By the A.M. Costa Rica staff
The world’s number one opium-producing country, Afghanistan, is braced for an exploding poppy harvest this year, as farmers are cultivating the illicit crop in areas where it has never grown before.
“Unfortunately, the narcotics production is on the rise this year,” Javed Qaem, Afghan deputy counternarcotics minister, told international donors in Kabul Tuesday. “We are concerned that narcotics would increase this year, including in areas and provinces where previously we had zero opium production.”
Qaem’s comments come amid growing international concern that the Taliban, who are fighting Afghan government troops in rural areas of the country, are fueling the poppy trade by engaging in trafficking and skimming hundreds of millions dollars in profit to fuel their militancy.
Taliban insurgents, according to U.S. officials, net 60 percent of their war chest from narcotics.
Afghanistan is thought to produce an estimated 90 percent of the world’s heroin. As poppy cultivation spikes, U.S. intelligence officials warn that the war-torn country is likely to see more armed violence this year.
“The intelligence community assesses that the political and security situation in Afghanistan will almost certainly deteriorate through 2018, even with a modest increase in military assistance by the United States and its partners,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said in a Senate hearing last week.
Since 2002, the U.S. has spent more than $8.5 billion on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, at about $1.5 million a day, according to the Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
In addition to war, opium fuels corruption and organized crime in Afghanistan, a country already ranked among the five most corrupt states in the world by Transparency International.
Only 13 of the country’s 34 provinces were reported poppy-free in 2016, and this number has dropped to one digit this year, Afghan officials say.
Afghan authorities said poppies, which traditionally have been grown in southern provinces, have found fertile lands in several northern and northeastern provinces, including Balkh and Jawzjan.
A large-scale increase also is expected in provinces with previously little opium crops, such as northwestern Badghis and Ghor.
Around 50 percent of the poppy crop in Afghanistan is produced in southern Helmand province, which borders Pakistan.
The Afghan government says the increase in drug production and trafficking is taking place mostly in conflict-hit areas.
“Opium cultivation, production and trafficking take place in remote areas that are under the control of militants, terrorists and the Taliban,” said Afghan General Baz Mohammad Ahmadi, the deputy interior minister for counternarcotics.
The Afghan government says it, along with aid agencies, has been trying to help Afghans find a sustainable alternative crop source. But those efforts appear to be failing.
Afghan counter-narcotics police said they last year seized almost 650 tons of contraband drugs. The confiscated drugs included raw opium, heroin and hashish. Around 2,683 smugglers and traffickers, including 67 women, were arrested last year, Ahmadi said.
Experts say worsening security and immediate economic benefits for farmers are major reasons for the rise in poppy cultivation. Experts also believe that the increase is partly due to weak counternarcotics efforts by the government.
According to Sherzad, counternarcotics efforts require a comprehensive approach and coordination among government departments, which, he said, is currently lacking. He added that “narco-entrepreneurs” control large portions of government lands in several provinces where they cultivate poppies.