Opium drug production and cultivation in Afghanistan, which produced 93 percent of the world's opium supply last year, has decreased, according to a UN report released today. It was only a slight decrease, but a rare bit of good news in the efforts to disrupt Afghanistan's opium culture.
While there was a 6 percent drop in opium production since 2007, there was a more dramatic 19 percent decrease in the cultivation of opium, according to the report, which also found that the Nangarhar province – once Afghanistan's second highest opium producing province – is now opium-free.
Opium starts off as a milky substance that is drained from the seeds of poppy plants before being processed into heroin and sold as an illegal drug.
On a recent visit to Afghanistan, ABC News met with officials from the US Drug Enforcement Administration, which is helping train Afghan security forces to confront drug traffickers.
"As you're able to get the rule of law out to the provinces," said Vincent Balbo, the DEA chief in Kabul. "I think that you're going to continue to see this decrease. Clearly the areas that are most problematic are those that clearly have the least amount of security."
The connection between the security situation and the drug trade is clear. The UN study found that 98 percent of opium is produced in provinces where security is worst, especially in the Taliban-dominated south-west. Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold, cultivates two thirds of all the opium in Afghanistan.
"If Helmand were a country, it would once again be the world's biggest producer of illicit drugs," the report said.
The report points to good local leadership and bad weather as reasons behind the overall decreases, saying that as governors ran campaigns discouraging farmers from planting opium, drought contributed to crop failure.
Mr. Balbo also credits a new focus on fighting a traditional-style drug war.
"The long term solution is absolutely going after the kingpins," he said. "You eliminate those leaders, the managers, the command-and-control people and that absolutely affects everything else."
But Antonio Costa, executive director for the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, warned that the country is still vulnerable.
"Afghanistan's drug control strategy should be to consolidate and reduce," said Costa, adding that the world food crisis is hitting the country, one of the poorest in the world, hard. "Opium is a seasonal plant. It may be gone today, but back again tomorrow."
The report also reaffirmed a strong connection between drugs and conflict in Afghanistan, where regions of opium production overlap with zones of insurgency and organized crime groups capitalize.
"Since drugs and insurgency are caused by, and effect, each other," the report stated, "they need to be dealt with at the same time – and urgently."
Costa called for farmers, provincial governors, and district officials to "receive incentives and face deterrents in order not to grow poppy."
"The time to act is now," Costa urged. "Unlike cocoa, opium is a seasonal plant. In a few weeks, farmers will decide whether or not to plant opium for the 2008/09 harvest."
A spokesman for the State Department's Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs said the agency worked closely with the governor of Nangarhar over the last year to eradicate the farming of opium in the area.
"There was a lot of training involved," said spokesman Greg Sullivan. "There was training of law enforcement officials, assistance with education with education campaign, and public diplomacy money that went into Nangahar to hammer home the message."
But he noted that while the agency was very pleased with the report's findings, the yield per hectare has increased in some areas, which, he said, means that opium cultivation is becoming more efficient. An important strategy, he said, is the criminalization of the opium trade, in which people regard production as wrong.
"We feel confident that we are moving in that direction," Sullivan said. "For us, the subtext of this report is fewer people are involved in the drug trade in Afghanistan, and that's an overall positive."
On Monday, the AP reported that Afghan troops seized 1.3 tons of opium in southern Afghanistan last week.