Poppy cultivation in Afghanistan fell this year but opium production barely budged, making the rugged mountain nation once again world's largest heroin purveyor, despite national and international efforts to curtail the drug's spread.
Nipping Afghanistan's opium problem in the bud thus far has meant targeting poppy farmers, but the root of the problem lies beyond the fields and within Afghanistan's government, say experts.
The problems are manifold. The heroin industry puts many Afghans at the mercy of narco-traffickers, and Russia and Europe are grappling with skyrocketing heroin use, which has fueled a rise in HIV cases.
In the last few years, the refining of opium into morphine and heroin has shifted within Afghanistan, signaling that organized crime has implanted itself, with opium profits now believed to be fueling the insurgency and international terrorist groups.
The Afghan government and international community have grappled unsuccessfully with the problem, but one think tank suggests that the answer is as simple as allowing poppy farmers to grow the plant legally for sale to pharmaceutical companies, rather than attempting to eradicate the crop.
Harsh winters can wreck a promising harvest. Not so for the Afghanistan opium crop, which after years of drought, flourished with the heavy rainfall and snow last winter and spring. Production fell 2.4 percent to 4,200 tons in 2005 compared to a year before. Despite the slight drop, 87 percent of the world's opium comes from Afghanistan, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime 2005 Afghan Opium Survey.
The UNODC and Afghan President Hamid Karzai are touting that this remains well below the 1999 peak under the Taliban and that eradication efforts have curtailed overall cultivation. Beginning in October 2004, Afghanistan ordered provincial governors to destroy poppy fields and dispatched national police on a slash and burn mission. The threat of having poppy fields wrecked by drug enforcement authorities convinced farmers not to plant poppies. In return for opting not to plant the crimson-colored cash crop, farmers are promised aid and assistance.
The efforts seemed to have paid off in targeted provinces. Cultivation -- the number of acres planted with poppies -- dropped by 21 percent with the "poppy basket" region of Nangarhar seeing a 96 percent drop in cultivation.
"This year, we saw how well the stick and carrot approach really works," said Antonio Maria Costa, UNODC executive director, at a presentation of the UNODC survey in Russia at the end of September.
Karzai has repeated that he hopes his war-battered country will rid itself entirely of poppies within five to 10 years.
Optimistic, yes. Realistic? Many doubt the country can achieve such lofty goals.
As encouraging as the numbers may be, CARE's Afghanistan Advocacy Coordinator Scott Braunschweig, questions the sustainability of the eradication efforts.
"These are short-term means to obtain a short-term reduction," he said in an e-mail from Kabul.
"The decreases have negatively affected many farmers' livelihoods and potentially weakened state development," said Braunschweig.
In his opinion, tying development assistance to reductions in poppy cultivation undermines long-term, sustainable improvements because inevitably both sides feel like neither is living up to its end of the bargain.