KABUL -- Even as new figures point to gains in the battle against Afghanistan's drug problem, the issue remains deeply contentious for the government in Kabul and NATO-led forces.
Citing UN data, Afghan and International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) officials say fresh figures will show the drugs trade shrinking by 19 percent in terms of area cultivated and 6 percent in terms of crop yields.
No one, however, is willing to assume ultimate responsibility or to say whether Afghanistan has turned a corner. It remains unclear how much of the decline in opium poppies is a result of government action and how much is owed to weather conditions like drought or cold.
Afghan officials tend to emphasize the constraints under which they operate. The country's counternarcotics minister, Colonel General Khodaidad, complains that the drug trade is an "international problem" fueled by Western demand and that the Afghan government has insufficient resources at its disposal.
"We do not have [any] budget in Afghanistan to [fight] the narcotics [industry]," Khodaidad says. "It all belongs to the international community...[not] to me [or] to the Afghan government."
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the absence of a dedicated counternarcotics budget in a government largely propped up by international funds reflects international distrust; most ISAF states have preferred to spend directly on specific projects and measures aimed to curb Afghanistan's drug problem.
Khodaidad says his job mostly boils down to "talking" -- traveling the country and trying to persuade local elders to take a stand against poppy cultivation. He says Nangahar and Wardak provinces have become poppy-free, partly as a result of government efforts and partly thanks to the success of alternative crops such as saffron and apples. The latter owe their viability mostly to international investment in the construction of "coolhouses" and infrastructure improvements, like building roads and helping forge commercial links abroad, that allow farmers to get their products to market.
Khodaidad contends that 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are now "poppy-free." He neglects to mention the 13 provinces reckoned by Afghan and foreign observers to be largely under insurgent control, where poppy cultivation often extends to the outskirts of the government-controlled administrative centers and opium is sold in bazaars within a stone's throw of the governor's compound.
Mindful of the threat poppy cultivation constitutes for his government, the Afghan minister appeals to ISAF for direct action against drug labs, convoys, dealers -- or, he warns, "Afghanistan will grow more poppy."
The heroin trade also represents a direct threat to international forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban insurgency is said to skim anywhere between $100 million and $400 million off the proceeds of Afghanistan's estimated $4 billion narcotics industry.
ISAF spokesman Brigadier General Richard Blanchette says the money fuels a deadly "nexus" between the insurgents and the drug trade.
"This is the money that allows the insurgents to buy ammunition, to buy explosives, suicide vests that kill our soldiers and the people of Afghanistan," Blanchette says, "so what we want to ensure is that we can cut that flow of money."
Few ISAF states are willing to get directly involved in the fight against drug trafficking. Most fear the casualties that would inevitably result from confrontations with poppy farmers and their Taliban "muscle."
Cultivating poppy has become an integral part of the local economy in places like the southern Helmand Province. Poppy farmers have made significant investments in infrastructure such as wells and irrigation systems. The investments, often in the form of loans, need to be recouped and large families must be fed. Alternative crops, such as wheat, fetch nowhere near the price of opium, and many poppy farmers face a vicious circle and will go to great lengths to protect their current livelihood.
"At harvest time, all the guys who were out there fighting are now doing the harvest -- there is a massive drop in security incidents," a British official says of the relationship between the insurgency and the drug trade in Helmand. He adds that there is no evidence of "Taliban coercion" because Taliban are in many cases "rural farmers."
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that NATO defense ministers, meeting in Budapest in October, were unwilling to go beyond promises of greater willingness in responding to future Afghan requests for military support in operations against drug traffickers. The British, who do most of the fighting in Helmand and are also ISAF's "lead counternarcotics nation," are themselves none to keen on heavy-handed tactics. Their strategic goal, according to the official quoted above, is to "direct the drug trade away from the insurgents."
ISAF provides support for the Afghan government's drug-control strategy, supplies wheat seed to farmers, and helps train Afghan troops providing security for poppy eradicators. There are also internationally funded, multimillion-dollar reward schemes for governors who manage to rid their provinces of poppy cultivation, with the money going to finance local infrastructure projects.
Blanchette also points to international law on armed conflict, which prohibits military action against civilians. A trafficker is a civilian, says the ISAF spokesman, "and we cannot call an air strike on him just because he is a trafficker."
While ISAF officials argue that law enforcement remains an Afghan responsibility, they bemoan what they regard as a lack of political will within President Hamid Karzai's government to go after drug kingpins. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one senior Western official complains that "the president is not calling for senior traffickers or the senior ministers involved [in the drug trade] to be prosecuted or even investigated." The official pointed out, however, that suspicions of government-level involvement remain "rumor and conjecture."
Some in the Afghan government take exception to suggestions that authorities are not aggressively pursuing drug offenders. Jelani Popal, a Karzai confidante and head of the Directorate for Local Governance, says authorities have in recent years jailed 2,500 traffickers -- which he says is "a huge number."
Popal dismisses suggestions of collusion between drug traffickers and Afghan authorities.
"We will go to any extent if somebody provides us [with a list and says], 'OK, these are the drug dealers in your government,' or [accuses] a governor or minister or something -- which I doubt [that] there will be any."
Popal likens broad accusations against Afghan officials to "rumors" that drug kingpins are in close contact with representatives of the international community in Afghanistan.
But the counternarcotics minister, General Khodaidad, says there is little doubt that such allegations are well-founded.
"The governors are involved in this -- local governors [in the] provinces, local districts, officials in the provinces, police, [their] vehicles, officials -- of course they are involved," Khodaidad says. "They are involved with the corruption, of course they are involved, even with the drug traffickers."
Khodaidad's words appear to corroborate claims by Afghan journalists that large quantities of drugs are transported across Afghanistan by police officers themselves, who enjoy unrivaled freedom of movement.
"Heroin is not the drug of choice in the West," a British official tells RFE/RL, suggesting that Western demand is not the primary factor fueling the staggering Afghan drug trade. For instance, while 90 percent of the heroin consumed in Britain is thought to originate in Afghanistan, that figure accounts for just 2 percent of Afghanistan's heroin output.
Regional markets are absorbing an increasing amount of Afghan opium poppies and heroin. Demand in Iran is now thought to account for about half of Afghanistan's opium production, with China, India, and Russia moving up the table fast.
But it is Afghans who pay the ultimate price, and not only in terms of stunted economic development and political corruption. The country has an estimated 1.2 million drug addicts within a population of 31 million and, as General Khodaidad observes, just 40 small clinics to treat them.
RFE/RL correspondent Ahto Lobjakas gathered information for this report during a recent, NATO-hosted visit to Afghanistan with a small group of journalists