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Afghanistan: UN Warns Opium Production Spreading 'Like Cancer'

The United Nations says Afghanistan risks turning into a failed state once again unless it curbs the spread of what it calls "the drug cancer." A new report on opium harvesting in Afghanistan warns that production continued to increase steadily over the past year, despite efforts by Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's government to curb opium cultivation and trafficking.

Prague, 30 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The United Nations says the international community must take firm action to contain the rapid expansion of opium production in Afghanistan. The UN's annual Afghanistan Opium Survey says Afghanistan this year solidified its position as the world's largest opium producer, responsible for some three-quarters of global output.

The survey, conducted by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), says that over the past year, Afghanistan's poppy-growing areas grew by 8 percent, to a total of 80,000 hectares, while the total output went up by 6 percent, reaching some 3,600 tons.

Equally alarming, says the survey, is the rapid spread of opium cultivation throughout the country's 32 provinces, from 18 provinces in 1999 to 28 this year.

UNODC Director Antonio Maria Costa, who launched the survey in Moscow on 29 October, likened Afghanistan's opium problem to cancer. Costa said unless what he called "major, surgical drug-control measures" are taken immediately, the "drug cancer will spread and metastasize into corruption, violence, and terrorism."

But the report is also sending some encouraging signals, praising the Afghan administration's anti-narcotic efforts. Vladimir Fenopetov, the chief of the UNODC's Eastern Europe/Central Asian Section, tells RFE/RL that the survey itself was conducted jointly by the UN and the new Afghan government -- the first time there has been such cooperation on an Afghan drug project. "This year it's done together with the government of Afghanistan, with their recently created counter-narcotics directorate, which is very devoted," Fenopetov said.

The report estimates that the annual turnover of international trade in Afghan opiates is a staggering $30 billion. It says the income of Afghan opium farmers and traffickers is some $2.3 billion, a sum equivalent to half the legitimate gross domestic product (GDP) of the country. While the annual average per capita gross domestic product for Afghanistan last year was $184, the average per capita income for the opium growing population was $594 -- more than three times higher.

A considerable share of this amount ends up in the hands of local warlords and provincial administrators. The report says there are indications that a significant portion of the drug money ends up funding terrorist activities, thus further endangering the country's security.

UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa says the problem is so serious that it threatens to turn Afghanistan once again into a failed state -- this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists. Fenopetov tells RFE/RL that the Afghan government understands the drug problem may undermine the future of the country.

"The Afghan government and [Afghan] President [Hamid] Karzai personally are very committed. They are aware of all possible negative impacts of the drug problem for Afghanistan, because of course, the drug economy, and drug crime -- which is related to drug trafficking -- they are of course impeding the efforts of the government toward developing democracy. In general, the profits of the traffickers are extremely high, and of course some profits go to financing or fueling terrorist activities," Fenopetov said.

But in a country ravaged by more than two decades of war and near-total poverty, many farmers turn to opium growing as the only means of survival. Opium poppy cultivation is attractive because it is highly profitable. Easy to grow and easy to sell, opium is a cash crop. Opium growing was all but eradicated in 2001 by the hard-line Taliban regime, but since it was ousted from power two years ago, Afghans have resumed harvesting the crop in earnest. The survey estimates that some 1.7 million out of a total population of 24 million are involved in opium cultivation.

Professor Cindy Fazey, an expert on international drug policy, says both the Afghan government and the international community must find ways of attracting farmers back to growing other crops. But she says such an approach requires a long period of time to bear fruit. "You've got to get the farmers [in some regions] back into farming other crops and then, bow [the program] out gradually. But you can't say 'We're going in and this is the program, in a year we'll eradicate it,' because, as was shown in the past, the only way you can do that is to have a regime as totalitarian and repressive as the Taliban. If you aim to any degree of democracy, then people will vote with the seat wherever they can get money."

The survey says that the Afghan government must take firm action to repress the traffickers and destroy the terrorists' and warlords' stake in the business. It adds that neighboring countries must support such actions with measures of their own. But Fazey warns that Afghanistan's ex-Soviet Central Asian neighbors, who have also been involved in the profitable trade of Afghan opium, have a direct interest in higher crop yields.

"You've got all the countries around which are also problematic and they are involved very heavily and have a vested interest in increasing Afghan opium production. You also then, of course, have the problem of 'what if?' If you're able to cut back -- we won't say cut out entirely -- Afghan opium production, would it start in all these other countries surrounding Afghanistan?" Fazey said.

Fenopetov tells RFE/RL that the Security Council's decision on 13 October to expand the mandate of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan (ISAF) beyond the capital Kabul was also a positive step in combating the country's drug problem. "It was, of course, only recently that the Security Council adopted the resolution to expand their mandate outside Kabul and we would be very happy if they could at least reach these areas which are difficult for us to reach. That's why in one word, the answer is yes, we are very happy with the decision and we hope it will bring us to some progress," Fenopetov said.

But UNODC warns that law enforcement alone cannot solve the problem. The report calls on the international community to come up with adequate resources to help rebuild the Afghan economy.