With the West's occupation of Afghanistan now nearing the seven-year mark and plagued by an increasingly powerful and deadly insurgency revitalized by massive profits from the opium trade, Western officials gained some small solace this week when the United Nations announced that opium production there had declined slightly from last year's record level. But the small decline comes as the Taliban and related insurgents are strengthening their grip on precisely those areas where opium cultivation is highest, and the light at the end of the tunnel is, at best, only a distant glimmer.
The UN attributed the decline in production to drought conditions and the efforts of a small number of Afghan governors and tribal and religious leaders to persuade farmers to give up the illicit crop. It also crowed that the number of opium-free provinces in the country had risen from 13 to 18, although it failed to mention that farmers in those provinces had, in many cases, merely switched from growing poppies to growing cannabis.
This year, almost all opium cultivation -- about 98% -- is now concentrated in seven provinces in south-west Afghanistan that house permanent Taliban settlements and are home to related trafficking groups that pay taxes to various Taliban factions on their opium transactions. The Taliban is making between $200 and $400 million a year off taxing poppy farmers and traders, Costa said earlier this year. In the report, Costa referred to Helmand province, one of the most Taliban-dominated in the country. "The most glaring example is Helmand province, where 103,000 hectares of opium were cultivated this year -- two thirds of all opium in Afghanistan," Costa wrote. "If Helmand were a country, it would once again be the world's biggest producer of illicit drugs."
The UN said that manual eradication played almost no role in the decline, affecting only about 3% of the crop. What manual eradication did accomplish was the deaths of some 77 anti-drug workers and police at the hands of insurgents and angry farmers. On Wednesday, Costa told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he should abandon manual eradication as useless and even counter-productive.
While Afghan poppy production is down slightly, it still surpasses global demand for its illicit end products. And after several years of crops greater than global demand, it is likely that Afghan traders are sitting on huge stockpiles of opium, so even if production were to be slashed substantially, it would cause no significant disruption in the global markets for opium and heroin.
Still, with the war news from Afghanistan seemingly growing worse by the day, UN and Western officials were eager to jump on any good news they could find. "The opium flood waters in Afghanistan have started to recede," Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the Vienna-based UNODC, wrote in the report. "This year, the historic high-water mark of 193,000 hectares of opium cultivated in 2007 has dropped by 19 percent to 157,000 hectares."
The US Agency for International Development (USAID), in charge of efforts to provide alternative development for farmers as part of the broader US counter-drug and counter-insurgency strategy, also looked for the silver lining in the storm clouds over Afghanistan. Its efforts are "paying off for Afghanistan in the war against poppy production," it said in a press release Tuesday.
The British foreign office also joined the chorus, with FCO Minister Lord Malloch-Brown releasing a statement welcoming the report's findings. "This shows that the Afghan government's Drug Control Strategy is starting to pay dividends," he said.
Still, Malloch-Brown warned there is a long way to go. "However, there is no room for complacency," he said. "Afghanistan is still the world's biggest supplier of heroin. High cultivation levels are concentrated in the unstable south, where we are working with the government of Afghanistan, local governors, and international partners to build security and governance."
Other, non-governmental observers were much less sanguine about what the slight decline in opium production signified. "I don't think there has been any real progress made at all," said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies. "But there has been so much money and pressure invested that they feel they have to justify their efforts. It's true that cultivation has ended in some provinces, but other areas are compensating for that."
A large part of the problem is that too many important players are involved and profiting from the trade, said Yaseer. "There are lots of strong, powerful people involved -- influential people in the Afghan government, governors, parliamentarians, provincial police commanders -- and unless they are suppressed, nothing will change. There is lots of concern expressed, but the business is hot and everyone is making money," he said.
Yaseer also pointed to the increasing ability of insurgents to wreak havoc. "Security is horrible, it's getting worse and worse precisely in those growing areas, and where the security gets worse, there are more opportunities for the drug business," he said. "Everyone takes advantage of the lack of security and the chaos."
The UNODC reports provides only "false hope," said the Senlis Council, the Paris-based drugs and security nonprofit that has long proposed buying up illicit poppy crops and diverting them into the licit medicinal market as a means of getting a handle on illicit production and the support for political violence it provides.
"Opium is the cancer destroying the south of Afghanistan," said Emmanuel Reinert, the group's executive director in a Wednesday statement. "Current counter-narcotics policies are failing to address the loss of the southern provinces to the dual scourges of poppy production and terrorism."
The decrease in poppy cultivation will have a minimal effect on the drugs trade, given the exponential growth in opium production since 2002. "This decrease is no more than a ripple in the ocean," Reinert added. "Without an urgent change of direction in the country's counter-narcotics policies, the international community will be unable to prevent the consolidation of opium production in the south of the country, and the consolidation of the Taliban which is financed by the illegal drugs trade."
Instead of pushing farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban and related insurgent groups by pursuing crop eradication, the West and the Afghan government should revisit the Senlis proposal, which was rejected out of hand when introduced in 2005, said Senlis policy analyst Gabrielle Archer. "It is clear that a long-term, sustainable solution is required to solve Afghanistan's opium crisis -- and prevent the insurgency's funding by illegal cultivation," she said. "Poppy for Medicine would allow farmers to diversify their crops, and give Afghanistan an opportunity to be part of a legal pharmaceutical industry. We need the Afghan people on our side if we are to be successful there, and this initiative could go a long way to winning back much-needed hearts and minds, which would be highly beneficial for our troops fighting there."
The hearts and minds of the Afghan population are turning increasingly against the West and the country's occupation by foreign troops, warned Yaseer, ticking off a seemingly endless series of incidents where Afghan civilians have been killed by coalition forces, the most recent being the reported deaths of 90 civilians -- 60 of them children -- in a NATO bombing raid last week. That raid prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call this week for a reevaluation of the foreign military presence in his country.
"Everyday there are new uproars in parliament and local councils," said Yaseer. "They say there is no difference between the Soviets and the coalition forces. They bombard whole villages in the middle of the night because they hear four or five Taliban are there. These killings keep happening all the time, and people are fed up with it. This is all developing very rapidly now. 'Why did you bring this war to Afghanistan?' the people ask. The gap between the people and the government is growing larger every day," Yaseer said.
With coalition military casualties on the rise, the Taliban grown fat off opium profits and ever more aggressive, and growing hostility to the West in the Afghan population, a minor down-turn in opium production doesn't look so impressive.