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Feature: Afghan Opium Production Declines Slightly From Record Levels

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.

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2008 Afghan opium cultivation chart from the UN report
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, released Tuesday, total Afghan opium production this year will be 7,500 metric tons, down 6% from last year's all-time record of 8,200 tons. Also, according to the survey, the amount of land devoted to opium production declined 19%. The UN said the total crop had decreased by a smaller number than the amount of land because farmers in key opium-producing provinces were producing bumper crops.

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."

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith interviewed former opium-growing Afghan farmers outside Jalalabad in fall 2005
The Bush administration welcomed the report, saying it provided vindication for its much-criticized anti-drug policies in the country. But a State Department spokesman told the Washington Post, "the drug threat in Afghanistan remains unacceptably high. We are particularly concerned by the deterioration in security conditions in the south, where the insurgency dominates."

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.

Southwest Asia: Former US Anti-Drug Official Accuses Afghan Government of Complicity in Drug Trade -- US and NATO Not Doing Much Either, He Complains

Former State Department official Thomas Schweich, who was the US government's point man in the effort to wipe out the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan until last month, has accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai of protecting drug traffickers and obstructing anti-drug efforts in an article to be published in the New York Times magazine on Sunday, but which appeared on the newspaper's web site Wednesday night.

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opium poppies
"While it is true that Karzai's Taliban enemies finance themselves from the drug trade, so do many of his supporters," Schweich wrote. "Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government," he wrote, adding that drug traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials. Schweich accused Karzai of resisting heightened anti-drug efforts and opposing the eradication of opium poppy fields, long a dream of US drug warriors.

"Karzai was playing us like a fiddle," Schweich wrote. "The US and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai's friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term."

The Karzai government wasn't the only problem, Schweich wrote. He criticized both the US military and NATO forces for indifference, if not outright hostility, toward the anti-drug battle and argued that failing to cut Taliban profits from the drug trade means fighting could continue indefinitely.

"The trouble is that the fighting is unlikely to end as long as the Taliban can finance themselves through drugs -- and as long as the Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power," he said.

Almost everyone is to blame for the Afghan drug mess, the now-retired drug warrior fumed. "An odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats and the Taliban were preventing the implementation of an effective counter-drug program," he said.

In a Thursday press conference in Kabul, Karzai rejected Schweich's charges."As I had said two years ago, Afghanistan never takes the blame (for the drugs threat). The Afghan nation due to desperation, war... has been forced to resort to this issue," Karzai replied when asked to respond to Schweich's comments. "Without doubt, some Afghans are drugs smugglers, but majority of them are the international mafia who do not live in Afghanistan," he said.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium. Production has expanded dramatically since the US invaded and overthrew the Taliban in late 2001.

Editorial: It's Everybody Else Who's Crazy

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
There's an article appearing in the upcoming New York Times Magazine this weekend, pre-released online, that would be funny -- if it weren't appearing in one of the world's most influential publications, that is, and if it hadn't been written by someone who until recently had great influence in an area of policy that he so woefully misinterprets. In "Is Afghanistan A Narco-State?," former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Thomas Schweich blasts Afghans, Europeans, Democrats, the media -- even the Pentagon -- for "preventing the implementation of an effective counterdrug program."

As Jacob Sullum points out in Reason, the answer to the question of whether Afghanistan is a narco-state is "yes." But what Schweich doesn't ask is, why does opium have this power to corrupt governments, empower extremists, warp the economy of an entire nation? After all, there is plenty of legal opium growing around the world, for medical uses, that doesn't have this effect. The answer is: Afghanistan's opium crop is illegal. But because lots of people still want opium and its derivative products like heroin, for their illegal uses, and are willing to pay lots of money for them, there are others who are willing to take the risk that engaging in illegal activity entails, in order to earn the heightened profit that the illegality and risk makes available. In other words, it is drug prohibition that has turned Afghanistan into a narco-state.

Schweich points out that there are places where the opium crop got pushed out before -- Guatemala, nearby Southeast Asia, Pakistan -- and that's what he wants to see in Afghanistan. But another obvious question that he fails to ask is, did this actually reduce the supply of opium and opiates? Or did it simply move the growing to other countries? (Hint: It moved to Afghanistan -- the country we're talking about -- right next to Pakistan.)

The other obvious question is, why did all those different people -- all those different kinds of people -- fail to support Schweich's agenda? After all, there couldn't be any good reason not to support releasing large quantities of poisonous chemicals into the air (for eradication); or not to try to wipe out an enormous fraction of Afghanistan's economy and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, at the very time when the Taliban wants to win their loyalty, could there?

Maybe it's because these Afghans and Europeans and US military officials aren't crazy. Maybe it's because they've actually listened to what scholars have to say about this: eradication doesn't work, it drives farmers into the hands of the Taliban, security has to come first, you can't just tell a hundred thousand people in the world's fifth poorest nation to give up their primary income source with no viable replacement. Could they have taken the positions they've taken, made the decisions they've made, because they are intelligent and informed and logical and practical?

To the Schweichs of the world, it's everybody else who's crazy -- or wrong, or corrupted -- anyone but him. And no matter how many times his policies fail to produce the desired result when measured meaningfully, it's okay. Because that's a detail that doesn't merit asking a question about -- certainly not in an article written for the New York Times -- and he's busy fighting drugs. Which obviously we have to continue to do, in the way we have done before -- because -- because we just do. Evidently no matter what, as far as the Schweichs of the world are concerned.

Middle East: Iraq Becomes Key Conduit in Global Drug Trade

America's two-front "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq is resulting in a one-two punch to US efforts to strangle the global drug trade. Afghan opium production has famously shot through the roof in the years since US forces invaded and overthrew the Taliban, and now, Iraq is emerging as a key player in the global drug trade, according to Iraqi and UN officials consulted by Agence France-Presse.

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Afghan opium
Many of the drugs being smuggled into and through Iraq to European and Middle Eastern markets are coming from Afghanistan via Iran, where the Islamic Republic is hard-pressed to patrol remote trafficking routes along its border with Afghanistan, officials said.

While hard numbers are hard to come by, Iraqi officials said the trade in illegal opiates, cannabis, and pills has risen steadily since the US invasion in 2003. They point to numerous drug trafficking arrests at border crossings with Iran, as well as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

"A large number of smugglers are being arrested," Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf told AFP, adding that many were being detained in the southern Iraqi provinces of Basra and Maysan, both of which border Iran.

"The smugglers transfer hashish and opium across at Al-Shalamja at the Iranian border and Safwan near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border," an anti-narcotics agent in Basra said on condition of anonymity. "Some of them are arrested from time to time, including Iranians and even Syrians," he said, adding that the smugglers used mainly trucks to haul their cargo into the Gulf region.

"The drugs come from Iran, then they are sold at the Saudi border," said a local police officer in Samawa in Muthanna province who did not want to be named. "Smugglers are young and they use motorcycles or animals to cross the desert late at night."

Iranian authorities say they seized about 900 tons of an estimated 2,500 tons of drugs that entered the country from Afghanistan last year. While Iran has arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate, Iranian officials estimated that more than 1,000 tons of drugs, mostly opium, heroin, and cannabis, transited the country on its way elsewhere last year.

The International Narcotics Control Board is also raising alarm bells. "Illicit drug trafficking and the risk of illicit cultivation of opium poppy have been increasing in some areas with grave security problems," it said, referring to Iraq in a report published last year.

"Drugs follow the paths of least resistance, and parts of Iraq certainly fit that description," an official of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime told AFP.

Not all the drugs are just passing through embattled Iraq. "Though official data are lacking, it appears that drug abuse in Iraq has increased dramatically, including among children from relatively affluent families," the INCB said in its report.

Southwest Asia: West Threatens to Block Iran Drug Aid Over Nuclear Issue

With Afghan opium and the heroin made from it flooding into Europe, Iran is one of the first bulwarks in the effort to stem the tide. But now, the West is threatening to condition further anti-drug assistance on Tehran's compliance with its demands that the Islamic Republic halt uranium enrichment.

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International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
Since the overthrow of the Taliban, Iran and the West had quietly cooperated in efforts to block the trade from Afghanistan. United by a common loathing for the Sunni insurgents, Iran and the West were able to work together on this issue. But that is now in doubt.

The threat came in a package of incentives presented June 14 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, France, Britain, China, Russia) and Germany in a bid to get Tehran to change its nuclear policy. Iran has repeatedly said it will not stop enriching uranium, and now the European Union is considering wider sanctions, including ending cooperation with Iranian anti-drug efforts.

The package promised Iran "intensified cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking" from Afghanistan, but only if it first stops uranium enrichment. Tehran insists it has the right to use such technology and says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.

Burdened with a 560-mile-long border with Afghanistan, Iran has deployed some 30,000 soldiers and police to fight opium and heroin smuggling from its neighbor. Some 3,500 of them have been killed in the past two decades. Last year, Iranian officials reported seizing 660 tons of opium, nearly three-quarters of the total seized worldwide. Despite such efforts and a draconian Iranian response to drug trafficking offenses -- the death penalty -- Iran suffers arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate.

But not all the opium and heroin smuggled across the Iranian border stays in Iran, and that had UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa warning that Europe could be hit by a "heroin tsunami" if anti-drug aid is blocked. "We should definitely assist in this respect," he told the Associated Press this week. "Iran is a front-line country."

The UNODC's man in Tehran, Roberto Arbitrio, told the AP fighting the drug war should be seen as "a non-political area of mutual interest."

"Cooperating with Iran in Afghanistan on this and other issues is not a favor we do for Iran -- but something we need to do in our own interest," Barnett Rubin, perhaps the leading US academic expert on Afghanistan, told the AP.

"Fighting drug trafficking should not be politicized," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the top anti-drug official in Iran. "When narcotics reach Europe, it is the people, not governments, that suffer."

Such objections notwithstanding, however, drug interdiction has manifestly failed to reduce the supply, making the specter of increased drug abuse should aid be withheld an uncertain outcome.

Neither the White House and State Department nor the office of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana would comment on the linkage between continued anti-drug assistance and Tehran's compliance with Western demands.

Southwest Asia: Taliban Makes $100 Million a Year Off Drug Prohibition

The Taliban made about $100 million last year by taxing Afghan farmers involved in growing opium poppies, Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told BBC Radio. The money came from a 10% tax on farmers in Taliban-controlled areas, Costa said, adding that the Islamic insurgents profited from the illicit drug business in other ways as well.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"One is protection to laboratories and the other is that the insurgents offer protection to cargo, moving opium across the border," Costa told the BBC's File on 4 program.

Taliban opium revenues could decline slightly this year, Costa said, suggesting that yields and revenues are likely to decrease due to drought, infestation and a poppy ban enforced in the north and east of Afghanistan. That would lower Taliban revenues, "but not enormously," he said.

But a smaller harvest this year is unlikely to cause any shortages or put a serious dent in Taliban opium trade revenues. For the past three or four years, Afghanistan has produced more than the estimated world annual consumption, Costa noted. "Last year Afghanistan produced about 8,800 tons of opium," he said. "The world in the past few years has consumed about 4,400 tons in opium, this leaves a surplus. It is stored somewhere and not with the farmers," he added.

The Taliban have put the funds to effective use, as evidenced by the insurgency's growing strength, especially in southeast Afghanistan -- precisely the area of most intense opium cultivation. More than 230 US and NATO troops were killed in fighting in Afghanistan last year, and 109 more have been killed so far this year. US Army Major General Jeffrey Schloesser told reporters Tuesday Taliban attacks in the region were up 40% over the same period last year.

British officials interviewed by the BBC said it was incontrovertible that the Taliban was profiting off of the illegal trade created by prohibition. "The closer we look at it, the closer we see the insurgents [are] to the drugs trade," said David Belgrove, head of counter narcotics at the British embassy in Kabul. "We can say that a lot of their arms and ammunition are being funded directly by the drugs trade."

Which leaves NATO and the US stuck with that enduring Afghan dilemma: Leave the poppy trade alone and strengthen the Taliban by allowing it to raise hundreds of millions of dollars; or go after the poppies and the poppy trade and strengthen the Taliban by pushing hundreds of thousands of Afghan farmers into their beckoning arms.

Southwest Asia: Iran Accuses West of Ignoring Afghan Opium, US Marines Conveniently Aid Tehran's Case

Iran Wednesday accused the US and NATO of indifference to Afghanistan's booming opium trade and called on the West to help fight smuggling of opium and heroin across the border the two countries share. A day earlier, an Associated Press story about US Marines newly deployed to Afghanistan's Helmand Province helped make Iran's case.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
In that story, some of the 2,000 members of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, freshly arrived in Helmand, the world's largest opium growing region and a hotbed of the Taliban insurgency, explained that they were ignoring the poppy crop because they feared alienating local residents dependent on the trade to earn a living.

"It's kind of weird. We're coming over here to fight the Taliban. We see this. We know it's bad. But at the same time we know it's the only way locals can make money," said 1st Lt. Adam Lynch, 27, of Barnstable, Mass.

Second Lt. Mark Greenlief, 24, a Monmouth, Ill., native who commands the 2nd Platoon, said he originally wanted to make a helicopter landing zone in a local farmer's field. "But as you can see that would ruin their poppy field, and we didn't want to ruin their livelihood."

Staff Sgt. Jeremy Stover's platoon is billeted beside a poppy field planted in the interior courtyard of a mud-walled compound. The Marines' mission is to get rid of the "bad guys," and "the locals aren't the bad guys," he said. "Poppy fields in Afghanistan are the cornfields of Ohio," said Stover, 28, of Marion, Ohio. "When we got here they were asking us if it's okay to harvest poppy and we said, 'Yeah, just don't use an AK-47.'"

Battalion commander Lt. Col. Anthony Henderson, told the AP that his troops can't focus on the poppy crop when the Taliban is "terrorizing the people." The key is first to defeat the Taliban, he said. "I think by focusing on the Taliban, the poppies will go away," he said.

But the Marines, and the rest of the 30,000 US and 20,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan are caught in a terrible contradiction: If they go after the opium, they risk driving the population into the waiting arms of the Taliban. If they don't go after the opium, the Taliban makes as much as $100 million a year off its share of the trade, which goes to buy more weapons to fight the US, NATO, and the Afghan government.

Ignoring the opium crop -- Afghan opium accounts for 93% of the global supply, according to the United Nations -- does not sit well with Iran, which reportedly has the world's highest opiate addiction rate. "The exploding growth in the cultivation of opium... in Afghanistan last year has created many problems... especially for Iran," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, secretary of Iran's drug control headquarters, a day after the AP story appeared.

"We think NATO and foreign forces in Afghanistan are indifferent to the issue of drugs and have put other goals as their priorities," Ahmadi Moghaddam told a conference of officials from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. "Since the time they entered (Afghanistan) we are witnessing an explosive rise in the production of drugs," he said.

Iran is spending $600 million a year to stop Afghan drugs from coming into the country, and could use some help from the West, which is evidently ignoring the problem, he complained. "Iran requests the serious and practical cooperation of the international community, especially European countries, as the main destination for smugglers, in fighting drug trafficking."

Simple Farmers Bearing Brunt of Afghan Drug War

EDITOR'S NOTE: Kalif Mathieu is an intern at StoptheDrugWar.org. His bio is in our "staff" section at http://stopthedrugwar.org/about/staff It was reported by the Associated Press on March 24 that 100 Afghan drug police were killed in the line of duty in 2007. One hundred deaths, not even counting civilians, simply to claim 13 provinces out of the country's 34 as poppy-free, seems like a brutal waste. And the war isn't truly even being fought against drugs, or even against a logical enemy of the state like the Taliban. This war is being fought against simple farmers, mostly in the remote and unruly provinces that don't have strong state presence. Farmers are thereby forced to pay taxes totaling in the tens of millions to non-governmental entities like the Taliban, essentially for "safe passage" in these lawless areas. This cost makes it a necessity, not merely an option, to secure the profits of growing opium. According to the World Bank: "[T]he cultivation of opium poppy started in the late 1970s -- with gross income per hectare yields 12 to 30 times higher than the country's staple, wheat." Given those numbers, it's easy to see why farmers living on the edge in a lawless province paying taxes to people like the Taliban would use opium growing to give themselves a little breathing room. It isn't that these farmers ideologically support opium or heroin use, or support the Taliban, quite the contrary. From the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's John Dixon of the Agricultural Management, Marketing and Finance Service in 2004: "Opium is not a crop of choice for most Afghan farmers. There are just no attractive alternatives at present that can give them a return anywhere near the return opium gives." So why is it that the focus of all of this on eliminating the growth of poppies instead of increasing central government jurisdiction, thereby increasing general security? Even after clearing these 13 provinces of opium, farmers have started planting marijuana instead, according to the AP, and so the struggle continues. Stop wasting time and money and lives burning fields of cropland and start working on protecting these farmers from Taliban extortion! This would seem a much more positive plan of action than destroying their livelihoods and committing them to poverty. The process would also reduce Taliban funding since they would have fewer and fewer farmers to exploit. That may sound optimistic, but at least aiming for the goal of security is a little more helpful to the people and realistic to work toward than trying to eliminate the drug trade in a place like Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan doesn't even agree 100% with the United State's approach to the situation: in late 2007 the US was pushing to spray opium fields with pesticides from the air, but the Afghanis wouldn't allow it.
Location: 
Afghanistan

Middle East: The Poppies Blossom in Iraq

British journalist Patrick Cockburn, writing in The Independent reports that opium poppy cultivation is rapidly spreading across Iraq. While Cockburn reported in May that poppies had appeared near Diwaniyah in southern Iraq, he now reports that poppies are growing in restive Diyala province, where Al Qaeda in Iraq is making what could be a last stand.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Diyala, deeply divided between Kurds, Sunni, and Shia, is so violent that local security forces have little time to deal with drug cultivation. The Iraqi news agency al-Malaf Press reported that farmers have turned to poppy cultivation around Khalis, Sa'adiya, Dain'ya, and Baladruz, while Cockburn added the town of Buhriz to the list. But cultivation is even more extensive in southern Iraq, especially around Amara and Majar al-Kabir.

The news agency quoted a local engineer as saying local farmers got no support from the government and could not compete with cheap imported fruits and vegetables. They also face rising fuel and fertilizer prices. "The cultivation of opium is the likely solution to these problems," said the engineer.

The poppy growing and trafficking is linked to Sunni and Shia militias, Cockburn wrote. US military strategy has relied on developing a 70,000-member Sunni militia, many of whose members dabble in protection rackets, crime, and smuggling. Similarly, Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the powerful Shia Mehdi Army militia, has complained that criminals have infiltrated its ranks. According to Cockburn, it is the local warlords and the militias that have sponsored the opium planting, not the farmers.

Southwest Asia: US Plan For Aerial Spraying of Afghan Poppies on Hold -- for Now

The US government has given up for now on efforts to persuade the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai to allow aerial spraying of the country's opium poppy crop, Reuters quoted a senior US government official as saying Wednesday. The US State Department and Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) had pushed hard for spraying, but ran into opposition not only from the Afghans, but also from the US's European allies and even other parts of the US government, including the Congress and the Pentagon, which fears such an effort could backfire and drive Afghans into the waiting arms of the Taliban.

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
"We've talked to President Karzai about the program we want to work with him on this season," Thomas Schweich, the US coordinator on counternarcotics in Afghanistan, told the news agency. "He has said he doesn't want to do aerial eradication so we won't do aerial eradication. If he changes his mind, we will," Schweich said in Brussels.

Instead of aerial spraying of herbicides, Schweich said, the US will rely on ground eradication. A ground eradication program this year managed to eradicate only 9% of the crop, according to the United Nations.

"That program is going to continue," Schweich said. "It got about 15-16,000 hectares last year. We didn't think it was enough so we are going to monitor very closely whether it is down equitably," he said, adding that there are signs some powerful figures in Afghanistan are using their positions to ensure their fields are not targeted.

Afghanistan produced 93% of the world's opium supply this year, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in a report released last month. In addition to finding their way into the pockets of corrupt government officials and poor Afghan farmers, profits from the opium trade have also fueled the Taliban insurgency, leaving Western policy-makers with a real dilemma: Do they crack down on opium and drive farmers into the hands of the Taliban or do they turn a blind eye and watch opium profits buy shiny new weapons for the Taliban? Prohibition appears to have created a lose-lose situation for the West.

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