Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 08:49 GMT

Afghanistan's anti-poppy drive off to shaky start

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Claudio Franco
Publication Date 3 June 2004
Cite as EurasiaNet, Afghanistan's anti-poppy drive off to shaky start, 3 June 2004, available at: [accessed 28 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Claudio Franco 6/03/04

Just over two months after international donors pledged $8.2 billion for Afghan reconstruction efforts, a government anti-narcotics campaign is struggling to prevent another record year for poppy production. The lack of progress on this front comes amidst growing international worries about Afghanistan's fragile security situation.

The head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Antonio Maria Costa, is in the midst of an eight-day visit to Afghanistan, due to conclude June 6. "There is no easy way of solving Afghanistan's opium problem," Costa said in a statement at the outset of his tour. "In countries like Thailand, Pakistan and Turkey, where the problem was as severe, it took a generation to reverse the trend and put an end to it."

Claudio Franco

Poppy farmers in Afghanistan

"The opium economy will continue to grow as long as drug production and trafficking are conducted without risk of retribution or the incentive to do something else," Costa continued. "It is urgent to redress this risk-reward imbalance, making engagement in illicit activities legally and economically unattractive."

Costa called for the international community to increase its support for Afghanistan's drug-fighting efforts, a call already made this April by President Hamid Karzai, who, during an international donors conference in Berlin in early April, said; "[t]he fight against drugs is the fight for Afghanistan."

In 2003, Afghanistan saw poppy production increase by 6 percent to some 3,600 tons, the highest yield in the world. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. At $2.3 billion, the poppy trade makes up more than half of Afghanistan's GDP. A UNODC survey released in February predicted that production would continue to rapidly climb in 2004.

Skyrocketing production has officials worried that narcotics traffickers may potentially act to disrupt parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for September 2004. Those elections are seen as crucial to the country's long-term stabilization hopes. The central element in the government's anti-drug effort is a $3.6-million program that aims to cut poppy production by 25,000 hectares this year. The campaign, sponsored by the British-run Central Poppy Eradication Force, started this April in the southern province of Nangarhar, Afghanistan's highest-producing poppy province, and will proceed counter-clockwise through the country to reach northern Afghanistan by September when the poppy harvest ends.

The overall aim of the government's anti-drug effort is to reduce poppy production by up to 70 percent within four years. That seems unrealistic, given that the early results of the eradication program have not been encouraging. Local corruption, farmer protests and a lack of government initiative appear to be frustrating the program. On a May 7 trip to Kabul to review anti-drug efforts, British Foreign Minister Bill Rammell told reporters that its results "were not what we had hoped for."

The sight of acres of blossoming red and white poppies attests to the scope of the problem. Farmers in Nangarhar say that a fixed fee of $100 per acre can convince local officials to overlook their poppy fields. While some fields are destroyed, officials often allow others to remain untouched for eight days – time enough for the resin used in opium processing to be squeezed from serrated, ripe poppy buds.

"We only have to pay the right price and we can go on with our business," said Abdullah, a teenaged field worker. "All of [the officials] are taking bribes. They know we'd do anything to save the crop. It's the whole village's livelihood which is at stake"

Farmers can earn as much as $3,900 per year on average from poppy sales. That is almost ten times the salary of a teacher or policeman. At $220 per hectare, wheat, the main alternative crop, yields a mere fraction of the potential profits of poppy cultivation.

With entire villages depending on the income, Nangarhar provincial governor Haji Din Mohammad said he has no choice but to proceed with caution. In early April, some 3,000 farmers took to the streets in the province's Kama district to demonstrate against the destruction of their crops.

"It is not easy to deal with these people," said Mohammad. "We have nothing to offer in exchange for their cooperation. Everything rests on our credibility."

For now, the UN appears to support that view. "Law enforcement needs to target traffickers and disrupt trafficking routes and clandestine laboratories," said Costa. "Farmers, including those affected by the government-sponsored opium eradication campaigns, should be supported by development assistance."

Bad timing appears to have hampered the anti-drug drive. The UK-backed eradication effort began in early April, a time when many farmers in southern and eastern Afghanistan had already harvested their poppy buds. Haji Abdul Zahir, Governor Mohammad's nephew and a military commander in the Jalalabad area, blamed Karzai for the delay in deciding what areas of the country to target for poppy destruction. "It took months for the government to decide how to proceed with the poppy eradication program," Zahir said. "We have agreed on an 8 percent quota to be destroyed immediately in every district. This is the best we could do with such short notice."

The local go-slow approach has frustrated US officials, who advocate military-style raids on poppy storage facilities and slash-and-burn techniques on an additional 10,000 hectares of poppy fields. "The window of opportunity for effective eradication in the two major opium-producing provinces of Helmand and Nangarhar is fast closing," Robert B. Charles, Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told a congressional hearing on April 1, at the start of the poppy eradication campaign. If left unchecked, Charles warned, poppy production "will become a cancer that spreads and undermines all we are otherwise achieving in the areas of democracy, stability, anti-terrorism and rule of law."

Posted June 3, 2004 © Eurasianet

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