Tough luck, Myanmar. Reports from US and international drug control bureaucrats and from journalists on the ground in Afghanistan all suggest that the war-torn Central Asian nation is well on its way to regaining the dubious distinction of being the planet's leading opium producer. Myanmar (formerly and more commonly known as Burma) took first place in the opium production sweepstakes last year after the Taliban banned the crop in Afghanistan, but with the strict Islamist regime defeated and a shaky new government in Kabul busy trying to consolidate itself, poor Afghan farmers have already sown thousands of acres of opium poppies for harvest in the spring.
Only last month, US and United Nations drug watchers had pronounced Myanmar, a Southeast Asian military dictatorship, as 2001's world champion opium producer, responsible for 865 tons of the heroin precursor last year, according to the State Department's Annual Survey of Opium Cultivation and Production. Although Myanmar's production declined by more than 200 tons from 2000, the Taliban ban on Afghan opium production allowed the Burmese to creep into first place. Afghan production last year was an estimated 185 tons, down more than 90% from the more than 3,200 tons harvested in 2000, according to a recent UN International Drug Control Program estimate. (The estimate is contained in the 2001 Afghanistan Annual Opium Poppy Survey, online at http://www.undcp.org/pakistan/report_2001-10-16_1.pdf in the agency's Pakistan-area web site.)
"Afghanistan has gone from producing 70% of the world's opium to less than 10%," UNDCP chief researcher Dr. Sandeep Chawla told a London conference in October.
Even as Chawla was spreading the good news, though, Afghan farmers were taking advantage of the fall of the Taliban and the new government's preoccupation with establishing itself to replant poppy fields they had torn up under Taliban orders last year. Farmers in Northern Alliance-controlled Badakshan province never stopped planting and were responsible for the bulk of the Afghan crop this year. But according to on-the-scene reports from late December in the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe, farmers in Kandahar and Helmand provinces in the Afghan southwest and Nangahar province in the east had begun planting again even as American bombs fell in October and November. Now the young plants with their tiny green leaves are visible from major highways and in plain view on the outskirts of Jalalabad, the eastern administrative capital for the new government and staging area for the US and Afghan assault on the nearby Tora Bora cave complexes.
As always, the intrepid reporters found desperately poor peasants who understood all too well the laws of supply and demand. "It's good to be growing poppies again," a barefoot Muhammed Tauib in a village outside Jalalabad told the Chicago Tribune. "At least my family will be able to eat." A farmer's wheat crop gains three cents per pound, the Trib reported, while a pound of opium fetches at least $15. Farmer Shukredeen told the Tribune drought played a role as well. "I have a big field where I can grow lots of wheat or cotton," he said, "but I have no water. So what should I do with my few drops of irrigation water?" he asked the Tribune. "Grow a small bag of vegetables? Or a small bag of opium?"
The UNDCP thinks it knows the answer and does not like what it sees. UNDCP senior policy adviser Mohammed Amirkhizi told the Washington Post last week that "our expectation is that production will go back up to the level of previous years. The international community is extremely concerned," he said.
But there appears little to be done about it, at least before next spring's harvest. Although the new Afghan government committed itself to eliminate opium production at the international conference in Bonn in December that created the new regime in Kabul, new leader Hamid Karzai has yet to announce a new ban. Unnamed "drug control officials" told the Post the renewed prohibition was being negotiated, although whether between Afghanistan and the West or between Karzai and members of the Afghan polity the Post did not say.
According to the Post, concern about renewed Afghan opium supplies has so rattled the Bush White House and the UNDCP that some within both camps are calling for the desperate measure of buying out the entire crop. Others, the Post reported, want to rely on law enforcement combined with development assistance, the traditional carrot and stick approach, which has traditionally ended up being a lot more stick than carrot.
The Post quoted one "US official" as scoffing at the buyback notion. "We are not considering any kind of buyback," he said, arguing that paying for drugs -- even to destroy them -- would set a bad example.
But Knut Ostby, the UN Development Program's Afghanistan representative told the Post that the agency had tried for years to use economic incentives to get farmers to quit growing poppies, without success, and that a buyback could be the only way to prevent Afghan opium from ending up in the veins of heroin users from Iran and Russia to Western Europe and even the US East Coast. "Some form of compensation seems to be the only way to take care of next year's crop," said Ostby. "To have farmers otherwise not harvest their crop would be very difficult for them, and unlikely to work." Ostby also worried about the precedent such a move would set, he said. "But the reality is, there are not so many other options right now."