Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s opium harvest has dropped from last year’s record high, the United Nations announced Tuesday, arguing that the tide of opium that has engulfed Afghanistan in ever rising harvests since 2001 is finally showing signs of ebbing.
“The opium flood waters in Afghanistan have started to recede,” Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime wrote in a forward of the 2008 annual opium poppy survey, which was published Tuesday. “Afghan society has started to make progress in its fight against opium.”
Poppy cultivation has dropped by 19 percent since 2007, and is now beneath 2006 levels as well, the report said. The harvest was also down, although by a lesser margin because of greater yields, falling by 6 percent to 7,700 tons.
More than half of Afghanistan’s provinces have now been declared poppy free — that is, 18 of 34 provinces grow no, or very little, poppy, up from 13 poppy-free provinces last year.
The results, gathered by the United Nations through satellite imagery and checks on the ground, are a success for the government’s strategy of weaning farmers off the illicit crop through persuasion, incentives and local leadership. A drought in northern Afghanistan also helped bring numbers down, although that has also increased the hardship farmers are suffering.
The report underscores a trend, first seen last year, that the more stable, better-administered provinces are succeeding in curbing illicit drug production, according to diplomats and government officials. A swathe of blue on the map of Afghanistan, stretching across from the north-east to the north-west of the country, now denotes decreasing or no poppy cultivation.
Two provinces that have been large-scale poppy producing regions in the past, Badakhshan in the north-east and Nangarhar in the east, have been declared poppy free this year, a consequence of effective local leadership and the support of religious leaders, elders and local council members, Mr. Costa said.
Nevertheless, Afghanistan’s poppy crop still remains the world’s largest, and now 98 percent of the crop is grown in the lawless southern and south-western regions that are in the grip of a virulent insurgency. Two-thirds of all opium in Afghanistan in 2008 was grown in the province of Helmand, where the Taliban control whole districts. Eight thousand British troops working with government soldiers have failed to make much headway, either in curbing Taliban activities or the drug industry.
“If Helmand were a country, it would once again be the world’s biggest producer of illicit drugs,” Mr. Costa wrote.
The fact that poppy and opium production is thriving in areas where the insurgency is strongest shows the link between drugs and conflict, he says, arguing that both need to be dealt with at the same time.
Attacks on drug eradication teams have in the past come from angry farmers, the report says, but in 2008 they appear to have been carried out by insurgents, the report says. Attacks included suicide bomb strikes that killed a United Nations data collection worker and a police eradication team in eastern Afghanistan, and rocket attacks on eradication teams in Helmand.