KABUL, Feb 10 (Reuters) – Efforts to persuade Afghanistan’s farmers to stop growing illegal opium have failed in the past year, the United Nations said on Wednesday, predicting as much land will be under poppy cultivation this year as in 2009.
A U.N. report found that a trend of curbing cultivation — which had seen land planted with poppies cut by more than a third from 2007-09 — had come to a sudden end.
Afghanistan produces more than 90 percent of the world’s illegal opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, an industry which Western countries say funds the insurgency against NATO troops and the Afghan government.
Over the past several years, the country has consistently managed to produce thousands of tonnes more than the entire global demand for the illegal drug, despite an international effort to stamp it out. Declines in cultivation in recent years had been hailed as progress.
But the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) predicted in a preliminary report that it expects little or no change this year from the roughly 123,000 ha (304,000 acres) where opium was grown in 2009.
Most of the annual opium crop is planted before the winter and lies dormant underground this time of year, to be harvested in April or May. The report is based on surveys of farmers conducted late last year at the time of planting the 2010 crop.
"The message is clear: in order to further reduce the biggest source of the world’s deadliest drug, there must be better security, development and governance in Afghanistan," said the head of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa.
"The Afghan authorities must lead and own their drug control strategy: the rest of the world has a vested interest in its success," he said in a statement.
The report said the total amount of opium produced in Afghanistan may still fall because weather conditions are not as good as last year, when a bumper crop meant production overshot global demand despite a decline in cultivation from 2008.
Most of Afghanistan’s opium is grown in Helmand province, the most violent part of the country.
Some 10,000 U.S. Marines arrived in Helmand last year and seized most of the lower Helmand river valley before the planting season. Their commanders had hoped that their presence would reduce cultivation by providing more security so farmers could have access to food seed and get other crops to market.
Thousands more Marines have arrived in the province since President Barack Obama ordered 30,000 more troops to the country in December, and are planning a massive assault on the last remaining large Taliban bastion in the province within days. [ID:nSGE61808T]
The report said restoring security to violent areas was the best way to combat drugs cultivation.
"There is a strong correlation between insurgency and cultivation. The UNODC assessment shows that almost 80 percent of villages with very poor security conditions grew poppy, while opium grows in only 7 percent of villages unaffected by violence," the agency said in its statement.
Previous bumper harvests in Afghanistan have led to a huge global opium glut that has caused prices to fall, persuading some growers to shift to other crops in recent years.
But prices for food crops fell even faster than opium prices last year, meaning the economic case for abandoning opium was no longer as strong, the report found.
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan villagers should stay inside and “keep their heads down” when thousands of U.S. Marines launch a massive assault on a densely-populated district in coming days, NATO’s civilian representative to Afghanistan said Tuesday.
U.S.-led NATO forces are planning one of the 8-year-old war’s biggest offensives to seize Marjah, a patchwork of desert canals and opium fields that is now the last large Taliban-held bastion in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most violent province.
KABUL (Reuters) – A delay of months in closing a remote combat outpost with “no tactical or strategic value” led to the deaths of eight U.S. soldiers last year in one of the worst battles of the Afghanistan war, a report found on Friday.
The U.S. military’s report into a Taliban assault on Combat Outpost (COP) Keating in Nuristan province last October found the dozens of soldiers defending it fought with “conspicuous gallantry, courage and bravery under heavy enemy fire.”
KABUL (Reuters) – President Hamid Karzai has launched a high profile push to reconcile with his “disenchanted brothers” in the Taliban, but few in Afghanistan see hope for a quick breakthrough while fighters smell victory on the battlefield.
At a conference in London last week, the international community backed Karzai’s efforts to start talks and donors promised hundreds of millions of dollars for a new fund to pay fighters to lay down their arms.
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai will be greeted with smiles and handshakes at a conference in London this week, but the warm public welcome will mask deep fissures in his relationship with the countries whose troops defend him.
Western governments are determined to use the London conference to rehabilitate the reputation of the veteran Afghan leader, tarnished last year by a botched election, a worsening war and unconvincing measures to tackle corruption.
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan election authorities have agreed to push back a parliamentary election to September from May, pleasing diplomats who wanted time to prevent a repeat of the rampant fraud that plagued a presidential vote last year.
The announcement on Sunday eases one of the main sources of friction between President Hamid Karzai and his Western backers, days before a major conference in London aimed at plotting a course for Western countries to begin withdrawing their troops.
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghanistan and the international community are set to agree this week a framework for Kabul to take responsibility for its own security at a major conference in London, a draft communique obtained by Reuters showed.
Afghan troops may be managing some provinces as early as 2011, with NATO-led forces in a supporting role, paving the way for the start of a U.S. military draw-down in 18 months.
KABUL (Reuters) – NATO is planning to create a stronger civilian representative post to help lead international efforts in Afghanistan, and the British ambassador in Kabul is a top candidate, a Kabul-based diplomat said on Thursday.
NATO confirmed that it was planning to beef up the post of its civilian representative but did not comment on who was being considered for the job.
KABUL (Reuters) – A video of a Pakistani Taliban leader with the bomber who killed CIA agents in Afghanistan could indicate cross-border links between Afghan, Pakistani and al Qaeda militants, the U.S. regional envoy said on Sunday.
Special Representative Richard Holbrooke told Reuters in an interview in Kabul that “shadowy but unmistakable” links between groups exposed by the video helped explain why the United States and its allies were fighting in Afghanistan.
KABUL (Reuters) – At least five Afghan civilians were wounded when a combined force of Afghan troops and U.S. Marines opened fire on a crowd at the gate to a military base in Helmand, Afghanistan’s most volatile province, NATO said on Friday.
The incident, which took place on Wednesday but was not reported until Friday, was the second demonstration to turn violent in two days in Helmand’s Garmsir district, suggesting mounting civil unrest in a part of the country where U.S. Marines under NATO command made major advances last year.