UN: Afghan drug lords a growing threat

A Sept. 2 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime boasts that 800,000 Afghan farmers have stopped cultivating poppies—but warns that drug lords are forging stronger ties with both insurgent groups and corrupt officials. The UNODC report, “Afghan Opium Survey 2009,” documents a decline in opium cultivation in Afghanistan for the second consecutive year, dropping by as much 22% since 2008. Prices for opiates are also at a 10-year low. But, signaling improved efficiency, heroin production was down only 10%.

Helmand, a province with a notorious reputation for opium production, showed a one-third decrease in areas used for poppy cultivation. Nevertheless, the province still accounts for 56% of poppies grown in Afghanistan, according to the report. Despite gains against cultivation, the UNODC declared the strategy of eradication a continuing “failure” noting that, despite the enormous human and economic cost, only 4% of the crop had been effectively eradicated with force.

Speaking to reporters in Kabul, UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa criticized the continuing collusion between drug gangs and corrupt government officials—and questioned recent actions by the Afghan government. “Drug lords should be brought to justice, not executed in violation of international law or pardoned for political expediency,” he said. President Hamid Karzai recently pardoned several drug traffickers, including a relative of his election campaign manager. The international community had earlier criticized the Afghan government for executing drug smugglers. Costa said that corruption is “an enabling factor” and “major lubricant” to the drug trade.

While welcoming the good news at a “time of pessimism about the situation in Afghanistan,” Costa cautioned against foreseeing a trend, warning that stockpiling and a fluctuating opium market were also contributing factors to the decline. “Is it a trend or a market correction?” Costa asked rhetorically. “Hopefully the former, and certainly the latter.”

In a presss conference held jointly with the Afghan counter-narcotics minister, Gen.l Khodaidad Khodaidad, and UN envoy Peter Galbraith, Costa warned that new links among insurgents and criminal groups are “spawning narco-cartels in Afghanistan linked to the Taliban… Like never before, the fates of counter-narcotics and counter insurgency are inextricably linked.”

The UNODC report documented that the number of poppy-free provinces increased from 18 last year to 20 in 2009, including Kapisa, Baghlan and Faryab. But Nangarhar, which was poppy-free last year, lost that status to become an opim-producing province once again. Reversals also included Badghis province, where poppy cultivation increased tenfold from 500 to 5000 hectares in the past year. Afghanistan has 34 provinces.

While many observers warn that cannabis is replacing opium in areas that have successfully beaten back poppy growth, no figures on cannabis were included in the report. UNODC country representative Jean-Luc Lemahieu told EurasiaNet that such figures were expected in January 2010. Satellite imaging technology used to detect cannabis is more exacting than that for poppy and the UNODC only recently acquired the funding to undertake such a study. Lemahieu emphasized that the linkages between cannabis production and insurgency were not as strong as with opium. (EurasiaNet, Sept. 2)

See our last posts on Afghanistan and the opium wars.

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