JNN 16 Apr 2013 Kabul : Illegal poppy cultivation in Afghanistan is expected to reach a record high this year. As NATO troops withdraw and the international aid effort winds down, the country’s economy is set to shrink, making other legal crops less attractive.
Afghanistan is heading for a near-record opium crop, according to a report by the UN’s Afghanistan Opium Winter Risk Assessment. “Poppy cultivation is not only expected to expand in areas where it already existed in 2012, but also in new areas or areas where poppy cultivation was stopped,” the report said.
Poppy cultivation is greatest in the Taliban-controlled southern heartlands, in regions where troops in the US-led coalition have either withdrawn are in the process of pulling out, and in areas where there is poor security and little in the way of agricultural aid.
Of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces only 14 were expected to remain poppy free, with an increase predicted in 12 and no major change in 7. The western Herat province showed a fall in cultivation, although this is believed to be due to a statistics blip.
If there is no disruption to this year’s poppy harvest, Afghanistan will regain its position as producer of 90% of the world’s opium.
Afghanistan’s share of the market had slipped to 75%, but this in turn drove up prices to a record $300 per kilogram. Prices have slipped by over $100 but are still at historic levels.
“This price is not explainable. Demand in the region and globally is even. There is no demand increase to explain this,” Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the UN Office for Drugs and Crime on Afghanistan, told reporters.
In addition the bitterly cold winter of 2011-2012 has been followed by a mild one, and expectations of a bumper crop are high.
“ The Afghanistan Opium Winter Risk Assessment 2013 carried out the study for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime in two stages. The first – from December to January – covered central, eastern, southern and western Afghanistan, where opium is planted in the autumn of 2012; another stage covered northern and north eastern Afghanistan, where the drug is planted in the spring. The exact figures for 2013 are still unclear, but the UN said that indications are it will surpass the 154,000 hectares planted in 2012 and the 131,000 in 2011”
The illegal cultivation of opium poppies is thought to make up about 15% of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product, which in 2012 was about $20 billion.
Much of the country’s GDP is funded by foreign investment and when foreign troops leave and international investment into the country drops in 2014 Afghanistan’s real economy is expected to shrink.
International donors have agreed to provide about $4 billion annually for few years after 2014 and the US and other countries which have contributed troops have pledged about $4 billion for the Afghan National Security Forces.
Afghanistan has a small but effective counter narcotics force, but as crop sales mostly fund local power brokers, criminal gangs and to a lesser degree the Taliban, it makes it difficult for the Afghan government to establish control in areas where the black market opium trade is driving the economy.
Although the report found that fear of eradication of opium crops had become more significant than in previous years, and therefore made farmers stick to legal crops, overall the government and aid community had not prioritized efforts to cut back the crop, which is feeding the global heroin market.
“We need to have counter-narcotics dealt with seriously by the entire government as well as the aid community. One of the big missing links here is providing for the communities themselves,” said Lemahieu.
Eradicating the opium crop without giving farmers benefits such as health care, education and support growing other crops, pushes the Taliban and other insurgent groups that tolerate poppy growth into the arms of farmers.
Narcotics have the same share in world trade as oil and gas.
Since NATO began its campaign in Afghanistan in 2001, more than 1 million people have died as a result of Afghan heroin.
“Afghan heroin has killed more than 1 million people worldwide since ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’ began and over a trillion dollars has been invested into transnational organized crime from drug sales,” Viktor Ivanov, the head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service, stated during a presentation to the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs last month.
He added that Russia advocated doing in Afghanistan what the US does with the Columbian government in Columbia to destroy Coca plants, namely destroy as many poppy fields in Afghanistan as possible.
Russia has criticized the US and NATO for not doing enough to stop illegal drug trafficking from Afghanistan, which produces more than 90 per cent of the world’s opium.
Moscow says the simplest solutions are the most effective, and eradicating the country’s poppy fields is the key to solving the problem.
“Just one year’s output of Afghan heroin is enough to kill 10 million drug addicts,” underlined Viktor Ivanov, Russia’s drug enforcement chief.
Indeed, the innocuous-looking poppies have already caused millions of deaths worldwide.
Russia and the US have teamed up to crack down on drug producers in Afghanistan.
As a result of joint operations, a number of major labs have been destroyed there.
But there is a stark difference in how Russia and the US see the solution to the problem.
“Metaphorically speaking, instead of destroying the machine-gun nest, they suggest catching bullets flying from the machine-gun,” Ivanov explains. “We suggest eradicating the narcotic plants altogether. As long as there are opium poppy fields, there will be trafficking.”
But the US and other NATO countries have no intention of ridding the world of Afghan poppy fields once and for all. They say Afghans need the opium poppies in order to survive.
Analysts have seized on the inconsistency of this approach and the outrageousness of an argument which says that Afghan peasants should not be made to grow potatoes instead of poppies, even if this means millions of people worldwide have to die.
And Ivanov highlighted another inconsistency.
“The US together with the Colombian government eradicates 200,000 hectares of coca bushes a year. In Afghanistan, only 2,000 hectares of poppy fields are being eradicated – 100 times less,” Ivanov pointed out.
And alongside the refusal to get rid of the poppies, there is the apparent interest of international banks in “dirty” money.
Narcotics have nearly as large a share in total world trade as oil and gas.
The head of Russia’s drug enforcement suggested US and European banks tacitly welcome and “encourage” the inflow of drug money.
“Reports show that a persistent lack of liquidity and an aspiration to survive during the crisis promote not only tolerance to criminal money, but also encourage an attitude of a liability of such money,” Ivanov explained.
In America, there was tacit agreement with Russia’s proposal to stop the banks from laundering drug money.
Gil Kerlikovske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy in the executive office of the US president, told RT that “We can intercept and seize tons of narcotics, we can make arrests of traffickers, but we really need to choke off the funds that supply this.”
There was also doubt as to whether Western authorities can actually take on those very powerful financial institutions.
It seems clear that the US and other NATO countries are not committed to eradicating Afghan poppy fields altogether, and international banks do not seem to mind the huge influx of “dirty” money. But observers agree that the status quo would lead to millions more dying in the future – deaths which can and should be prevented