Afghanistan opium crop numbers soar

Afghan farmer stands in the middle of a poppy field on the ouskirts of Jalalabad. Picture: AFP
Afghan farmer stands in the middle of a poppy field on the ouskirts of Jalalabad. Picture: AFP
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AFGHANISTAN’S opium crop will hit a new high this year, the United Nations said yesterday.

It will present the country’s new president with a challenge in tackling the trade fuelling the Taleban-led insurgency after the Nato combat mission ends.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said opium production was up by 17 per cent since last year.

Its Afghan Opium Survey 2014 said the area under poppy cultivation had risen by 7 per cent to cover 224,000 hectares.

It said there had been an increase in most poppy-producing provinces all across Afghanistan.

Most of the opium poppies are grown in the south and west of Afghanistan, including its most insecure provinces, such as Helmand.

Most poppies are still grown in southern Helmand, where many foreign troops were stationed until October. One of the reasons they were sent to Helmand was to help cut opium production.

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The survey is likely to further embarrass aid donors who have invested millions of pounds in eradication over more than 13 years of war, only to see crops soar to unprecedented levels, flooding world markets with opium.

The figure showed counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan had so far failed, said the UNODC’s Jean-Luc Lemahieu, but it was hoped efforts could be more successful under the new government.

“Changing the economic incentives away from the illicit economy to the licit economy, now that’s a hell of a task, but that’s exactly what indeed this new government seems to stand for,” said Mr Lemahieu, the UNODC director for policy analysis and public affairs.

President Ashraf Ghani was inaugurated in late September after months of destabilising tension over who won the election. The stand-off helped speed a sharp economic downturn caused by the withdrawal of foreign troops and uncertainty about Afghanistan’s future.

The US-led combat mission ends this year, and despite its efforts, the Taleban remains a major force, launching regular attacks on military and civilian targets.

US officials blame Afghanistan’s opium poppy production for fuelling corruption and instability, undermining good government and subverting the legal economy.

Mr Ghani had described a comprehensive plan to tackle the drug problem, Mr Lemahieu said. “For him, the criminalisation of the economics and politics of Afghanistan is one of the main problems, it penetrates everything and anything he wants to achieve,” he added.

“He is very clear as well that this is part of a regional responsibility and that’s exactly what the UN stands for.”

Counter-narcotics minister Din Mohammad Mubariz Rashidi pleaded for global assistance. He said: “The international community must fight opium drugs and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan as seriously as they fight terrorism.”

Afghanistan produces more than 80 per cent of the world’s illicit opium, and profits from the illegal trade help fund the Taleban insurgency.

In October, the US government watchdog for Afghan reconstruction said the Americans had spent $7.6 billion (£4.72bn) over 13 years trying to eradicate the plant.

Despite those efforts, the report predicted further increases in cultivation.

The UN valued the Afghan opium crop at nearly $3bn in 2013, up 50 per cent from 2012. Cultivation has been rising yearly since 2010.

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