KABUL: Opium production in Afghanistan is expected to fall significantly this year, with British and Afghan anti-drug efforts finally taking hold following record harvests. Afghan officials said they expected that an increased number of the country’s 34 provinces would be declared “opium poppy free”. More than 90 per cent of the heroin consumed in Britain originates in Afghanistan. Production in Helmand – its biggest heroin province and the front-line for British soldiers – is also expected to fall alongside successes against a major drug lord and smugglers.
General Khodaidad, Afghanistan’s counter-narcotics minister, said: “This year the overall cultivation of poppy is down. Around 20 provinces in total will be declared drug free.” He added that the provinces of Nangahar and Badakhshan, which as recently as 2004 were behind only Helmand in production, would be poppy-free. Both are in the north and east of the country where government control is greater and the improvements have been the most significant.
The Afghan government considers any province with less than 2,500 acres of poppy to be “poppy-free”. Last year 250,000 acres of opium poppy were planted in Helmand, according to Western counter-narcotics experts. Slightly less have been planted this year, while 10,000 acres have been eradicated. Alongside Afghan police missions, British special forces have recently begun targeting drug smugglers in Helmand.
Western officials said that they had destroyed part of the massive poppy crop belonging to a major drugs figure in the province who is also its former police chief. “Around 20 per cent of the land of Abdul Rahman Jan was successfully eradicated,” said one official. Afghanistan’s drug trade has soared since the invasion in 2001, giving rise to a $4 billion industry that accounts for about a third of the country’s total economy.
Drug eradication efforts that were a shambles last year because police and government officials systematically took bribes to spare all but the most impoverished farmers appear to have been more successful this year. The Telegraph spoke to two low-level drug smugglers in Helmand last month who claimed that Afghan eradication teams had been more resistant to bribery in 2008. “In the past the eradication police came from Kabul and they all took bribes,” said one 35-year-old man, talking under the alias of Ahmad Wali.
“This year, there were many different organisations involved and each one was afraid to take the bribes because of the others.” The two said that it was becoming hard for smaller smugglers to survive because only the powerful could afford to pay enough to avoid
prosecution. However, some analysts have said that the smugglers were deliberately suppressing production in key provinces until Western demand inflated prices. A ban by the Taliban at the beginning of 2001 saw prices skyrocket, allowing smugglers to sell old opium, which can be stored for several years. “People still have their stocks of opium and they need the price to go up,” said one Afghan official in Nangahar. “With the increase in Western military activity in this area it has been hard to move the drugs. Now the price is $75 a kilo, but in four months that could triple.”
Western officials are united in their belief that the war on drugs in Afghanistan is likely to last 20 or more years. They all expect poppy production, particularly in Nangahar province, will rise again next year, as steady worldwide increases in food and fuel prices puts added pressure on the poorest farmers to seek the most lucrative crop. In the past 12 months, 820 people have been arrested for drug smuggling, including 17 Afghan soldiers and policemen, it was disclosed yesterday One army colonel was sentenced to 10 years after he was caught with 100 lb of opium in a military vehicle.-SANA