Opium Trade Thriving in Democratic Afghanistan - U.N.

By Thalif Deen,
Inter Press Service
2/4/ 2003

UNITED NATIONS (IPS) - Despite the establishment of a democratic government and the presence of a 4,800-strong international peacekeeping force in Kabul, the cultivation of opium is continuing unabated in Afghanistan, a new U.N. study concludes.

The 222-page document raises difficult questions, Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said Monday.

''Why is the international presence in Afghanistan not able to bring under control a phenomenon connected to international terrorism and organized crime?'' and ''Why is the central government in Kabul not able to enforce a ban on opium cultivation as effectively as the former Taliban regime in 2000-2001?''.

Costa says there are no simple answers to these questions. The ''opium economy'' in Afghanistan is an intensely complex phenomenon, intermingled with the country's history, political structure, civil society and economy.

''Spawned after decades of civil and military strife, it has chained a poor rural population - farmers, landless labor, small traders, women and children - to the mercy of domestic warlords and international crime syndicates that continue to dominate several areas in the south, north and east of Afghanistan,'' says the study.

Titled ''The Opium Economy in Afghanistan: an International Problem'', it points out that the country's opium production has increased more than 15-fold since 1979, the year of the Soviet intervention.

The opium trade was de-facto legal in Afghanistan before and throughout the Taliban government. In 2000, the Taliban banned opium cultivation but not the trade.

By 2000, Afghanistan was the source of 70 percent of all the illicit opium produced in the world. Following a decline in 2001, production grew to high levels in 2002, making Afghanistan the world's largest producer of opium (followed by Myanmar and Laos), accounting for almost three-quarters of global opium production.

In January 2002, the government of Hamid Karzai, which was installed by the U.S. administration, banned the opium trade.
Despite the ban, the drug trade thrives. Revenue from opium rose from about 720 million U.S. dollars in 2000 to over 1.4 billion dollars in 2002.

Costa says that the establishment of democracy and the government's measures against the cultivation, trade and abuse of opium have been crucial steps towards solving the drug problem.

''Yet, other news has not been good,'' he says, adding that last year's opium poppy harvest was among the most bountiful in the country's history - more than 3,400 tons.

Drug abuse has increased greatly in the last few years due to prolonged human deprivation and suffering, the breakdown of traditional social controls, the return of refugees who developed drug problems in camps, and the almost unlimited availability of opiates within Afghanistan, the study says.

''Afghanistan's opium economy can be dismantled if the government, with the assistance of the international community, addresses the roots of the matter and not only its symptoms,'' Costa said.

Certain elements will be essential in any sustainable counter-narcotic policy, Costa says.

''To help poor farmers decide in favor of licit crops; to replace narco-usury with a proper credit system and micro-lending; to provide jobs to women and to itinerant workers; to provide education to children, particularly girls; to turn opium bazaars into modern commodity markets; and to neutralize traffickers' and warlords' efforts to keep the evil trade alive.''

According to the study, opiate trafficking profits in neighboring countries amounted to some four billion dollars in 2002, about two percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), illustrating, said Costa, the problem's international nature.

The study also says that 80 to 90 percent of the heroin found in European markets (both eastern and western Europe) has traditionally been trafficked along the so-called Balkan route (Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, the Balkan countries and Europe).

Those figures show that the solution will require an international commitment. ''In other words,'' Costa said, ''all countries that are part of the Afghan drug problem should be part of its solution''.