Opium-Induced Déjà Vu in Afghanistan


Yesterday the U.N. announced that opium production in Afghanistan hit a record level this year. You may feel as if you've read this news before: Opium production in Afghanistan also hit a record level last year. This year 193,000 hectares of poppies were cultivated, up 17 percent from last year's 165,000. Thanks to favorable weather that led to high yields, opium production rose even more, from about 6,700 tons in 2006 to about 9,000 tons this year, an increase of 34 percent. The U.N. says Afghanistan's opium now represents 93 percent of the world total, compared to 92 percent last year. The New York Times notes that U.S. opium eradication efforts have accomplished little except to move the poppies around:

Despite a $600 million American counternarcotics effort and an increase in the number of poppy-free provinces to 13 from 6, the report found that the amount of land in Afghanistan used for opium production is now larger than amount of land used for coca cultivation in all of Latin America….

[Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime,] described a "divided" Afghanistan, with opium production dropping in the relatively stable north, and growing in the south, the center of an insurgency. There, Taliban militants control large areas and have encouraged farmers to grow opium. Production in the south has also become more sophisticated, with the number of labs processing opium into heroin growing to 50 from 30 in Helmand Province, local officials said.

The U.N. says this year's opium output "exceeds global demand by a large margin," indicating a stockpile of up to 3,300 tons. Although U.S. officials are increasingly worried that opium profits are helping to fund terrorism, they seem intent on raising the value of that stockpile:

The report is likely to spark renewed debate over an American-backed proposal for the aerial spraying of opium crops with herbicide. Afghan and British officials have opposed aerial spraying, saying it would increase support for the Taliban among farmers who fear the herbicide would poison them and their families. A proposal to carry out pilot programs where herbicide would be sprayed by ground eradication teams is now being considered.

Costa, for his part, wants NATO troops to get more involved in anti-opium efforts. "I am a lot more optimistic," he says. "The perception I have is that our call is not falling any longer on deaf ears."

But if cracking down on opium production in some Afghan provinces simply shifts it to others, wouldn't cracking down on opium production throughout Afghanistan simply shift it to other countries? It's not like that sort of thing has never happened before. A decade ago, by the way, Costa's predecessor, Pino Arlacchi, explained that "global coca leaf and opium poppy acreage totals an area less than half the size of Puerto Rico," so "there is no reason it cannot be eliminated."

Over the long term, if history is any guide, these grandiose anti-drug efforts will have no lasting impact on heroin consumption. Over the short term, as I noted in a column on the subject last year, they are strengthening the Taliban and their terrorist allies.