Afghanistan opium production hits new high as foreign troops pack up

Opium output in Afghanistan, the world's largest producer, is forecast this year to be 17 percent higher than in 2013, possibly because security personnel were pulled off opium crop eradication duty.

Nisar Ahmad/AP
Afghan farmers collect raw opium as they work in a poppy field in Chaparhar district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, May 1, 2014.

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Despite costly efforts to cut poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, production reached a record high this year, according to the United Nations.

The uptick in production could be tied to increasing insecurity in Afghanistan and economic uncertainty following disputed presidential elections. The process of selecting a new president lasted eight months and involved two rounds of voting, which pulled security resources away from the eradication of opium crops, reports The New York Times.

Around 89 percent of poppy production comes from provinces with large Taliban representation, according to the report from the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime. Since losing power in 2001, the Taliban has waged war against the US-backed Afghan government. Now foreign combat troops are pulling out, leaving behind a training mission under NATO. 

The increase in poppy cultivation could yield just over 7,000 tons of opium, which is 17 percent more than in 2013. 

The Christian Science Monitor’s Dan Murphy wrote earlier this year about the challenges of US-led poppy eradication in Afghanistan.

[T]rying to wipe out opium production in Afghanistan would have been a Sisyphean task no matter what strategy was deployed. It's a lucrative business, and poppies are easily cultivated, generating far more money for poor farmers and corrupt middlemen than any feasible substitution crop. During the height of the American counterinsurgency effort, winning over the general population to the side of the government and foreign forces was a big focus. The US found that tearing up crops and impoverishing farmers wasn't very popular.

The early eradication strategy was largely abandoned in favor of going after big opium dealers and encouragng farmers to grow other crops. But that really hasn't worked, either. The country's opium and heroin trade is a top earner, and with the military effort winding down, the business opportunities associated with aid and foreign military spending are set to decline.

Afghanistan's opium lords are not likely to go anywhere.

UNODC country head Andrey Avetisyan discussed the opium problem with Afghanistan’s new president, Ashraf Ghani, and says he was encouraged by his response, according to the New York Times.

“Ashraf Ghani is not a magician but at least Ashraf Ghani said all the right words, with a lot of passion,” Mr. Avetisyan said.

Meanwhile, President Ghani is expected to travel to Pakistan at the end of the week for his first official visit. Relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan are troubled; Kabul has repeatedly accused Islamabad of aiding Taliban leaders sheltering across the border. Pakistan helped the group seize control of Afghanistan in 1996 and was among only a handful of countries to have diplomatic relations with the Taliban administration. 

The US’s top diplomat in Islamabad, Richard Olson, said this week that the neighboring nations are facing a “historical moment” and an opportunity to reset relations following the election of democratic governments, reports Agence France-Presse.

He pointed to steps taken by both countries that have helped to build confidence, including a Pakistan Army operation in Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold along the shared border.

"I think there is quite genuinely a basis for a new relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Both sides are aware of this historical moment and making efforts to seize it.” Mr. Olson said.

Pakistan’s national security advisor, Sartaj Aziz, reflected similar optimism in an interview with Voice of America.

“[President Ghani] himself used the word ‘a new beginning’ and a relationship that is based on trust and does not involve blame game and which is multidimensional. The basis will be economic cooperation, trade and investment, at the same time security cooperation and much better people-to-people contacts. So, it is a multidimensional agenda on the basis of which we hope to build this new relationship,” said Mr. Aziz.

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