Farmers in Afghanistan are getting ready to harvest a bumper crop of opium starting in April--and that's a cause of concern for officials from the U.S., U.N., and the interim Afghan government of Hamid Karzai. The Taliban had largely eradicated opium cultivation in Afghanistan in 2000. But farmers began replanting opium poppies last November, even as the Taliban government was collapsing.
Although Karzai issued a new ban on opium cultivation on Jan. 17, it was too late. Farmers planted an estimated 110,000 to 160,000 acres of opium poppies last fall, according to a new U.N. report, up from 7,606 the year before. That could produce as much as 6 million pounds of opium--worth about $540 million to the Afghan economy, according to a U.N. official in Islamabad. Karzai lacks the power to enforce his ban, and local officials and farmers see little to gain from stopping the harvest. "It's an extremely tough year for prevention of production of opium," the U.N. official acknowledges.
Even so, international agencies are scrambling to see if they can find a stop-gap solution. A U.N. team is heading to Afghanistan to determine whether farmers can be induced to destroy their crops in exchange for compensation. Chances of success look slim, however. That's why U.S. officials are concerned that drug trafficking could become a primary source of financing for al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations as other sources dry up. The pressure is on the Afghan government to take stronger measures before the next planting season.
By Frederik Balfour in Hong Kong
Edited by Rose Brady