Opium Harvest at Record Level in Afghanistan

By CARLOTTA GALL

New York Times

September 3, 2006

KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 2 — Afghanistan’s opium harvest this year has reached the highest levels ever recorded, showing an increase of almost 50 percent from last year, the head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said Saturday in Kabul.

He described the figures as “alarming” and “very bad news” for the Afghan government and international donors who have poured millions of dollars into programs to reduce the poppy crop since 2001.

He said the increase in cultivation was fueled by the resurgence of Taliban rebels in the south, the country’s prime opium growing region. As the insurgents have stepped up their attacks, they have also encouraged and profited from the drug trade, promising protection to growers if they worked to expand their opium operations.

“This year’s harvest will be around 6,100 metric tons of opium — a staggering 92 percent of total world supply. It exceeds global consumption by 30 percent,” Mr. Costa said at a news briefing.

He said the harvest increased by 49 percent from the year before, and it drastically outpaced the previous record of 4,600 metric tons, recorded in 1999 while the Taliban governed the country. The area of land cultivated increased by 59 percent, with 165,000 hectares planted with poppy in 2006 compared with 104,000 in 2005.

“It is indeed very bad, you can say it is out of control,” Mr. Costa said in an interview on Friday, before the announcement.

Afghanistan’s minister for counternarcotics, Habibullah Qaderi, said at the news briefing that the news was a setback for his ministry and for the country. But he said the government’s strategy to combat opium production would start to show results in the next three years.

The increase in cultivation was mainly because of the strength of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan, which has left whole districts outside of government control, and the continuing impunity of everyone involved, from the farmers and traffickers to corrupt police and government officials, he said.

Afghanistan is already the world’s largest producer of opium, and 35 percent of its gross domestic product is estimated to come from the narcotics trade.

Most of the increase in poppy cultivation has occurred in five provinces in southern Afghanistan, in particular Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan, where security has sharply deteriorated this year because of Taliban attacks, Mr. Costa said.

“The southern part of Afghanistan was displaying the ominous hallmarks of incipient collapse, with large-scale drug cultivation and trafficking, insurgency and terrorism, crime and corruption,” he said in a statement released by his office.

“We are seeing a very strong connection between the increase in the insurgency on the one hand and the increase in cultivation on the other hand,” he explained in the interview.

The Taliban had distributed leaflets at night, inviting farmers to increase their poppy cultivation in exchange for protection, Mr. Costa said. The rebels also profit from levies in return for protection of drug convoys passing through the border areas they controlled. There were also signs of a pernicious strategy to encourage farmers to increase their poppy cultivation in an effort to force a government reaction, which would then turn the population further against the government, Mr. Costa said.

But Mr. Costa did not blame only the Taliban for the increase. He specifically accused the former governor of Helmand Province, Sher Muhammad Akhund, of encouraging farmers to grow more poppy in the months before he was removed from office. The result was an increase of 160 percent in that “villain province” from its harvest last year, he said, the highest rise in the country.

“There is evidence of major pressure exerted by him in favor of cultivating opium,” Mr. Costa said.

In the news briefing on Saturday, Mr. Costa also criticized the government’s action of removing the governor and giving him a position in the upper house of Parliament.

“I have been on record for asking the president for corrupt officials not to be moved around but to be removed and even to be arrested if there is evidence. So far we do not have much evidence for that,” he said.

One province in the north, Badakhshan, where there is no problem of an insurgency, also had a significant increase in poppy cultivation. Mr. Costa attributed that mostly to the lack of government control and the presence of powerful warlords and corrupt local officials. A substantial drought also played a part, because no alternative crop could survive even though the poppies did.

While the government had improved its performance at eradication of the poppy crop, it had failed to do enough to apprehend traffickers and corrupt officials, he said.

The United Nations drugs office, which measures the eradication program, said 15,000 hectares of poppy fields were confirmed to have been destroyed, whereas only 5,000 hectares were confirmed destroyed last year. Government reporting on how much was eradicated was also less exaggerated, Mr. Costa said. In 2005, province governors had reported eradicating 35,000 hectares and the United Nations could only confirm 5,000 destroyed. In 2006, governors reported 23,000 hectares destroyed, and the drug office confirmed 15,000, he said.

International donors have put a lot of money into training judges and investigators and preparing high-security detention facilities for drug traffickers, and it was now time for the government to act, Mr. Costa said.

“I am pleading with the government to be much tougher,” he said. A new high-security prison block would be inaugurated in a few weeks, he said. “We have place for 100 people and I am asking the government to fill it within six months,” he said.

Mr. Qaderi, the minister of counternarcotics, said he hoped the government would be able to apprehend more high-level traffickers and corrupt officials. But he said it still lacked the capacity to investigate and catch the “big fish.”

Several hundred people have been apprehended and convicted for drug offenses in recent months, but Mr. Qaderi admitted most were people who were caught carrying the drugs.

One significant prosecution involved an Interior Ministry official, Lt. Col. Nadir Khan, who was given a 10-year prison sentence two months ago for stealing 50 kilograms of heroin that had been impounded by drug enforcement unit and selling it, a Western counternarcotics official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

14 Britons Killed in Air Crash

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, Sept. 2 (AP) — A NATO aircraft crashed Saturday in southern Afghanistan, killing 14 British troops, according to a spokesman and the British Ministry of Defense.

A spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said the plane had reported a technical problem before going down, and hostile fire did not appear to be the cause.

The crash came a day after fighting across the volatile south killed 9 Afghan policemen, at least 13 suspected Taliban and a British soldier.

The “aircraft was supporting a NATO mission. It went off the radar and crashed in an open area in Kandahar” Province, said the spokesman, Maj. Scott Lundy.

A NATO statement said that “enemy action has been discounted at this stage.”

But shortly after the crash, Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for bringing down the aircraft.

Haji Eisamuddin, a local tribal elder, said in a telephone interview that the plane’s wreckage was burning in an open field.

”I can see three, four helicopters in the sky, and coalition forces are also arriving in the area,” he said.

In the deadliest clash on Friday, insurgents attacked a police checkpoint, killing five officers and wounding seven in the Grieshk district of Helmand Province, about 250 miles southwest of Kabul, said Ghulam Muhiddin, the Helmand governor’s spokesman.