Prague, 18 November 2004 (RFE/RL) -- In the face of international concern, Afghan President-elect Hamid Karzai has pledged to make the fight against drug trafficking a top priority.
In a press conference on 5 November shortly after his electoral victory, Karzai renewed his government's commitment to crack down on opium production. "There will definitely, definitely not be any drug [problem] in Afghanistan," he said. "We are going to be dedicated, strong, in working against that."
However, in the almost three years that Karzai has been in power, drug production in Afghanistan has been steadily on the rise from Taliban-era levels.
Today's report by the UNODC found that more than 130,000 hectares in Afghanistan are devoted to poppy farming. The cultivation of poppies has spread to all of the country's provinces and is valued at almost $3 billion, equivalent to more than 60 percent of the country's 2003 gross domestic product.
Farmers in Afghanistan are angry at the government's policies. Kabul has offered to compensate farmers if they destroy their poppy fields and grow other crops instead. The government has also threatened to destroy poppy crops by force if farmers do not obey.
One reason the government has been so ineffective in fighting the drug trade is because of the widespread participation of militia groups and local governors.
But poor farmers see poppy cultivation as the single most reliable way of earning money to feed their families. They complain that the government wants to eradicate opium cultivation but is not ready to seriously compensate them.
According to the UN survey, each poppy-growing farm family earns an average of $3,900 a year -- 10 times higher than the return from a crop such as cotton.
A farmer from Afghanistan's northern Dashguzer district recently spoke to RFE/RL about the problem. "Before we were not growing [poppies]. This year, everybody said, 'Let's grow it,' and we did," he said. "Our cotton did not yield a good price. We are ordinary people, and that's why we became poppy growers this year. We were forced to it. What else can we do if our cotton does not make any money? We have to grow something that we can sell."
In its report, the UNODC urges Karzai's government to pursue four goals in 2005 -- the eradication of opium, the prosecution of major drug-trafficking cases, action against official corruption, and a reinforced counternarcotics structure.
Afghan presidential spokesman Javed Ludin spoke to reporters about the challenges at a press conference in Kabul on 16 November: "The president intends to introduce major changes into the state strategy on combating narcotics during his new term in power. The next government wants to effectively unite all the efforts against narcotics. Maybe a ministry for fighting drugs will be created. Experts are working on this."
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistan-based analyst with the "Far Eastern Economic Review." Rashid says the creation of an Afghan drug ministry would be an important step but that several things need to be done to tackle the problem.
"I think the first thing is, [Karzai] has to set the example by nominating a cabinet which will be drug-free, which will not have well-known militia leaders, warlords, who many people think are involved in the drugs trade. I think the second thing he has to do is to start taking action against prominent Afghans, against whom there is evidence by the police, by the Interior Ministry, that they are drug traffickers. And the third measure is to mobilize international support for more money and aid to combat the growing of poppies and to help farmers in growing alternative crops," Rashid said.
Arms are widely available in Afghanistan, and it is feared that drug traffickers may violently resist any antidrug operations, further damaging the country's fragile reconstruction and democratization process.
One reason the government has been so ineffective in fighting the drug trade is because of the widespread participation of militia groups and local governors. Experts say antidrug policies cannot succeed unless provincial governors and military commanders who are involved in the drugs trade are apprehended and brought to justice.
Rashid said Karzai's efforts will have a better chance at success if, first, the middlemen who buy the poppy crop from individual farmers are arrested. Then, he said, the farmers should be given the opportunity to raise alternative crops. "I think if there is international support, and the coalition forces are there, the Afghan National Army is there, I don't see these drug barons being able to create a crisis for the regime," he said. "I think the most sensitive issue will be dealing with the farmers. There's talk of the Americans wanting to spray fields and destroy the crop on the ground. I think the most important thing is, first, to stop trafficking and to catch some of these big guys who are involved in trafficking, and then deal with the farmers by first providing alternative crops."
The UNODC's Maria Costa said today that the "opium economy in Afghanistan has to be dismantled with democracy, the rule of law, and economic improvement. It will be a long and difficult process."
Experts say it will require the long-term commitment of the international community to Afghanistan's reconstruction, especially in the agriculture sector. Karzai may be able to capitalize on his recent election victory to intensify his government's efforts to enforce the law, which may in turn keep the international community focused on the problem.
"The Washington Post" reported on 15 November that the United States plans to shift more than $700 million from other programs into Afghan counternarcotic activities in 2005, compared with less than $125 million spent in 2004.