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UNODC chief says Afghan opium trade continues to grow

KABUL — Afghanistan’s lucrative opium poppy cultivation continues to thrive, increasing for the third year in a row, despite government and international efforts at eradication and crop substitution, according to the head of the office that will release an annual report.

In addition, poppy cultivation, which has been largely concentrated in the south and west — primarily in areas of greater insecurity — has spread in the north, which had been largely poppy-free, said Yury Fedotov, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime which produced the report.

The annual “Afghanistan Opium Survey,” due out in early November, will “confirm that the area of cultivation of opium poppy in Afghanistan is growing, affecting not only traditional areas like Helmand Province [in the south], but also some provinces in the north of Afghanistan where the situation is relatively stable and under control of the central government.”

In its 2012 survey, the UNODC said poppy cultivation had increased 18 percent over 2011; that year showed an increase of 7 percent over 2010.

Fedotov said opium production was expected to be higher this year as well. Potential opium production in Afghanistan represented 75 percent of global production in 2012.

While Fedotov did not give specific numbers to be published in the 2013 survey, he acknowledged that the U.N. and its partners in the government and the international community are losing the battle against opium cultivation. The area under cultivation has more than doubled since 2002, from an estimated 74,000 hectares (183,000 acres) to an estimated 154,000 hectares in 2012. Poppy cultivation peaked in 2006 at 193,000 hectares.

Before the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Taliban had banned opium production and drastically reduced poppy cultivation. But production has been rising steadily since then.

“Unfortunately, we have to say, that, despite all our efforts, and all our investment in supporting the government of Afghanistan, facing this issue of illicit drugs, we could not be happy with [this level of] success,” Fedotov said in a phone interview from UNODC headquarters in Vienna.

Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer despite more than a decade of efforts that have included eradication campaigns and programs to persuade poppy farmers to switch to other crops, such as wheat. At $160 to $200 for one kilogram of dry opium, it is the country’s most lucrative crop. In contrast, a kilo of wheat pays only 41 cents.

The opium trade in Afghanistan also has provided financing for the Taliban insurgency, according to international officials.

Fedotov said the Afghan government has made small strides in eradication, eliminating up to 10,000 hectares of poppy this year.

“Of course it is not much compared to [the] overall size of cultivation, but that has increased compared to previous years,” he said. According to the 2012 survey, 9,672 hectares were eradicated, one and a half times as much as during the previous year.

Fedotov expressed concern about future efforts to combat poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, particularly after the NATO-led coalition withdraws combat forces by the end of 2014.

“Many of these activities are linked to the support of [the] international presence in Afghanistan,” he said. “We need to help Afghanistan to restructure its economy, and ensure sustainable development after the withdrawal of foreign forces from this country.”

Much of the international aid on which Afghanistan relies is expected to dry up as the international forces leave. In addition, the economy is greatly dependent on the international presence, which creates jobs.

However, Zabihullah Daem, a spokesman for the Ministry of Counter Narcotics in Afghanistan, downplayed the impact of the departure of international forces.

“They had some transportation support sometimes, but they didn’t get involved in eradication of the poppy fields, controlling the cultivation, or arresting the smugglers,” he said. “It wasn’t that much to be felt. So, when they leave the country, it won’t have that much effect on the fight against poppy [cultivation].”

Daem confirmed that the government noted a slight increase of opium cultivation in some of the insecure areas of the country.

Fedotov appealed for more international involvement in Afghanistan.

“We need more cooperation from neighboring countries,” Fedotov said. “Some of them have bilateral programs that encourage sustainable development of Afghanistan, in terms of infrastructure, and creating new markets, but we need more support.”

Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.

pena.alex@stripes.com
Twitter: @alexandermpena

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