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Afghanistan: The rise of a narco state

Analysis: It’s a banner year for Afghan opium production. Here’s the good news and the bad news.

Afghan poppy 2013 11 15Enlarge
An army soldier walks through a poppy field during a joint patrol with the US Army near Pa'in Kalay in Kandahar province. (Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

BUZZARDS BAY, Mass. — It’s good news, bad news on opium production in Afghanistan.

First, the bad: 2013 has been an all-time record year for Afghan poppy farmers, according to a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The area under cultivation grew by 36 percent over 2012, which helped opium production soar by a whopping 49 percent despite adverse weather conditions and lower yields.

The good news is, it apparently could have been much worse.

The same report lauds Afghan counternarcotic institutions, which “have taken a significant step forward [and have] … tripled their effectiveness over recent years.”

One shudders to think what the totals might have been with a less “effective” anti-drug brigade.

Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of illicit opium, the main component of heroin.

The poppy crop’s farm gate value is $950 million; the total value of exports is exponentially higher — between $3 billion and $4 billion, an astronomical sum in a country whose GDP hovers around $18 billion.

Most of the end product stays right in Asia, with a large part of the heroin being smuggled through Tajikistan into Russia.

Another significant portion goes to Iran, where the Taliban exchange drugs for guns along the two countries’ common border.

Relatively little ends up in the United States, which gets most of its drugs from Colombia and Mexico.

The drug trade fuels corruption within the government and law-enforcement institutions, gives the Taliban a lucrative source of “tax” revenue, and is responsible for a skyrocketing drug addiction rate within Afghanistan itself.

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The report speculates that the increase may have been driven by “the withdrawal of international troops and the forthcoming [Afghan presidential] elections in 2014, which led farmers to try to hedge against the country’s uncertain political future.”

Since 2002 the United States has spent nearly $7 billion on counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan.

But with the international engagement in Afghanistan now winding down, the abject failure of the anti-drug program could hardly be more obvious.

There are numerous reasons for this. In a very real sense, the US, which is the leader of the international coalition in Afghanistan, with 60,000 of the 86,000 troops in country as of October, has not been overly interested in a hard-hitting effort directed against drug lords, some of whom were at least occasional allies in the “war on terror.”

“In Afghanistan, finding terrorists has always trumped chasing drug traffickers,” Bobby Charles, the former top counternarcotics official at the State Department, told The New York Times back in 2007.

Meanwhile, poppy flourished.

Noorullah Shirzada/AFP/Getty Images

Drug production went from a low of 8,000 hectares under cultivation in 2001, following a Taliban ban on planting, to a record high of 193,000 hectares in 2007. It plummeted in 2010 due to a mysterious blight that wiped out more than a third of the crop.

Poppy has now revived, and this year 209,000 hectares were planted — more than half a million acres, or two-thirds the size of Rhode Island.

In her US Senate confirmation testimony in 2009, Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton ruffled feathers in official Kabul by calling Afghanistan “a narco state” whose government was “plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption.”

Things have only gone downhill since then.

The counternarcotics minister in this banner year was Zarar Moqbel, who has had a long and controversial career in the Afghan government. He briefly served as interior minister, but the incompetence and corruption of his tenure provoked such an outcry from the international community that President Hamid Karzai was forced to sack him in 2008.

He popped up again in 2010 to lead the counternarcotics effort, prompting the UK’s Guardian newspaper to talk about “a new opiate twist to the old saying about foxes and hen houses.”

At the end of October, Moqbel stepped down as anti-drug czar — not in disgrace, but to take over at the Foreign Ministry.

In 2007, Thomas Schweich, the Missouri state auditor who was then serving as US coordinator