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Fragile success against Afghanistan's opium economy

Poppy cultivation fell by about 20 percent, after two years of record harvests.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 7, 2008

Keeping it up: To grow other crops, people need aid for a dam and irrigation, agrees tribal elder Mohammad Amin.

Mark Sappenfield/The Christian science Monitor

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Ghani Khel, Afghanistan

A year ago, the province that surrounds this dusty town of onion farmers was Afghanistan's No. 2 producer of opium. Today, Nangarhar has eradicated opium entirely.

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It is the most dramatic reversal in a year offering the first hints of progress against opium, with harvests declining nationwide.

Yet in the chalk-white fields above Ghani Khel, tribal elder Pat Zirak Mohammad predicts that Nangarhar's opium ban will not last. To grow anything other than poppy, his people need a dam to harness water from seasonal floods. But he is skeptical that the government will deliver. "If that doesn't happen, our people will again grow poppy," he says.

Through its bold attempts to ban poppy in recent years, Nangarhar has become the preeminent case study on how to wean Afghanistan from its poppy crop. Mr. Mohammad's words point to the difficulty of making success last.

In a country that produces 90 percent of the world's opium, and where opium is tied to rampant corruption and violence, the benefits of such bans are clear.

But for Afghans who, like Mohammad, live in the most desolate parts of a desolate nation, taking away opium fundamentally alters an economy largely built upon it. Many people cannot cope, eventually returning to poppy.

"Dramatic reductions in opium poppy cultivation are difficult to sustain because of their powerful negative impact on the welfare of households," according to a report on Nangarhar by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), a think tank in Kabul.

The eradication of poppy – the plant from which opium is derived – is of primary concern to the United States and its NATO allies in Afghanistan. Particularly in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, opium trade is seen as a major factor in rampant lawlessness. US officials have said drug lords are in league with corrupt government officials and insurgents.

For this reason, on Oct. 10, NATO authorized their troops in Afghanistan to target drug traffickers who are facilitating the insurgency. Until now, foreign forces have resisted becoming involved in drug interdiction.

In this context, the news that the poppy harvest nationwide declined this year after two record years is significant. United Nations and US data agree that poppy cultivation dropped between 19 and 22 percent. But the UN says increases in yield meant overall production declined only 6 percent. By contrast, the US suggests there was an overall decline of 33 percent. Officials say the discrepancy could be the result of different data-collection and analysis techniques used.

They attribute the decline to a severe drought in many parts of Afghanistan, as well as a slow decline in opium prices. The rising prices of other crops – like wheat – could have a further impact next year.

In all, 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces have now been declared poppy-free by the UN, up from 15 last year. Nangarhar is one of them. Afghanistan's minister of counternarcotics, General Khodaidad, calls Nangarhar "the best model for Afghanistan."

Nangarhar's yo-yo success

But past experience casts doubt on how long its success will continue. A similar ban on poppy-growing in 2005 lasted two years before falling apart in 2007.

The collapse of that ban was a result of waning political will, as remote areas most dependent upon poppy – and in which the government had the least authority – returned to cultivation. It was a slippery slope that the rest of the province followed in 2007, according to the AREU report.

As the next poppy planting season begins, the signs from Ghani Khel are that this cycle could be starting again.

Last year, Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai staked his political reputation on the opium ban. "He was putting people in jail and getting out there to deliver the message," says Jonathan Greenham, director of Development Alternatives, Inc. (DAI), an aid organization in Nangarhar. "This year, he is not," he adds.