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Opium on a new high in Afghanistan

Opium on a new high in Afghanistan

Afghanistan's world-leading opium cultivation rose a ‘staggering’ 59 per cent this year.

Kabul: Afghanistan's world-leading opium cultivation rose a ‘staggering’ 59 per cent this year, the UN anti-drugs chief announced on Saturday while urging the government to crack down on big traffickers and remove corrupt officials and police.

The record crop yielded 6,100 tons of opium or enough to make 610 tons of heroin — outstripping the demand of the world's heroin users by a third, according to UN figures.

Officials warned that the illicit trade is undermining the Afghan government, which is under attack by Islamic militants that a US-led offensive helped drive from power in late 2001 for harboring Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida bases.

"The news is very bad. On the opium front today in some of the provinces of Afghanistan, we face a state of emergency. In the southern provinces, the situation is out of control," Chief of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said at a news conference.

He presented results of the UN survey to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who voiced "disappointment" over the figures. "Our efforts to fight narcotics have proved inadequate," Karzai said in a statement.

With the economy struggling, there are not enough jobs and many Afghans say they have to grow opium poppies to feed their families.

The trade already accounts for at least 35 per cent of Afghanistan's economy, financing warlords and insurgents.

The bulk of the opium increase was in lawless Helmand province, where cultivation rose 162 per cent and accounted for 42 per cent of the Afghan crop.

The province has been wracked by the surge in attacks by Taliban-led militants that has produced the worst fighting in five years.

Opium-growing increased despite the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to fight the drug over the past two years.

"We need much stronger, forceful measures to improve security or otherwise I'm afraid we are going to face a dramatic situation of failed regions, districts and even perhaps even provinces in the near future," Costa said.

The UN report, based on satellite imagery and ground surveys, said the area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached 407,700 acres in 2006, up 59 percent from 257,000 acres in 2005. The previous high was 323,700 acres in 2004.
The estimated yield of 6,100 tons of opium resin — described by Costa as "staggering" — is up 49 per cent from 4,100 tons last year and exceeds the previous high for total global output of 5,764 tons recorded in 1999.

Last year, about 450 tons of heroin was consumed worldwide, 90 per cent of it from Afghanistan, according to the UN.

The report will increase pressure on the beleaguered Afghan president. Karzai has often talked tough on drugs, even declaring a “holy war” against the trade, but he is increasingly criticized for appointing and failing to sack corrupt provincial governors and police.

Costa urged the arrest of "serious drug traffickers" to fill a new high-security wing for narcotics convicts at Kabul's Policharki prison. "It has 100 beds. We want these beds to be taken up in the next few months," he said.

At the same news conference, the Afghan counternarcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, said the government had the will to make arrests, but lacked the capacity to gather evidence to prosecute "the big fish."

Yet he maintained that with its newly unveiled national anti-drugs strategy, Afghanistan could "control" drug production within five years.

Costa was less upbeat. "It's going to take possibly 20 years to get rid of the problem," he said, citing the experience of former opium producers like Thailand, Turkey and Pakistan.

In an indication of the alarming extent of official complicity in the trade, a Western counternarcotics official said about 25,000 to 30,000 acres of government land in Helmand was used to cultivate opium poppies this year.

The official, who requested anonymity, said police and government officials are involved in cultivating poppies, providing protection for growers or taking bribes to ensure the crops aren't destroyed.

He said the Taliban — which managed to nearly eradicate Afghanistan's poppy crop in 2001, just before their ouster for giving refuge to Osama bin Laden — now profit from the trade.

In some instances, drug traffickers have provided vehicles and money to the Taliban to carry out terrorist attacks, he said. But the ties seem to be local and that there is no evidence of coordination between drug lords and the Taliban leadership.
first published:September 03, 2006, 10:18 IST