Opium cultivation up again in Afghanistan

Trend underscores security concerns

The acreage devoted to growing opium poppies this year is expected to top 2008’s peak.
The acreage devoted to growing opium poppies this year is expected to top 2008’s peak.

KABUL — For the third year in a row, opium cultivation has increased across Afghanistan, reversing earlier drops stemming from a decade-long international and Afghan government effort to combat the drug trade, according to a UN report released Monday.

The report’s findings raised concerns among international law enforcement officials that if the trend continued, opium would be the country’s major economic activity after the departure of foreign military forces in 2014, leading to the specter of what one official referred to as ‘‘the world’s first true narco-state.’’

Afghanistan is already the world’s largest producer of opium, and last year accounted for 75 percent of the world’s heroin supply. ‘‘The assumption is it will reach again to 90 percent this year,’’ said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the United Nations’ top counternarcotics official here.


The report, the Afghanistan Opium Risk Assessment 2013, issued by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and based on extensive surveys, found that opium cultivation has increased in 12 of the country’s 34 provinces. Herat, in western Afghanistan, is the only province in which cultivation is expected to decrease, the report said.

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The report suggests that Taliban insurgents took advantage of insecurity in several provinces to assist opium farmers and win popular support — protecting an important form of income for their operations. Opium cultivation has increased most wherever there has been insecurity.

Overall, the number of acres devoted this year to opium poppy cultivation is expected to top the figure in 2008, when poppy plantings reached a peak of 388,000 acres, Lemahieu said. After 2008, eradication efforts, as well as a cash incentive program for provinces that eradicated all opium poppy crops, helped reduce cultivation drastically through 2010.

This year three provinces — Balkh, Faryab, and Takhar in the north and west — are in danger of losing their poppy-free status, according to the UN report. They are among 16 provinces that had been declared poppy-free; such provinces receive $1 million awards from the US Embassy, paid directly to the governor’s office.

In February, the State Department announced that it was handing out $18.2 million in Good Performers Initiative Awards for reducing poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. There was no immediate response from US Embassy officials on how the program would be affected by the new UN data.