KABUL, Afghanistan – Opium cultivation in Afghanistan has hit record levels — up by more than 40 percent from 2005 — despite hundreds of millions in counternarcotics money, Western officials told The Associated Press.
The increase could have serious repercussions for an already grave security situation, with drug lords joining the Taliban-led fight against Afghan and international forces.
A Western anti-narcotics official in Kabul said about 370,650 acres of opium poppy was cultivated this season — up from 257,000 acres in 2005 — citing their preliminary crop projections. The previous record was 323,700 acres in 2004, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
"It is a significant increase from last year ... unfortunately, it is a record year," said a senior U.S. government official based in Kabul, who like the other Western officials would speak only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive topic.
Final figures, and an estimate of the yield of opium resin from the poppies, will be clear only when the U.N. agency completes its assessment of the crop, based on satellite imagery and ground surveys. Its report is due in September.
The U.N. reported last year that Afghanistan produced an estimated 4,500 tons of opium — enough to make 450 tons of heroin — nearly 90 percent of world supply.
This year's preliminary findings indicate a failure in attempts to eradicate poppy cultivation and continuing corruption among provincial officials and police — problems acknowledged by President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai told Fortune magazine in a recent interview that "lots of people" in his administration profited from the narcotics trade and that he had underestimated the difficulty of eradicating opium production.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime estimate that opium accounted for 52 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product in 2005.
"Now what they have is a narco-economy. If they do not get corruption sorted they can slip into being a narco-state," the U.S. official warned.
Opium cultivation has surged since the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001. The former regime enforced an effective ban on poppy growing by threatening to jail farmers — virtually eradicating the crop in 2000.
But Afghan and Western counternarcotics officials say Taliban-led militants are now implicated in the drug trade, encouraging poppy cultivation and using the proceeds to help fund their insurgency.
"(That) kind of revenue from that kind of crop aids and abets the enemy," Chief Master Sgt. Curtis L. Brownhill, a senior adviser to the head of the U.S. Central Command, during a recent visit to Afghanistan. "They count on having that sort of resource and money."
Afghanistan has seen its deadliest bout of fighting this year since U.S.-backed forces toppled the Taliban for harboring Usama bin Laden. Officials believe the insurgency, most vicious in the south — Afghanistan's main poppy belt — includes die-hard Taliban, warlords and drug lords and smugglers.
Fears of fanning the insurgency has constrained efforts to destroy the poppy crops of impoverished farmers — particularly in Helmand, where the area being cultivated for poppies has increased most sharply. The province now accounts for more than 40 percent of the poppy cultivation nationwide.
"We know that if we start eradicating the whole surface of poppy cultivation in Helmand, we will increase the activity of the insurgency and increase the number of insurgents," said Tom Koenigs, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan.
He said the international community needs to provide alternative livelihoods for farmers, but warned against expecting quick results. "The problem has increased, and the remedy has to adjust," he told reporters recently.
Since the fall of the Taliban, the international community, led by the U.S. and Britain, has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to combat the drugs trade.
There have been some successes. Nangahar province, with the help of a strong governor and police chief, reduced opium output by 96 percent in 2005. Since March, anti-drug police units have raided 10 drug labs throughout the country, seizing 2,700 pounds of heroin and nearly 1,763 pounds of opium.
Next week, the Afghan government will present a wide-ranging anti-drugs strategy. Officials are moving to amend laws, train judges and prosecutors, build high security prisons and establish special courts for drug barons and senior drug smugglers.
This year's increased poppy cultivation follows a 21 percent drop the previous year, suggesting the government has not followed through on warnings to farmers against planting poppies. Although 37,065 acres of poppies were eradicated this year, according to the Ministry for Counternarcotics, a campaign by police to destroy crops fell short of expectation.
Gen. Khodaidad, a top official at the ministry, said virtually all cultivated land in Helmand — including government-owned land — has been planted with opium poppies.
"We expected a large number (crop) this year but Helmand unfortunately exceeded even our predictions," the U.S. official said.