Afghanistan experienced a 19 percent decrease in the land under opium poppy cultivation in 2008 in comparison with the previous year, according to a report prepared by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. But even as the Afghan government lauds the decline, UN experts worry about another spike in production. This concern is underscored by the fact that actual production of opium declined only by 6 percent in 2008 over the previous year, the UNODC report states.
Winning the war against drugs in Afghanistan will be possible only if farmers who forsake the cultivation of poppies receive a level of economic and technical assistance that can help them grow alternative cash crops, UNODC officials suggest. Presently, the level of aid being given to these farmers is insufficient to achieve the desired aim. In some poppy-free areas, especially in the North, farmers are opting to cultivate cannabis, a plant much more difficult to detect.
Another cause for concern: links between the Taliban insurgency and the drug trade seem to be growing stronger. Despite the poppy cultivation decline in 2008, some experts estimate that the Taliban will derive up to $70 million in drug profits, which will be used to finance their insurgent campaign. Breaking the link between drugs and the militant will require greater involvement by NATO forces in Afghanistan. In an exclusive interview with EurasiaNet, the Afghanistan country representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Christina Oguz, discusses current trends and concerns about Afghanistan's struggle to contain narcotics trafficking.
EurasiaNet: The UNODC's 2008 Annual Opium Poppy Survey for Afghanistan cites strong leadership and the drought as factors for the decrease in the area under poppy cultivation. Do you see the decrease in 2008 as a trend or temporary?
Oguz: Well drought is a small reason, [accounting for] about 15 percent of the decrease. Most of it we can actually attribute to the government, both the central government especially the Ministry of Counter-Narcotics but also the governors in particular. If you look at Nangarhar Province, it is a remarkable achievement, but also Balkh is [poppy free] for a second year in a row. Badakhshan, which used to be number two [in production], [only] has around 200 hectares [under cultivation now]. It could easily become poppy free. What these three governors have in common is that they are strong leaders and they provide a clear vision for what they want, and people believe in what they say because they are able to mobilize the local community. This is a key combination. Having said that, we have to remember that poppy is an annual plant and so every year farmers have to make the decision:
Aunohita Mojumdar is a freelance journalist based in Kabul.