Opium Production in Afghanistan Hits Record High

A sobering United Nations report details a new surge in the world's largest opium supplier

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Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan rose to a new high of more than 200,000 hectares in 2013, a 36% increase over last year, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said Wednesday. The report, part of the agency’s annual survey, indicates a grave trend for the country as U.S. and NATO forces withdraw over the next year.

The 2013 figure represents the highest total cultivation ever for Afghanistan, surpassing the previous peak of 193,000 hectares in 2007. Total opium production reached roughly 5,500 tons, an increase of 49 percent since 2012. Opium prices fell slightly, but according to the report, the farm-gate value–the price of a crop when the farmer sells it–increased by almost a third. Nearly $1 billion of raw opium came out of Afghanistan last year, accounting for 4% of the country’s GDP.

For most of the last twenty years, Afghanistan has been the world’s largest opium producer; in 2000, the country accounted for roughly 70 percent of the world’s heroin supply. Then in 2001, the Taliban banned poppy, citing Islamic prohibition against drugs, and wiped out 99 percent of the country’s production of the crop. The prohibition caused near economic ruin in rural areas. Some farmers tried to replace the poppy with wheat, which requires more water, and in the spring of 2001, many questioned whether the Taliban could enforce the ban for another year.

That question became irrelevant after the September 11 attacks, when the U.S. drove the Taliban from power. In 2002, farmers took advantage of the power vacuum following the U.S. invasion and returned to planting poppy as a cash crop. According to the U.N.’s opium production report from 2002, poppy cultivation was down to approximately 8,000 hectares in 2001, then surged to roughly 74,000 hectares after the fall of the Taliban.

Over the past decade, opium cultivation increased, with a dip in 2009 and 2010 during the U.S.-led troop surge, as coalition forces pushed into southern provinces where poppy production is the highest. But during those years, the country still produced more than 100,000 hectares annually. In 2010, Russia, citing its 200,000 heroin and morphine addicts and 30,000 deaths each year, called for a poppy eradication effort, but NATO refused. “We cannot be in a situation where we remove the only source of income of people who live in the second poorest country in the world without being able to provide them with an alternative,” NATO spokesman James Appathurai said at the time.

But finding an alternative has seemed nearly impossible. The State Department has tried handing out millions of dollars in “Good Performers Initiative Awards” for farmers who reduce poppy cultivation, but production has surged anyway. In April, an international law enforcement official told the New York Times that Afghanistan was becoming the world’s first true narco-state. “The opium trade is a much bigger part of the economy already than narcotics ever were in Bolivia or Colombia,” the official said.

The motivations behind opium cultivation are clear. In this year’s U.N. survey, nearly three-quarters of famers said they harvested the crop because of high income from little land, and 44% cited the high sale price of opium. Of the farmers in the survey who never cultivated opium, 60 percent said because it violates Islam.

With the release of this year’s report, Yury Fedotov, Executive Director of UNODC called for a more comprehensive and integrated response to the drug problem. “Counter-narcotics efforts must be an integral part of the security, development and institution-building agenda,” he said. U.S. and coalition troops will nearly be gone by the end of next year, leaving behind perhaps a few thousand personnel, depending on the agreement with the Afghan government. That means the weight of the counter-drug effort will fall to the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics, which, critics say, is woefully underfunded. This past spring, the New York Times reported that the ministry had requested $11 million in support from international donors, and in April, had received only $300,000.