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Deadly harvest

Print edition : Sep 21, 2007 T+T-
An Afghan policeman beside a burning pile of opium products on the outskirts of Kabul on August 27. The number of sophisticated laboratories that convert opium into heroin before smuggling it out has also increased enormously in the past two years.-MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP

An Afghan policeman beside a burning pile of opium products on the outskirts of Kabul on August 27. The number of sophisticated laboratories that convert opium into heroin before smuggling it out has also increased enormously in the past two years.-MASSOUD HOSSAINI/AFP

An unprecedented boom in opium poppy cultivation poses huge challenges in Afghanistan, where insurgency is picking up steam.

An Afghan policeman

ANOTHER pointer that all is not going according to plan in Afghanistan for the West is the recent announcement by the United Nations that opium production has doubled in the country in the past two years. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), in its Annual Opium Survey Report, revealed that the production of the worlds deadliest drug increased by 34 per cent this year alone. Afghanistan, under the occupation of United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) troops, now has the dubious privilege of being the exclusive supplier of opium to the rest of the world.

The U.N. report, released in the last week of August, noted that the production of opium had reached frightening levels this year. The report also said that the number of heroin laboratories that process opium to make heroin had also increased in the country. Besides, the drugs are being smuggled out of the country with apparent ease.

The U.S. and the United Kingdom had launched a multi-million-dollar programme with much fanfare to eradicate poppy cultivation. The efforts have apparently borne little returns. The opium harvest this year has been estimated at 8,200 tonnes. In 2006, it was only 6,100 tonnes, according to the UNODC. The areas planted with opium poppies increased from 165,000 hectares (407,723 acres) in 2006 to 193,000 hectares (476,913 acres) in 2007. According to the UNODC, today 14 per cent of Afghanistans population is actively involved in opium cultivation. No other country in the world has ever produced narcotics on such a deadly scale, the report said. According to the report, Helmand province, where the Taliban is very influential has become the centre of the narcotics trade and cultivation And 80 per cent of the opium is produced in the provinces along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

With the demand for drugs rising in the lucrative markets of the West, an Afghan farmer can expect to earn $4,600 a hectare annually if he cultivates opium poppy. In comparison, if he grows wheat, he can expect a measly $530 a year. The much-heralded reconstruction plan for the country promised by the international community is yet to show results after five years. Industry and agriculture have not recovered from the devastation caused by the civil war of the 1980s and 1990s. Legitimate employment opportunities for the average Afghan are virtually non-existent. The lucky few get work in the thousands of non-governmental organisations and international aid agencies that have set up camp in Kabul.

The U.N. has been calling on the foreign forces operating in Afghanistan to play a more active role in combating the drug menace. Since drug trafficking and insurgency live off each other, the foreign military forces operating in Afghanistan have a vested interest in supporting counter-narcotics operations, UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said in a statement. He suggested that farmers who opted for traditional crops be rewarded by the international community and recommended the building of schools and hospitals in those areas that have abstained from poppy cultivation.

At the same time, he warned the international community about the dangers of the country collapsing under the dual threats posed by insurgency and drugs. Costa was also critical of the Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai; he accused it of benign tolerance of corruption. U.N. officials have voiced their suspicions about the involvement of many of Karzais close associates, including his brother, in the highly lucrative narcotics trade. President Karzai, on the other hand, had scathing words for the international communitys failure to frame a realistic counter-narcotics policy for Afghanistan. He has squarely put the blame on the West for the unprecedented boom in opium poppy cultivation. He told the media in Kabul that the international community had not taken into consideration his governments proposals to reduce poppy cultivation.

One of the stated goals of the U.S. and NATO invasion of Afghanistan was the eradication of opium cultivation. Ironically, at the time of the 2001 invasion, opium production under the Taliban had touched an all-time low. The U.N. and other international agencies had issued certificates of good behaviour to the Taliban government in this respect. Most of the opium cultivation in those days was done in the areas under the control of warlords. The Taliban had in fact decreed that anyone caught cultivating poppy would be summarily hanged.

After the overthrow of the Taliban, the Americans let the notorious warlords once again have a decisive say in the running of the country. In no time, they reverted to their wicked ways, including large-scale production of opium. The U.S. initially turned a blind eye to it as the support of the warlords was essential to prop up the Karzai regime and keep a resurgent Taliban at bay. Meanwhile, the Bush administrations attention became fully focussed on Iraq, with resources and troops badly needed in Afghanistan being diverted to the West Asia battle zone.

Now it is the Taliban that has a stranglehold on the drug trade. Like insurgent groups and guerilla forces in other parts of the world, the Taliban considers the taxing of revenues from the drug trade a legitimate tactic to fight the occupation forces. One of the biggest markets for heroin is the affluent West. But the easy availability of the drug has also helped it find new markets in neighbouring countries. According to the UNODC report, opium production in Iran may kill, directly or not, over one hundred thousand people worldwide. The report said that most of these deaths would occur in China, India and South-East Asia. The addiction rates in Central Asian countries are said to be rising dramatically. Reports from the region say that Taliban fighters are much better paid and motivated than the Afghan army personnel.

A farmer collecting

Many European governments that have their forces in Afghanistan have started talking about the futility of eradicating drugs by military means. They now suggest legalising opium poppy cultivation. The plan calls for the purchase of opium from Afghan farmers at the same market price they get from the drug barons and warlords.

Governments in Paris, Berlin and Rome think that the opium can then be diverted to pharmaceutical companies to produce legal products such as morphine. The European governments feel that a tough poppy eradication programme on the lines of the coca eradication programme in Colombia would prove counterproductive in Afghanistan. They are of the opinion that such a hard line would further strengthen the Talibans ranks.

The Bush administration sent its former Ambassador to Colombia, William Wood, as its envoy to Afghanistan, in an apparent effort to lend expertise to the opium eradication efforts. He told The New York Times recently that spraying poppy crops in Afghanistan with herbicide was a possibility. Afghan officials say such tactics would prove counterproductive, and many European governments agree.

In many parts of Afghanistan, poppy crops are interspersed with legitimate crops. In countries such as Colombia, herbicide has poisoned the countryside besides destroying the legitimate livelihood of poor peasants. One result of the U.S.-inspired coca eradication programme in Colombia is that its cultivation has spread to areas beyond the reach of the Colombian and the U.S. military.

By 1978, when a progressive secular government was in power in Kabul, Afghanistan was on the verge of attaining self-sufficiency in food. Irrigation and other developmental schemes had started percolating to remote regions. Opium cultivation was kept within manageable levels.

After the U.S.-inspired jehad started, the arable land in the country was reduced by more than half in the 1990s, as the mujahideen went on the rampage, destroying the countrys infrastructure, including traditional irrigation canals. The renowned orchards and vineyards of the Shomali plains are now a fading memory. The poverty and chaos that have resulted were significant factors in the burgeoning production of opium.

As Afghanistan and the international community are trying to come to grips with the gargantuan drug problem, the insurgency seems to be picking up steam. Suicide bombings are getting more and more numerous and audacious by the day. The latest incident occurred in the last week of August when a suicide bomber attacked a NATO and Afghan Army convoy on the perimeter of Kabul airport. The high-profile kidnappings in recent months also point towards a change in tactics. Many leading Taliban figures were released from prison this year in exchange for the freedom of a kidnapped Italian. The release of South Korean hostages in late August seems to have involved huge amounts of ransom money the Taliban claims that it was paid $420 million. The South Korean government had to strongly reiterate that it was committed to withdrawing the last of its troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year.

There is a serious debate currently on in Italy and Germany about the desirability of keeping their troops indefinitely in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF). Italian Foreign Minister Massimo DAlema said recently that there had been a lack of coordination between the U.S. and ISAF forces. He described as morally unacceptable the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians as a result of military actions. In Germany, a recent poll showed that 64 per cent of the people want their army to withdraw from Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, a top U.S. military commander stationed in Afghanistan, Major General Robert Cone, said recently that military force alone may not be enough to beat the Taliban in Afghanistan. Cone, who is in charge of equipping and training Afghan security forces, said that ultimately only political solutions end insurgencies. The Taliban leadership is adopting a tough stance and has reiterated that it is not willing to talk with the occupation forces or the government in Kabul.