Opium harvest sets record

September 03, 2006|By New York Times News Service

KABUL, Afghanistan -- 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 U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, said yesterday 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 the total world's supply. It exceeds global consumption by 30 percent," Costa said.

He said the harvest increased by 49 percent from the year before, and it 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 this year compared with 104,000 last year.

"It is indeed very bad. You can say it is out of control," Costa said in an interview on Friday, before the announcement.

President Hamid Karzai expressed disappointment yesterday and urged the international community to expand its commitment to strengthen the Afghan police and law enforcement agencies.

The Bush administration has made poppy eradication a major facet of its aid to Afghanistan, and it has criticized Karzai for not doing more to challenge warlords involved in opium production. This year, the administration expressed concern that Afghanistan was in danger of becoming a full-fledged "narcotics state," where drug lords rule the country.

A State Department spokeswoman, Joanne Moore, had no comment on the report yesterday.

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 heroin made from Afghan poppies is sold in Europe and Asia, drug officials say.

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

Costa accused the former governor of Helmand province, Sher Muhammad Akhund, of encouraging farmers to grow more poppies 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.

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