NATO and UN tell contrasting stories about Afghan drug trade


NATO claims it made "incredible" seizures of drugs in Afghanistan in 2011 and dealt a blow to the finances of the Taliban-led insurgents. "Narcotics trafficking has been a key generator of funding for the insurgency, but that source of revenue is diminishing" Brigadier General Carsten Jacobson, spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), told a news conference in Kabul on 2 January, reports AFP.

"Afghan security forces, together with ISAF partners, seized an incredible amount of illicit drugs and related material in 2011 versus 2010."

Opium seizures rose 13% and those of cannabis resin, known as hashish 59%, while the amount of marijuana and morphine confiscated soared 1,208% and 10,113% respectively, according to the figures from ISAF, which did not give the amounts of drugs seized.

"Counter-narcotics operations are successfully disrupting the insurgents' ability to process opium into heroin. We will continue to choke off revenue generated by the sale of illicit drugs in 2012," Jacobson said.

ISAF's optimism is in stark contrast to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which in October reported that opium production in Afghanistan rose 61% in 2011 from the previous year, when the harvest was hit by disease. The UNODC estimates the 2011 output at 5,800 tonnes against 3,600 tonnes in 2010, with a slight increase in area under poppy cultivation to about 131,000 hectares (324,000 acres), 7% higher than in 2010.

After a slight decrease in 2010, Afghanistan will again be responsible for 90% of the global opium production the UNODC said.

The UN estimates that, of the total opium profits that remain in the country, about 10% goes to the insurgents, 20% to the farmers and the rest to the traffickers, the police, power brokers and those government officials who facilitate the transport out of the country.

In December, Afghanistan and seven neighbouring countries launched a programme to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking. But as the New York Times reports militants and opium producers remain resilient in the face of the eradication effort.

NATO has shown real progress in the Helmand River Valley where the poppy crop has been almost entirely eliminated and the Taliban has relinquished their hold. The distribution of high-quality wheat seed to spur farmers to stop planting poppies has been part of the success together with an aggressive poppy eradication programme. Other alternative crop programmes, such as cotton, have been less effective.

However, poppy cultivation continues to flourish in Afghanistan as a whole, and effective eradication programmes in one area simply lead to displacement of production to another: many poor farmers from Helmand simply moved from the ‘food zone’ to desert areas to grow poppies. “People are committed to grow poppies, because there aren’t any other crops where we can make enough money to fill our children’s stomachs,” said Abdul Rauf, a farmer in the desert area of Nad Ali.

Many questions remain regarding Afghanistan's ability to implement sustainable anti-drug strategies, especially after the scale-down of NATO forces and increased responsibility of the Afghan National Security Forces for anti-drug strategies in Afghanistan.