Opium cultivation in Afghanistan appears to have fallen significantly this year, according to a new report by the United Nations. That could be good news: For years an opium boom has been the one of the Taliban's main sources of income, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars a year. That's money for arms, fighters, and suicide bombers – all of which helped make this year the deadliest for American and coalition troops since 2001.But it is unclear how this year's drop will impact the Taliban, especially since insurgents are believed to have stockpiled two years’ worth of opium.The Washington Post reports:
The area under opium poppy cultivation fell this year by 22 percent, to 123,000 hectares, or about 304,000 acres, the second consecutive year of decline after a rapid growth of opium farming since the war began in 2001, according to the United Nations' 2009 Afghanistan Opium Survey. Twenty of the country's 34 provinces are considered poppy-free, two more than last year.”
The report attributed the "dramatic turn-around" to governor leadership, a more aggressive counter-narcotics offensive, the increased favouring of legal crops and the successful introduction of food to promote legal farming.
But some worry that the lower cultivations figures only mask how much opium the Taliban has already stockpiled, according to Time.
U.N. drug officials estimate about 10,000 tons of opium have been unaccounted for since 2006 (the figure was about 8,000 tons a year ago). [Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime] believes the Taliban and drug traffickers in the region have stockpiled the drugs, fearing a crash in world prices if they sold the opium surplus.But the stockpiles could hugely complicate NATO's efforts to eradicate opium in Afghanistan and persuade farmers to grow other crops. That's because while some farmers seem to have switched their production, plenty of opium lies stored, potentially giving the Taliban and drug traffickers the ability to buy off officials with huge sum.
For example, instead of pouring money into crop eradication as it did in Colombia, the new US strategy in Afghanistan will phase out eradication, and place a new emphasis on the interdiction of opium shipments and encouraging farmers to adopt alternate crops.The number of Drug Enforcement Agency officials in Afghanistan will increase more than sixfold by next year, to as many as 81 agents. The DEA and US military will target (to be killed or captured) the top 50 drug traffickers with ties to the Taliban.