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Challenges Plague Afghanistan’s Efforts to Combat Opium Trade

The United Nations estimates that cultivation of the flowering poppy plant, a key ingredient in heroin, accounts for about 60 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product.

Despite efforts to curb the trade, U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime Director Antonio Maria Costa reported on Aug. 29, 2005 that opium production remains relatively unchanged. Opium production in 2005 was 4,519 tons, a 2 percent decline from the 4,630 tons the previous year.

Although the amount of land used for poppy cultivation shrank by 21 percent due to a government crackdown, heavy rains, no infestation of crops and other favorable conditions helped the remaining plant production, Costa said.

Afghanistan produces 87 percent of the world’s heroin, most of which is trafficked to Russia and Europe.

Afghan efforts to fight opium

With drug money penetrating all aspects of Afghan society, Karzai, following his inauguration in late 2004, outlined a reform agenda that prioritized combating the poppy trade over terrorism.

“Poppy cultivation is more dangerous than terrorism, it is more dangerous than civil wars because this crop is not only a source of weakness, dishonor and defeat of Afghanistan, but also an internal danger,” he said at a conference of key leaders in December 2004.

The following January, Karzai led a series of meetings with local and tribal leaders to enlist their assistance in eradicating the poppy trade. Karzai urged leaders to combat poppy production in the name of national and religious pride, offering international aid and threatening crop destruction for noncompliance.

Afghanistan’s deputy interior minister, Mohammed Daoud has also taken the lead in exterminating the nation’s drug trade. As the government’s top counter-narcotics cop, Daoud told all provincial police chiefs that they would be fired if they failed to halt poppy production.

So far, inspectors have witnessed the success of nationwide efforts to curb the drug trade.

Farmers in the eastern provinces of Nangahar and Laghman, the central province of Uruzgan, and the southern Helmand had halted most of their poppy cultivation. These provinces together accounted for over 50 percent of the nation’s poppy production in 2004. Former poppy farmers now harvest wheat and vegetables.

Two farmers in Nangrahar, a province that officials estimate is 80 percent free of poppy, told an Associated Press reporter that security officials and powerful landowners had ordered them to halt poppy cultivation.

“It was good business, but they said we should stop, and wait and see,” sharecropper Abdul Wahid told the Associated Press.

Public education campaigns in the region have assisted in the eradication process. One Nangrahar businessman is selling a locally-made anti-opium action DVD called “Black Poison.” Its action and romance-packed plot conveys the dangers of the drug trade.

Many, however, are skeptical of Daoud’s high estimates and attribute decreasing numbers to drought, disease, and falling opium prices.

“I want to see it with my own eyes,” the United Nations’ Costa said before departing on a five-day mission to Afghanistan in January. Costa cautioned that curbing poppy cultivation could take “a generation or more,” the AP reported.

Production continues to flourish along the Pakistani border and in a handful of other areas that have long been a source of poppy, such as the southern province of Kandahar. Areas that were previously modest poppy producers have become major sources of the plant. Farmers in the northern province of Balkh, for example, cultivated 2,717 acres of poppy in 2003, and that number soared to 6,163 acres in 2004.

“There has definitely been a major, major increase,” Doris Buddenberg, the Afghan representative for the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime, told the Washington Post.

Hurdles to eradication efforts

Soaring production levels in some areas underscore the challenges facing the Karzai government in its quest to flush the drug trade out of its borders.

With an economy largely dependent on drug money, many officials and local farmers are skeptical that the government will offer enough aid and a viable alternative to poppy cultivation.

Growing poppy can yield an income up to 10 times higher than growing crops like cotton and vegetables. Many Afghans find it virtually impossible to support their families without involving themselves in some aspect of the poppy trade.

“If we get help, maybe it’s gone for good. If not, we’ll plant again,” Wahid told the AP.

Twenty five years of war have ravaged Afghanistan’s agrarian infrastructure, destroying cotton gins, irrigation systems and sugar mills. Experts believe that rebuilding this infrastructure will offer farmers accessible alternatives to poppy cultivation.

Curbing poppy production places additional pressure on the international community to offer financial support for farmers making the transition from poppy to less profitable crops, such as wheat, vegetables and cotton.

“Farmers do not need poppy if the government and the foreign donors will support the traditional cash crops,” Richard Scott, a former USAID agricultural expert who recently finished a six-month project to renovate irrigation canals in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, told the Christian Science Monitor.

Allegations of government involvement in the drug trade have also hampered progress.

Many regional warlords are now top government officials who continue to facilitate and profit from the drug trade. Minister of tribal and frontier affairs Abdul Karim Brahowie has called cabinet meetings, which he says are full of drug smugglers, a farce. And often the police — who are supposed to enforce drug laws on the ground — are also assisting the drug trade, with the consent of the police chiefs, governors, and even deputy ministers, all of whom derive personal income from the industry.

“Whatever number of police cars there are in Kabul, I can tell you that more than 50 percent of them are carrying drugs inside from one place to another. The problem is that Afghanistan is training police to stop drug smugglers, and when they go out into the field, their police commander tells them how to protect the drug smugglers,” a senior police commander in Kabul told the Christian Science Monitor.

One the most pressing challenges facing the Karzai government is convincing corrupt officials to give up their involvement in the poppy trade. With policemen paid only $40 a month and higher-ranking officers $80, the drug trade remains an attractive source of income.

And when officials do enforce anti-narcotics laws, they are confronted by powerful drug lords whose hold on farmers is nearly impossible to loosen. Well-funded drug lords pay farmers in advance for the following season’s poppy crop, obligating the farmers to defy the law and cultivate poppies.

Poppy eradication is also a dangerous task. Approximately 600 Afghan policemen have been killed since Karzai’s election in 2004. In October 2004, a roadside bomb nearly killed Syed Ikramuddin, former governor of Badakhshan, a northern province. Vice presidential candidate Ahmed Zia Massoud also survived an assassination attempt in Faizabad.

Even when drug smugglers are caught, the poor condition of Afghanistan’s prisons allows many prisoners to escape, and others bribe guards for their release.

Decades of political instability have also left Afghan attorneys and judges without a clear legal framework. As a result, many criminal cases are handled by tribal elders. Experts believe that combating the nation’s vast poppy trade will require the establishment of an effective and enforceable criminal justice system.

International pressure

European officials have warned that if Karzai’s government fails to curtail the drug trade, the country’s shaky democracy could collapse under the weight of corruption and its dependency on drug money.

“There is a danger that all the stabilization and reconstruction efforts will be neutralized unless the narcotrafficking problem is addressed. We have to fight this corruption … those guys involved in the drug business [who] are in all levels of Afghanistan’s government,” Ursula Müller, a political counselor at the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. told the Christian Science Monitor. Müller has been involved in the rebuilding of Afghanistan since 2001.

Heeding these warnings, the United States and Europe, with Britain taking the lead, have pledged millions in aid for stabilization and reconstruction initiatives.

In May 2005, the European Union pledged $477 million over the next two years in counter-narcotics efforts. Thirty percent of that money will be spent on the cultivation of alternative crops.

Germany has focused on training Afghan policemen, particularly border police who can monitor the circulation of drugs in and out of the country. The German Embassy in Washington estimates that they have trained over 30,000 Afghan policemen, the majority of whom will work in airports, border areas, and as traffic police.

Despite the influx of financial support and Afghanistan’s programs, Costa said it would likely take another 20 years to eliminate opium from the country.

Afghanistan’s high-ranking officials are hopeful that alternative crops, a stricter and well-enforced judicial system, and a shift in the public’s attitudes will free the country’s economic and political spheres from the lure of the drug trade.

“If we have good and honest people in this government, then gradually this problem can be solved. The carpet of the smugglers will be rolled up forever,” Minister of Labor Ikramuddin told the Christian Science Monitor.

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