While Afghanistan's transitional government confronts the challenge of building an economy, the country's main export is resurging. That export, illicit opium, had an off year in 2001, but analysts at the United Nations expect to see Afghanistan produce as much heroin in 2002 as it did in the mid-1990s. The latest report from the UN's Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention suggests that Afghanistan's heroin trade will rebound long before its other industries do.
The Taliban rule that ended last fall cut Afghans off from world markets, information and social norms. In that course, it also effectively halted opium production in the provinces. According to the UN's Global Illicit Drug Trends 2002 report, the Taliban won "a high degree of compliance" with their July 2000 ban on opium production. Now that martial law has lifted, a quick UN survey suggests that many farmers planted fresh crops before Hamid Karzai, now the country's transitional president, endorsed a fresh ban in January 2002. The UN reports that traders are offering premium prices for Afghan opium, which might lure growers to ignore the ban. Analysts expect production in Afghanistan to range from 1,900 to 2,700 tons in 2002, slightly lower than 2000's output and about half the size of 1999's.
Afghan opium fetches high prices in part because other countries like Burma and Colombia did not produce meaningfully more opium during the Taliban regime, the report says. Growers had developed adequate stocks before the Taliban crackdown, according to the report, and Afghan soil is particularly efficient for the drug. According to UN estimates, Burma devotes more hectares than Afghanistan to production, but Afghanistan boasts higher production per ton.
For these reasons, some traffickers appear willing to bet that the current ban will not stick. UN officials say that eradication was successful in major poppy growing provinces despite the unpopularity of the measures, but they hasten to add that in many other areas the ban has been ignored. Without Taliban-style enforcement, many growers ignore production bans and eradication orders because they see no other way to make a living.
The UN says it intends to change that outlook. "Today, the challenge is to break the vicious circle which made Afghanistan the world's biggest producer of illicit opium," UN Office of Drug Control and Crime Prevention Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa said in launching the report. "The United Nations is assisting Afghan farmers in achieving sustainable agricultural alternatives to opium poppy cultivation." With opium production off, the report said, addicts would become more desperate, leading to increased crime and sales of other drugs. But this substitution could also create an opening for opiate control policies.
In Afghanistan, according to the report, drug addiction is a less severe problem than drug production. The report has been making annual estimates of illicit drug production, trafficking and consumption around the world since 1999. It bases its numbers on data that states provide voluntarily and on supplemental sources, including satellite monitoring. That research reveals Afghanistan as a narcotic breadbasket, serving as a source of almost all the opium, morphine and heroin consumed in the neighboring countries of Iran, Pakistan and the Central Asian states. It sends addictive drugs to these unstable countries, yet does not have a critical mass of addicts within its borders. As such, says the report, the Afghan drug trade aggravates "a number of serious security, political and socioeconomic problems in the region." Tajikistan, the UN says, serves as a prime gateway for drugs en route to Central and Eastern Europe and reported an increase in opium seizures in 2001.
With a low level of addiction, Afghanistan confronts opium production as an economic and diplomatic problem. "Afghanistan, fortunately, is not afflicted with a very big problem of drug use," Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN special representative for Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul. "[But] Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakstan all have a serious problem of drug use. The Iranian government said publicly that they have at least one million and a half, mainly young people, who are drug addicts." Since Afghanistan needs trade and diplomatic ties with all these countries, its leaders have tried to eliminate opium production rather than pursue traffickers across borders.
The international community has thus far tried to help Afghanistan shed its image as a major drug supplier by offering subsidies to those who plant other crops, but the new Afghan government faces harsh market realities. As production stalls elsewhere in the world, Afghanistan provides approximately 70 to 90 percent of the heroin found in European markets. The UN estimates that a kilo of opium currently sells for about $40, up from $30 when the Taliban's ban took effect. In a country where the average citizen earns the price of two opium kilos each year, a democratic government will have to be vigilant and creative in enforcing any opium limits.
Todd Diamond is a journalist who covers the United Nations.