The opium industry is largely funding the Taliban''s war budget and is a major source of revenue for criminal groups and terrorists in Afghanistan despite becoming less important to the country''s overall economy, according to a United Nations report released in London today.
This year has witnessed a decrease in the amount of land cultivated for growing poppies, a cut in opium production and a slashing of prices, yet the Taliban are able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from the drugs trade.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report showed a 19 per cent decrease in opium cultivation to 157,000 hectares, down from a record harvest of 193,000 in 2007, and said that production also dropped by six per cent to 7,700 tons.
At the same time prices have fallen by some 20 per cent, resulting in an overall drop in value of opium to farmers by more than a quarter in the last year, from $1 billion to $730 million. The export value of opium, morphine and heroin for Afghan traffickers is also down from $4 billion in 2007 to $3.4 billion in 2008.
The size of the country''s opium problem is shrinking as one million fewer people were involved in cultivation this year and the area of arable land used to grow poppies has dropped from 2.5 per cent to 2.1 per cent, according to the UNODC Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008.
Despite reduced cultivation, production and prices, the Taliban and other anti-government forces are able to make huge profits from the drugs business by imposing a 10 per cent charge on economic activity.
Opium farming may have generated $50 to $70 million of such income this year, in addition to a further $200 to $400 million of income in forced levies on drug processing and trafficking.
“With so much drug-related revenue, it is not surprising that the insurgent''s war machine has proven so resilient, despite the heavy pounding by Afghan and allied forces,” said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa.
Mr. Costa suggested that ongoing efforts by the Taliban to manipulate the opium market may result in less opium in 2009.
“Since they are hoarding opium, they have the most to gain from lower cultivation. This would drive up prices, and result in a re-evaluation of their stocks,” he said.
It is important to keep downward pressure on both opium production and prices, said Mr. Costa while calling for “greater and faster international development assistance, including food aid to urban areas, to prevent a humanitarian disaster and to consolidate gains that have resulted in 18 out of Afghanistan''s 34 provinces becoming opium free.”
“If the Taliban can disrupt the market so can NATO. Drug production and trafficking would be slowed by destroying high value targets like drug markets, labs and convoys, which the Afghan army, backed by NATO, are starting to do.”
Mr. Costa also noted that international efforts have been stepped up to stem the flow into Afghanistan of precursor chemicals, which are needed to produce heroin.
“These measures are meant to hit organized crime and insurgency in order to cut the Afghan drug economy''s umbilical cord to the world, breaking the link between opium farmers in Afghanistan and heroin addicts in Europe,” said Mr. Costa.
“The downward trend in Afghanistan''s opium economy would gain speed with more honest government, more security and more development assistance.”