Afghan opium cultivation has hit a record high as international forces prepare to leave the country, the United Nations has said, with concern that profits will go to warlords jockeying for power ahead of a presidential election next year.
The increase in poppy crops to 516,000 acres, will embarrass Afghanistan’s aid donors after more than ten years of efforts to wean farmers off opium production, fight corruption and cut links between drugs and the Taleban insurgency.
“The short-term prognosis is not positive,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan.
“The illicit economy is establishing itself, and seems to be taking over in importance from the licit economy,” he added.
Afghanistan is the world’s top cultivator of the poppy from which opium and heroin are produced.
Last year, it accounted for 75 per cent of global supply and Mr Lemahieu had previously said this year it might supply 90 per cent.
The increase in the crop was caused by various factors, including greater insecurity as foreign troops pull back in preparation for withdrawing next year, a high opium price last year and a growing lack of Afghan political will to tackle the problem.
That will is particularly weak as an April presidential election approaches, Mr Lemahieu said yesterday.
President Hamid Karzai cannot stand again, leaving the field open to rivals, some linked to power-brokers who have profited from opium in the past.
The land producing poppies is 36 per cent larger than in 2012, and eclipses the previous record set in 2007, when 477,000 acres were cultivated, the UN anti-drugs agency said in a report. Total output is estimated at 5,500 tonnes of opium, up 49 per cent from 3,700 tonnes in 2012.
Farm-gate profits are expected to approach $1 billion (£624 million), or 4 per cent of gross domestic product.
Some of those profits will be funnelled off by the Taleban to fuel insurgency. Western officials privately accuse senior members of the Afghan state of also profiting.
The figures are part of an annual assessment of opium production by the UNODC and the ministry for counter-narcotics.
The report revealed that two northern provinces, Balkh and Faryab, were again growing poppies after being deemed free of the crop last year. Eradication fell by almost a quarter.
A gradual decrease in foreign funding as allies grow weary of helping war-racked Afghanistan has led to some members of the Afghan elite turning to poppies as a money-spinner.
“When it comes to the illicit economy there is very little difference between the insurgents and the people on the other side,” Mr Lemahieu said.
Afghanistan has a serious drug addiction problem but most of its output is smuggled abroad, particularly to Europe.
The British Foreign Office said the report was a “stark reminder” of the challenges facing Afghanistan in tackling the drugs trade.
“Lessons learned from other drug-producing countries show that this will be a generational struggle against a complex global problem which needs a comprehensive approach,” a spokesman said.
UNODC first measured opium production in Afghanistan in 1994, when the hardy plant with reddish, pink and purple flowers was grown on 175,000 acres.
The area rose to more than 247,000 acres for the first time the year after the Taleban were removed from power by a US-led invasion force.