The UN Office on Drugs and Crime has just published its winter assessment of the Opium trade in Afghanistan and it makes fascinating and encouraging reading. Opium production is down. The 18 provinces that were opium-free in 2008 are likely to remain so and four others – Badakhshan, Baghlan, Faryab and Herat – could see all poppy cultivation eliminated this spring. Nangahar province is opium free for the first time in anyone’s memory.
Opium cultivation is becoming concentrated in the seven most unstable provinces in the south and south-west, although even in Helmand production may decrease this spring. These seven provinces produce 98 per cent of the country’s opium. In fact Helmand produces more opium than any other region in the world. The UN estimates that about 10 per cent of Afghanistan’s population - around 2.4 million people - is involved in opium cultivation.
The reasons for the drop in production vary. In the north, centre and east of the country it is due to government pressure, higher prices for legal crops and the success of a government propaganda campaign; in the south and east it is due to high wheat prices and a severe water shortage. In the southern region, 21 per cent of village headmen questioned about why they had not planted opium said the reason was because it was against Islam.
Overall, 29 per cent of villages in the south said they would not be cultivating opium, compared to only 15 per cent a year ago. Eighteen per cent of the villages (compared to 29 per cent a year ago) said that they had received a cash advance for growing poppies, although it was not clear who had provided this money.
Despite the fall in production, prices have also fallen by around 20 per cent. This is in part due to massive over-production during the last three years and therefore stockpiles are high – although the location of these stockpiles is unknown. However, as the report notes: “the drugs trade remains a major source of revenue for anti-government forces and organized crime operating in and around Afghanistan. Drug money is also a lubricant for corruption that contaminates power.”
The survey found that the average farm gate price for opium had fallen to $55/kg by November 2008, compared to almost double that in 2006. However, total income for opium farmers totalled around $752 million, compared with about $1 billion the previous year.
Another significant finding is that opium is grown in more than 50 per cent of villages where security is poor, but is not grown in more than 90 per cent of villages where security is good. There is, therefore, a close correlation between opium production and insurgency.
This is the subject of an excellent article by Jacob Townsend, writing in the Jamestown Terrorism Monitor. Townsend is a consultant working with the UN in Afghanistan. He points to several consequences of the recent trends in opium production.
First, he argues, falling prices for opium means the Taliban will be forced to tax non-opium crops more than at present. Second, farmers will have to pay more for their illicit crop to be protected by the Taliban; third, the Taliban will be forced to become more involved in trafficking opium as a way of protecting its income. And fourth, as drug money declines as a form of Taliban income, other sources of funding for the insurgency – for example, donations from the Gulf –will become more evident and thus possibly easier to stop.
Townsend suggests that the nexus between the insurgents and the criminals involved with the opium trade will become even more blurry than it is at present: “a recession in insurgent control will unmask the collusion between local powerholders, opium farmers, and, in many cases, government officials in Kabul.” He argues that next two years - before the opium price rises again - will be critical.
There are several points to make about all these statistics. The first and most important is that the UN has failed to communicate what is happening with the opium trade to the general public. Most people are unaware of the recent successes.
Second, it has not yet been able to persuade enough Moslems that opium cultivation is haram. The truth is that the vast majority of the opium and heroin produced in Afghanistan is consumed locally or in neighbouring countries such as Iran and Pakistan. Its main victims are Moslems. Where are the fatwas? Why has the Taliban not been challenged? It was against opium production when it ruled the country.Third, it is clear that much of the opium business is being conducted not by the Taliban, but by warlords and criminals who are close to the Karzai administration in Kabul. Is anyone prepared to name and shame?