Kabul (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Opium production in Afghanistan reached record highs this year despite international efforts to strangle it. This was recently revealed by the US government, in confirmation of a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime and the World Bank. In 2006, production is estimated to have grown by 61% after a 26% increase in 2005, for a total product of around 5,600 tons. This is 17 times more than the world’s second producer: Myanmar. In the two main production provinces, Helmand in the southwest and Oruzgan in central Afghanistan, cultivation went up by 132%. Opium poppy covers only about 4% of cultivable land, but the crop is becoming more popular because it needs minimal care and irrigation. President Karzai declared opium as "Afghanistan's major enemy”, worse than terrorism.
More than 90% of the world’s heroin comes from Afghan opium. John Walters, White House drug policy chief, said the main causes for the failure to eradicate production were the resurgence of Taliban forces, which oppose US operations, and limited funds available for anti-narcotic and development programs.
But military sources believe the problem is more pervasive, with drug traffickers that have their own armies to pit against the force of 30,000 NATO soldiers deployed in the country. General James L. Jones, the supreme allied commander for NATO, said: “It would be wrong to say that this is just the Taliban… They [drug cartels] are buying their protection by funding other organizations, from criminal gangs to tribes, to inciting any kind of resistance to keep the government off of their back… They have their own capability to inflict damage, to make sure that the roads and the passages stay open and they get to where they want to go, even through Pakistan, Iran and Russia.”
In Afghanistan, drugs fuel an industry of 2.6 billion dollars per year, a sum that equalled one-third of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product) in 2006. Although farmers who cultivate opium poppies receive only a small percentage of the profits, it is estimated that they earn 12 times as much income than for any other crop. So any attempts to eradicate cultivation meet violent local resistance.
This is one of the reasons why the Afghan government has prohibited aerial herbicide spraying, used by US anti-narcotic programs in Latin America. Instead, opium poppy plants in Afghanistan are destroyed by tractors. But only 38,500 of nearly 430,000 acres under cultivation were eradicated in 2006.