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Afghan opium production plunges but continues to fund insurgency

Afghans work in their poppy field in Helmand province. Opium production in Afghanistan has dropped sharply this year, but poppy cultivation remains at high levels, a survey released by the Afghan government and United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime on Monday said.

DUSTIN MARCH/U.S. MARINE CORPS

By PHILLIP WALTER WELLMAN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: November 20, 2018

KABUL, Afghanistan — Opium production in Afghanistan has dropped sharply this year, but poppy cultivation remains at high levels and the revenue it produces will likely continue to hamper U.S. efforts in its longest war, according to a new survey.

Potential opium production this year is estimated at 6,400 metric tons, down 30 percent from last year’s record high of 9,000 tons, according to the joint report by the Afghan government and United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime. This year’s crop could yield an estimated 360 to 610 tons of export-quality heroin, which is between 50 to 70 percent pure, the report said.

Monday’s figures come despite roughly $9 billion spent by the U.S. to counter narcotics in Afghanistan since 2002. American troops and contractors have also been killed in drug eradication missions.

“The significant levels of opium poppy cultivation and illicit trafficking of opiates will probably continue to fuel instability, insurgency and provide funding to terrorist groups in Afghanistan,” the report said, adding: “More high quality, low cost heroin will reach consumer markets across the world, with increased consumption and related harms as a likely consequence.”

Drought in parts of the country has reduced poppy cultivation, the report said. Some farmers may have also stopped growing the crop because of lower prices for opium, the authors added.

The amount of land used to grow poppies this year dropped by 20 percent from a record high last year. But this year’s measurement — roughly 1,000 square miles — is still the second-highest since systematic monitoring began in 1994.

The drug trade in Afghanistan has exploded since 2001, when U.S. forces invaded to remove the Taliban, whose regime had almost eradicated opium production, albeit with brutal tactics. The reconstituted Taliban now benefits from sales of the drug.

“We must do a better job if we want to mitigate the ways that the drug trade undermines our goals in Afghanistan,” said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, while launching a separate report in June that called for a new U.S. strategy to fight drugs in Afghanistan.

The military’s latest counternarcotics endeavor includes airstrikes targeting Taliban drug facilities.

The U.S.-led coalition said the strikes — which are meant to cut off the Taliban’s revenue and not fight the drug trade itself — have cost the insurgents tens of millions of dollars, a figure disputed by some outside analysts.

Analysts also say it’s unrealistic to expect much progress in counternarcotic efforts without being able to control areas where poppies are grown and transported.

The Taliban currently control or contest more territory than at any other time since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Much of the territory under insurgent control is in the south, in provinces that continue to lead the country in opium production.

Afghanistan produces as much as 90 percent of the world’s illicit opium, according to U.N. estimates.

wellman.phillip@stripes.com
Twitter: @pwwellman

A field filled with opium poppy plants near Marjah, Afghanistan. Heroin is derived from raw opium gum, which comes from opium poppies. Opium production in Afghanistan has dropped sharply this year, but poppy cultivation remains at high levels, a survey released by the Afghan government and United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime on Monday said.
MICHAEL P. SNODY/U.S. MARINE CORPS

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