Southwest Asia: Afghan Opium Crop to Expand This Year, UN Says 3/10/06

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Monday that Afghan farmers are planting more opium poppies this year than last year, with declines in only three of the country's 30 provinces. The report was based on December and January surveys of farmers by the UNODC and the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics.

Last year, the UNODC reported that cultivation had decreased by 21% over the previous year, but actual opium production had only declined 2% because of more favorable weather conditions. Afghanistan remains by far the world's largest opium producer, accounting for nearly 90% of total annual global production.

"This year, an increase in poppy cultivation is expected," Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told a press briefing in the capital Kabul. "The survey shows an increasing trend in poppy cultivation in 13 provinces, a stable trend in 16 provinces and a decrease in three provinces," Edwards explained. "Among the 13 provinces which show an increasing trend, seven reflect a strong increase, namely Helmand, Ghor, Uruzgan, Zabul, Nangrahar, Laghman and Badakhshan," Edwards noted.

"We are concerned about these trends," Doris Buddenberg, UNODC Representative in Afghanistan said. "But they do not come as a complete surprise. It cannot be emphasized enough that counter narcotics is a long-term process, which must be based first of all on an overall development approach, and this takes a long time," Buddenberg added.

Helmand province in the southeast could be a real hotspot this year. The largely Pashtun province has the country's largest crop, accounting for 25% of national production last year, according to the UNODC. Largely out of the control of the government of President Hamid Kazai, Helmand's opium crop doubled last year, according to local anti-drug chief Fazel Ahmad Sherzad.

Now, thousands of NATO troops are beginning to deploy to Helmand, with some 5,700 British troops set to be on the ground by July as part of an overall NATO deployment of 21,000 troops from 36 countries to take over security in Afghanistan's restive southern and eastern provinces. This is where the Taliban and Al Qaeda have been increasingly active in a renewed insurgency that left more than 1,500 people dead last year, including 99 US troops and 30 NATO troops. An additional 18 US and 3 NATO soldiers have been killed so far this year.

And on Wednesday, the Karzai government began an eradication campaign in Helmand, with hundreds of tractors tearing up the green shoot of new poppy plants. While the NATO contingent is not directly involved in the eradication campaign, it will be expected to provide security for the eradication teams.

"We have started in Dishu and we will work our way up from the south of Helmand to the north, destroying poppies in every district and village," said Ghulam Muhiddin, the provincial administrator.

The Afghan government hopes to eradicate 50,000 acres nationwide out of an estimated 350,000 to be planted this year, which would be a substantial increase over last year. But it may drive peasants into a hostile stance toward the NATO troops and into the arms of the Taliban, which has pledged to protect the crops. Two days earlier in eastern Nangahar province, it took dozens of Afghan police armed with AK-47s to protect eradication teams from angry farmers. The season is just beginning.

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Issue #426 -- 3/10/06

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