Opium Production Booming in Free Afghanistan

Freedom has been good to Afghanistan's opium farmers.

Afghanistan produces 90 percent of the world's opium, and the drug accounts for one-third of the country's gross domestic product, according to the U.S. State Department's annual report on international narcotics trafficking released today.

Though the amount of acreage under poppy cultivation dropped 48 percent in 2005, yields increased because the weather was good, so production dropped only 10 percent below the 2004 level. Even with the decrease, this year's total is almost double the country's peak production levels under the Taliban, and more than half of the total reduction occurred in just two provinces.

The United Nations estimates that opium poppy cultivation accounts for a third of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

Dangerous security conditions and corruption are blamed for the mixed results in Afghanistan's effort to curb its growing reliance on opium as a cash crop.

The State Department's annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report presents a mixed assessment of efforts to prevent Afghan farmers from growing opium poppies. This year's report does not repeat last year's warning that Afghanistan is on the verge of becoming a "narcotics state." That warning was prompted by 2004's bumper crop of opium, when 206,700 hectares were dedicated to poppy cultivation. This year's 48 percent decrease in the amount of acreage devoted to poppy cultivation has led U.S. officials to conclude that that there is "cause for guarded optimism in 2005."

The good news of last year's cut in poppy planting has been tempered by recent reports that it is once again on the rise, which is of new concern to U.S. officials.

The report praises the commitment of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his government to fight poppy production, which is seen as a threat to efforts to rebuild Afghanistan's economy and develop a strong democratic government based on the rule of law. Karzai has recently pledged to further reduce poppy cultivation in 2006 by an additional 20 percent.

Despite that commitment, it appears that the apparent success this year in reducing Afghanistan's poppy crop has more to do with market factors than with the Karzai government's eradication efforts. Last year's large harvest resulted in low opium prices.

Also cited as factors in the drop-off were threats of destruction and appeals by Karzai's government for farmers to forgo planting opium in exchange for development assistance.

The eradication efforts supported by the United States and Great Britain -- called the Central Poppy Eradication Force -- succeeded in eradicating only 200 hectares in 2005, which represents less than .002 percent of the total area dedicated to poppy production.

Afghan officials hope to improve their efforts this year by reaching out to the local leaders who blocked their efforts. In addition, the interior ministry has also committed 1,300 police officers to support provincial efforts at poppy eradication.

Revealing the crop's importance to the Afghan economy, the report notes that poppy cultivation provides regular employment to almost one in 10 Afghanis, and benefits from the drug trade.

Of even more concern to Afghan officials is the country's growing internal drug use problem. Afghanistan's first-ever nationwide survey of drug use showed that the country has 920,000 drug users, including an estimated 150,000 opium users and 50,000 heroin addicts.