Afghan opium cultivation reaches record levels

Concern profits may go to warlords jockeying for power ahead of international withdrawal

Afghan opium cultivation has hit a record high as international forces prepare to leave the country, the United Nations said today, with concern that profits will go to warlords jockeying for power ahead of a presidential election next year.

The expansion of poppy to 516,000 acres, will embarrass Afghanistan’s aid donors after more than 10 years of efforts to wean farmers off the crop, fight corruption and cut links between drugs and the Taliban insurgency.

"The short-term prognosis is not positive," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan.

“The illicit economy is establishing itself, and seems to be taking over in importance from the licit economy.”


Afghanistan is the world’s top cultivator of the poppy, from which opium and heroin are produced. Last year, it accounted for 75 per cent of global supply and Mr Lemahieu had previously said this year it might supply 90 per cent.

The increase in the crop was caused by various factors including greater insecurity as foreign troops pull back in preparation for withdrawing next year, a high opium price last year and a growing lack of Afghan political will to tackle the problem.

That will is particularly weak as an April presidential election approaches, Mr Lemahieu said. President Hamid Karzai cannot stand again, leaving the field open to a range of rivals, some linked to power-brokers who have profited from poppy in the past.

The area under poppy is 36 per cent higher than in 2012, and eclipses the previous record set in 2007, when 477,000 acres were cultivated, the UN anti-drugs agency said in a report. Total output is estimated at 5,500 tonnes of opium, up 49 per cent from 3,700 tonnes in 2012.

Farm-gate profits are expected to approach $1 billion, or 4 per cent of gross domestic product.

Some of those profits will be funnelled off by the Taliban to fuel their insurgency. Western officials privately accuse senior members of the Afghan state of also profiting.

The new figures are part of an annual assessment of opium production by the UNODC and the Ministry for Counter-Narcotics.

The report revealed that two northern provinces, Balkh and Faryab, were again growing poppy after being deemed poppy-free last year. Eradication fell by almost a quarter.

Afghanistan has a serious drug addiction problem but most of its output is smuggled abroad, particularly to Europe.

UNODC first measured opium production in Afghanistan in 1994, when the hardy plant with reddish, pink and purple flowers was grown on 175,000 acres.

The area rose to more than 247,000 acres for the first time the year after the US-led ouster of the Taliban in 2001.

Afghanistan’s allies have tried to build infrastructure, develop markets and provide farmers with alternative crops. But insecurity and graft have largely stymied rural development while poppy eradication has been patchy.

A farmer in the southern province of Helmand, where almost half of Afghanistan's opium is grown and where British and US forces have faced some of the fiercest fighting of the 12-year war, said he had no choice but to grow opium.

“We are lost,” said the farmer, Mullah Baran, who supports a family of twenty. “I do not know what is legal and what is illegal in Afghanistan. If I grow poppy, that is illegal, but if I pay a bribe, that is legal.”