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Afghan poppy production soars

Masood SaifullahOctober 28, 2014

Despite the US spending over 7 billion USD on counternarcotics efforts, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan hit an all-time high in 2013 due to corruption and a lack of security. Experts say a broader approach is needed.

Afghan farmers collect raw opium as they work in a poppy field in Khogyani district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday, May 10, 2013.
Image: picture alliance/AP Photo

When asked if he knew anyone who grew poppies in the region, Haqmal - who like many other Afghans only has a first name - promptly said he was doing it himself, regardless of whether the cultivation areas were under Taliban or under government control. "I have to pay both local government officials and the Taliban, but, more importantly, I have to grow poppy to pay my bills," Haqmal, who lives in Helmand Province's Nad Ali District, told DW.

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, accounting for some 80 percent of global production, and Helmand is the South Asian nation's largest opium-producing province. Despite the US spending 7.6 billion USD over the past ten years in the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan, poppy cultivation hit an all-time high in 2013, according to data compiled by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 209,000 hectares of the poppy in 2013, far outstripping the previous record of 193,000 hectares in 2007 and with Helmand accounting for 48 percent. The federal auditors stated that one of the factors behind the surge was affordable deep-well technology, which has turned 200,000 hectares of desert in southwestern Afghanistan into arable land over the past decade.

US aid spent efficiently?

Haqmal said he never received any help from the Afghan government or any other organizations, but that he knew of people who had. But it seems this help did not come for free. "In most cases people had to bribe Afghan officials to get this [deep-well] technology," he said. "The farmers are poor and need money. That is why they need to plant something that can generate enough income to be able to afford the bribes," he added.

It is very difficult to know exactly how US money was spent in the fight against narcotics in the war-torn country. Afghanistan's Ministry of Counter Narcotics, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs are among many other organizations in charge of the country's counter-narcotics programs, with each organization having access to a portion of the 7.6 billion USD spent thus far.

The head of Helmand Province's counter-narcotics department, Lal Mohammad Azizi, told DW that he himself did not exactly know how much money had been spent in his province. While some US officials point the finger at the Afghan government for not supporting efforts to wipe out the poppy fields, Afghan officials partly blame the US and its allies.

Mohammad Hanif Danishyar, head of public affairs at the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, told DW that the surge in poppy cultivation was caused by "a declining interest" by the international community in addressing the narcotics' problem: "Poppy cultivation declined until 2009, a time when the US and the UK were helping Afghanistan fight narcotics production and trade. But both countries have lost interest ever since."

Danishyar says that a large portion of US financial assistance went to Afghan provinces with so-called "zero opium" production in order to encourage them to adopt alternative livelihoods. Some of the funds were destined for reconstruction projects which did not have a direct effect on Afghan farmers.

However, economist William Byrd, a senior Afghanistan analyst at the United States Institute of Peace, believes that the idea of reducing opium production by spending billions of dollars in assistance has a major flaw. "The export value of opiates is around 3 billion [US dollars] or sometimes more in a year," he said. "Seven billion dollars seems like a lot but that is not very much in relation to the actual value of opium produced in Afghanistan over a year," the analyst stressed.

Need for a broader approach

Byrd says that poverty, insecurity, corruption and a lack of rule of law coupled with high demand for opium overseas are key factors as to why Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium. This is why the economist stresses the need for a more comprehensive long-term approach. For example, he said, it is important that farmers see their livelihood as a whole.

A picture made available on 01 May 2009 shows poppy fields in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan, 30 April 2009.
Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 209,000 hectares of the poppy in 2013Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"There has to be a shift from opium towards a mix of high value horticultural products, livestock and non-farm activities," he said. "Such an approach is usually found in the strategy documents, but it is not always followed in practice," Byrd added.

Lal Mohammad Azizi also believes that a regional and long-term cooperation to counter narcotics in Afghanistan must be established. "The security situation is bad, the mafia is powerful and law enforcement institutions are not as strong as they should be. These are all reasons why we cannot have a dramatic decrease in opium production in short term," he said.

Afghanistan is also expected to witness an increase in this year's opium harvest when foreign combat forces leave the country. On October 27, the last of the remaining British troops left Helmand Province for Kandahar. Azizi, whose job is to wean farmers off growing poppy, hopes the international assistance to fight narcotics will continue. Otherwise Afghanistan will have to live with the problem for a long time, he says.