 64 per cent from last year, and a dramatic increase from the 8,000 hectares cultivated in 2001. Due to drought and disease, harvesting increased by only an estimated 17 per cent from the 2003 crop that totalled 4,200 tonnes. The report states that poppies are now being planted in all of the country's 32 provinces, and Afghan poppies now provide some 87 per cent of the world's total opium supply.

Alongside terrorist attacks and the presence of the remaining Taliban fighters still entrenched in the south, "in Afghanistan, drugs are now a clear and present danger," according to Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of UNODC. "The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is slowly becoming a reality [due to] corruption in the public sector, the die-hard ambition of local warlords, and the complicity of local investors."

Until now, Britain has been responsible for the management of international efforts to curb opium production. But last week, the United States government stepped in to implement a more aggressive plan: US drug enforcement agencies asked Congress for $780 million to tackle the worldwide business. This new effort will include a drive to accelerate the eradication of poppy growing, the arrest and prosecution of traffickers, and providing alternative crops for farmers.

The Afghan government, headed by newly re-elected President Hamid Karzai, has declared that opium production is now its number one concern. Government spokesman Jawed Ludin said that the war on drugs is the top priority, "perhaps more important than terrorism".

"The government is now getting involved in more serious activities to eradicate poppy cultivation," Syed Alamudin Atheer, deputy director of Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics Directorate, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "The Ministry of Interior is now meeting with political figures and influential people from different provinces who are willing to cooperate in ending opium production. The government plans to see a drastic drop in cultivation next year."

But the fight against opium production faces numerous challenges. Farmers have complained that they have not received assistance in finding an alternative crop, and even if there is help available, some of them are likely to be reluctant to switch. Even though the price of a kilogramme of opium has recently fallen from $283 to $92, the income from poppy growing is still 12 times greater than what a farmer can earn by growing wheat.

Analysts have expressed concern that those involved in the profitable trade probably include warlords, provincial governors, police and army officials. The UNODC has warned that organised crime has become well established in the drug trade over the last few years. Costa said that Afghanistan, once only a supplier of the raw material, now has enough laboratories to convert three-quarters of its opium into heroin.

"Drug lords might aim at destabilising the security of Afghanistan to try and continue their business," said Atheer. "There might be terrorist activities related to drugs."

Although Afghanistan's counter-narcotics police were able to destroy a number of poppy fields this year, until now no drug barons have been arrested and brought to court. The judicial system is still in the development process, and according to a UNODC official it will be some time before it is able to handle cases as complex as those relating to the drug business.

Another worry is that the growth of the drug trade may generate collective resistance. The UNODC report estimates that 10 per cent of the country's population -- 2.3 million Afghanis -- are now involved in the drug business. Opium production pulls in around $2.8 billion annually, accounting for 60 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product. "Opium is the main engine for economic growth and the strongest bond among previously quarrelsome people," states the report.

Around 18,000 US troops are still battling with the remnants of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, while 9,000 NATO-led peace- keeping forces operate to maintain security. Some military officials are concerned that foreign soldiers may have to become involved in the war on drugs. Brigadier General Nick Pounds, head of NATO's provincial civil military teams in Afghanistan, said recently, "all military are concerned about counter narcotics because it could create a parallel conflict."

© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. Reprinted from Al-Ahram Weekly, 2 - 8 December 2004 (Issue No. 719).