The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime reports a 22 per cent drop in opium cultivation in Afghanistan, the world’s largest opium producer, responsible for a staggering 92 per cent of the global opium supply. It is, indeed, heartening and brings some relief at a time when the political and security sectors look bleak. It also warns of serious developments that may tilt the narcotics industry in Afghanistan towards a new dimension.
The fact that the cultivation in the Helmand province in southern Afghanistan has declined by nearly a third, should be a major morale booster for the international community. It is the seat of the most intense military engagement against the insurgents and produces almost 60 per cent of the country’s opium. Ironically, though cultivation of poppies declined by almost a third, opium production only dropped by 10 per cent. This is due to the fact that Afghan poppies yield record opium by the bulb, thus ruling out any chances of corresponding decline in production.
The decline can be attributed to a number of factors: a more aggressive counternarcotics offensive that includes military interdiction of laboratory equipment and chemicals used for refining opium into heroin. The high success rate achieved by the introduction of food zones that successively supplanted, to a considerable degree, illicit farming of opium by licit farming alternatives; acknowledgement of eradication as a failure and increased efforts at interdiction and provision of alternate crops. Only recently, key US officials, admitted the failure in the counternarcotics strategy of adhering to eradication. Washington is now actively seeking to shift focus to trafficking, a top priority, also being stressed by UNODC. In addition, the drop in prices because of oversupply at source and the current trends in international markets has impac- ted cultivation.
The interesting development, forewarned by the UNODC, may become a bigger problem for the region, given the entrenched presence of narcotic cartels spanning from Russia, Central Asia to Europe and beyond. It is believed that insurgents are now increasingly involved in the narcotic process---from production to processing, stocking to trafficking.
Previously, they only received a percentage in taxes at the supply end. It is feared that this could develop on the lines of the drug cartel in Colombia that initially started as an ideology based political movement. Additionally, the stockpiling of 10,000 tons of opium, a significant portion of which may be with the insurgents, is cause for worry and has been brought to the attention of intelligence agencies. Besides, failure to go after drug lords, as called for under the Security Council Resolution 1735, is at odds with the counternarcotics strategy.
A lot needs to be done to boost the positive developments. This entails greater regional cooperation in countering trafficking, diversion of more financial and material resources to farmers and increased efforts in targetting corruption within the Afghan government. In addition, a regional strategy, targetting respective organised crime cartels in collusion with elements within Afghanistan, would greatly impact the drive against narcotics.
September 3, 2009