KABUL, Afghanistan – Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has been increasing for a third year in a row and is heading for a record high, the U.N. said in a report released Monday.
The boom in poppy cultivation is at its most pronounced in the Taliban’s heartland in the south, the report showed, especially in regions where troops of the U.S.-led coalition have been withdrawn or are in the process of departing. The report suggests that whatever international efforts have been made to wean local farmers off the crop, they are having little success.
Increased production has been driven by unusually high opium prices, but more cultivation of Afghanistan’s premier cash crop is also an indication that Afghans are turning to illicit markets and crops as the real economy shrinks ahead of the expected withdrawal of foreign combat troops at the end of 2014.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, the raw ingredient in heroin, and last year provided about 75 percent of the global crop – a figure that may jump to 90 percent this year due to increased cultivation.
Crop sales mostly fund local power brokers and criminal gangs in Afghanistan and to a lesser degree the Taliban, Western experts believe. This makes it difficult for the Afghan government to establish control in areas where the economy is driven by black-market opium sales, despite a small but effective counternarcotics force.
“As we have predicted, opium will go up for a third year in a row,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime in Afghanistan, which prepared the report along with the Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry. “We are looking at a record high cultivation.”
The Afghanistan Opium Winter Risk Assessment 2013 issued was conducted in two phases. One from December to January for central, eastern, southern and western Afghanistan, where opium was sown in the fall of 2012, and another in February and March that covered northern and northeastern Afghanistan, where opium is usually planted in the spring.
The exact figure for 2013 is still unclear, but the U.N. said that indications are it will surpass the 154,000 hectares planted in 2012, and the 131,000 in 2011.
“Afghanistan is (going) to turn into a narco-state unless and until there is a comprehensive strategy that is adopted now,” said UNODC deputy representative Ashita Mittal. “Time is not on our side.”