Afghan opium production drops sharply

The US reports that they expect opium production in Afghanistan to drop by a third this year, a remarkable amount of progress in a war-torn country with poor infrastructure for most other crops.  The UN expects a less-dramatic decline, but either would be good news for the Hamid Karzai government:

Opium production in Afghanistan will fall by almost a third this year, according to a US government report.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy report estimates opium production will plunge by 31% to 5,500 tonnes compared to 8,000 in 2007.

The United Nations, however, estimates the drop in opium production will only be 6% this year.

Ninety percent of the world’s opium – which is used to make heroin – comes from Afghanistan.

That’s bad news for junkies, and it’s bad news for the Taliban as well.  They rely on drug money to fund their operations, which is a bit of irony, since they tried to suppress opium production while in power.  Their territory has grown smaller, too, as 18 of the 34 provinces in Afghanistan have become poppy-free.

Weaning Afghanistan off of opium will take more than a military presence and a drought, both of which contributed to the decline in 2008.  Afghanistan has almost no infrastructure for normal agriculture — no electricty for refrigeration, no established transportation to quickly move crops to market, not even reliable roads for trucks that barely exist.  Without that, Afghan farmers would starve in the winter as their food stores would either spoil or get depleted.  Opium, on the other hand, can be easily stored and sold for cash at any time, giving farmers a reliable income supply during the harsh winters.

The lack of infrastructure has made this problem worse.  The Taliban has loaned money to these farmers in many cases as shylocks, and they force farmers to continue to grow opium in order to keep their land — and not just the land.  When farmers fall behind on their payments, Taliban fighters forcibly marry their daughters as “loan brides” when farmers cannot pay.

The drop in opium production may bring a new wave of atrocities in Afghanistan’s agricultural areas.  Hopefully, NATO has prepared themselves to deal with that situation.  In the long term, though, we need to build Afghanistan’s infrastructure so that they can economically grow other crops and leave the poppies behind.