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Afghanistan's Opium Problem Won't Get Any Better This Year

"It is widely thought that every drug organization supports or works with insurgents in Afghanistan," said one official.
January 15, 2014, 11:24pm
Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan officers stand before an opium burn, October, 2010. Photo via US Embassy - Kabul.

If there's any lingering hope that Afghanistan will be able to kick its ballooning opium problem anytime soon, remarks today from US and Afghan counternarctoics officials should put to bed any notion that poppy production in Afghanistan, the world's largest opium supplier, will be trimmed this year. Or next year, for that matter.

"The situation in Afghanistan is dire with little prospect for improvement in 2014 and beyond," John Sopko, the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Controls on Wednesday, NPR reports. "Afghan farmer are growing more opium poppies today than at any time in their modern history."

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The numbers are as staggering as they are grim. Opium poppy cultivation in the landlocked country, as we've reported, hit 209,000 hectares (515,000) acres in 2013, a 36-percent increase from 2012. (For context, consider that in 2001 a mere 8,000 hectares of Afghan soil were under poppy cultivation. By 2002, the same year the Taliban was dealt a crushing blow by joint US-international forces, that number had bumped up 74,000 hectares.) That comes out to USD $3 billion annually, which constitutes about 15 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. Which is to say nothing of it accounting for as much as 90 percent of the heroin produced globally, some of which is showing up in the US and Canada, according to Sopko.

It's the political and social ripples behind these figures that he says are not only spoiling Afghanistan's financial sector and providing the illicit economy a big shot in the arm but, in turn, is undercutting Afghan's legitimacy on the world stage by "stoking corruption, nourishing criminal networks, and providing significant financial support" to Taliban splinter groups and other insurgent networks.

"It is widely thought that every drug organization supports or works with insurgents in Afghanistan," Sopko added. "I have been told that these same groups are closely linked with corrupt government officials."

Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics Din Mohammad Mobariz Rashidi seemed to corroborate that logic insofar as everyday Afghanis just don't yet have other options but to grow for the warlords.

"To convince the Afghan farmers to stop cultivating poppy, we need to provide them with alternative livelihoods," Mobariz Rashidi said during talks with UN anti-drugs Yury Fedotov, according to Reuters. To that end, Mobariz Rashidi is calling for and increased international funding: "More financial resources are needed to combat this phenomenon more effectively," he told Reuters.

In his estimation, some $7 billion USD has been shelled out to stem to opium issue since 2002. To hear Sopko tell it, that may not have been enough. In fact, it just wasn't high up on the to-do list. He told NPR that "counter-narcotics has been a low priority for both the US and Afghan governments, and that robust law enforcement is needed."

It seems like not so long ago—just last November, in fact—some were still saying Afghanistan was on the verge of "becoming a full-fledged narco-state." Those were the days.

@thebanderson