The year to eradicate poppiesDrugs under attack in Afghanistan [Archives:2005/814/Reportage]

February 7 2005

By Peter Willems
Yemen Times Staff

After last year's dramatic increase of opium production in Afghanistan, the government has implemented an aggressive strategy to eradicate poppy cultivation.

The government's Central Poppy Eradication Force, which was established last year, is now equipped with 700 officials. And according to Deputy Minister of Interior General Mohammed Daud, the counter-narcotics force will be 2,300 strong by the end of 2005.

When the newly-elected President Hamid Karzai was sworn in last December, he stressed that tackling the drug trade is the country's first priority. Daud recently said that the new government has labeled 2005 as “poppy eradication year.”

In the last three months, the new counter-narcotic force has destroyed around 14,800 hectares of poppies.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last November that 131,000 hectares were used by farmers to grow poppies in 2004, a 64% increase from the year before. Eighty-seven percent of the world's opium, the raw material used to produce heroin, comes from Afghanistan, and the $2.8 billion annual revenue represents 60% of the country's economy. Poppy seeds are planted in each of the country's 34 provinces.

The government's crackdown on poppy cultivation has already shown some positive results. So far this year, the number of farmers planting poppy seeds has dropped: Government officials forecast that harvesting poppies this year will go down between 30% and 70% in 2005. Officials say that there might be a significant drop in some of the provinces known as producing large quantities of opium, such as Nangarhar in the east and Helmand in the south.

Some are concerned, however, that an aggressive fight against the drug trade could generate repercussions in the future.

“It appears that the government's new strategy to crackdown on poppy cultivation is a good start,” an Afghan analyst told Yemen Times. “But unless the farmers receive a lot of assistance to profit from growing other crops, the drop in poppy cultivation might be short lived.”

Last week, 31 non-government organizations operating in Afghanistan, such as CARE, Oxfam and the International Crisis Group, sent a letter to the newly appointed US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice warning that a quick solution could bring in more severe poverty and social unrest in the war-ravaged country.

“We accept that there will be some eradication this year, but eradication – if it is the primary mode of combating narcotics here – is going to negatively impact the poorest people in the country and do very little to actually get at the core of the problem,” said Paul Barker, CARE's Afghan Country Director, after the letter was sent. “The problem really has not been driven by the poor farmers in the fields. It's been driven more by the processors and merchants who sell it further up the chain.”

Barker added that it is critical for the farmers to have an opportunity to find an alternative livelihood.

The US Congress has asked for $750 million to help support the war on drugs in Afghanistan this year. But some are skeptical: A small amount of the money will be directed towards assisting farmers switching to another crop and targets only a few provinces.

“This new American initiative with alternative livelihood funding is targeted only at a few provinces, whereas poppies are now grown in all 34 provinces in Afghanistan,” said Barker. “We prefer to see a nationwide program to provide viable alternatives for all poor farmers in Afghanistan and don't want to provide an incentive for people to grow poppies so that they can then benefit from an alternative livelihoods program.”

The UNODC report estimated that 10% of the country's population, or 2.3 million Afghanis, are now involved in the drug business.

In a recent interview, Habibullah Qaderi, who was appointed as the Minister of Counter Narcotics in December, said that the government is aware of a possible backlash coming from the eradication process. “To take away the livelihood of farmers could pose security problems at this time. We will be careful with the eradication,” said Qaderi. “Certainly we need to give more stress to alternative livelihoods. If you want to get rid of the poppies, we need assistance from European countries and from America itself.”

Some also argue that the Afghanistan government needs to focus on capturing and prosecuting druglords, destroying labs that convert opium into heroin and cracking down on the supply line that leads to neighboring countries.

The UNODC has warned that organized crime involved in the drug trade has become well established in the last few years. The UN organization says that Afghanistan, once only a supplier of the raw material, now has enough labs to convert three-quarters of its opium into heroin. With a new mafia established in Afghanistan, some believe that violence will increase as those involved in the drug industry try to maintain instability throughout the country.

Reports indicate that terrorist networks, such as Al-Qaeda, and Afghan warlords that still rule vast areas of the country outside Kabul, the capital, are profiting from opium production. When Karzai formed a new Cabinet late last December, he replaced a number of militia leaders who were appointed as ministers in the interim government as a reward for taking part in toppling the Taliban regime in late 2001.

Former Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim, once a leading commander of the Northern Alliance, was replaced by his deputy Abdur Rahim Wardak, who fought against the Soviets in the eighties. Yunus Qanooni, who stepped down as Minister of Education and was Karzai's top rival in the presidential elections last October, was not given a position in the cabinet.