KABUL, Afghanistan – As harsh winter weather descended upon Afghanistan, Ale Reza was shivering when he crouched down along with a number of his drug-addicted mates in a corner of the capital’s Shahr-e-Nau park. He was injecting heroin into his swollen veins using a portion of drug produced from the locally-grown opium poppy that has reached record high yields this year.
“I have been ‘motaad’ [addicted] for more than ten years. I started it when I was a refugee in Iran and working as a construction laborer. So many of us used to consume heroin, hashish, and other drugs during or after work,” Mr. Reza told The Globe Post.
“Now, here in Afghanistan, I am unable to do any work, and am lying here and there, and managing to collect some money to buy a portion of heroin,” he said.
Opium poppy production has inflicted damage on the Afghan society, and Mr. Reza is one of many examples. According to the Ministry of Counter Narcotics, there are some 3.6 million drug addicts in Afghanistan, or around 10 percent of the whole population — one of the world’s highest addiction rates. Up to 750,000 of the addicted are women and more than 100,000 are children.
In an unsurprising report, the Afghan Ministry of Counter-Narcotics and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have revealed that potential opium production in the war-ravaged country increased by 87 percent in 2017.
Key findings of the study, dubbed the ‘Afghanistan Opium Survey 2017’, show that despite persistent efforts by the Kabul government and its Western allies, the area under opium poppy cultivation has grown by 63 percent since 2016, reaching a new record high of 328,000 hectares.
Abdul Khalil, the Afghan Ministry of Interior Director, told The Globe Post the security forces conducted more than 2,000 counter-narcotics operations and arrested more than 2,000 smugglers in the past year alone. However, opium production in Afghanistan is increasing despite the fact that the U.S. government alone has spent nearly $9 billion on the counter-narcotics efforts in the cuontry, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. government’s leading oversight authority on Afghanistan reconstruction.
The ‘Afghanistan Opium Survey 2017’ has highlighted strong increase in opium poppy cultivation in almost all major provinces. Southern Helmand remained the country’s major opium poppy cultivating area, followed by Kandahar, Badghis, and Faryab provinces. The study noted that in 2017, the number of poppy-free provinces in Afghanistan decreased from 13 to 10. At the same time, the number of provinces affected by opium poppy cultivation increased from 21 to 24.
According to the report, there was no single reason for the massive 2017 increase in opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, but challenges with the rule of law, such as political instability, lack of government control and security, as well as corruption, have been found to be main drivers of illicit production.
Jawed Ahmad, the Ministry of Counter Narcotics Director, told reporters in Kabul, however, that it was growing insecurity that has fuelled the poppy cultivation growth.
“Ninety-seven percent of the poppy has been cultivated in the southern, northern and eastern areas where security threats are high,” Mr. Ahmad said.
Security affairs expert and an Afghan journalist Ashiqullah Yaqub holds the Kabul government and the international community partially responsible for the situation.
“It is a known fact that the outlawed militant groups as well as the so-called pro-government warlords in northern, southern and eastern parts of the country are always eyeing the vast capital earned via cultivation, production, and smuggling of the poppy, illegal mining and other means. The government should be strong and active enough to stop this rather than simply blaming the rise in insecurity for it,” he told The Globe Post.
The areas known for a high level of poppy cultivation are the ones where the Taliban, pro-Islamic State fighters, and outlawed warlords carry a lot of clout.
A study by the US Institute of Peace found that in 2009, the Taliban had 50 heroin labs on the territory it controlled. The group managed 98 percent of the country’s poppy fields, collecting $425 million in “taxes” levied on the opium traffic.
Only a small share of the revenues generated by the cultivation and trafficking of Afghan opiates reaches Afghan drug trafficking groups. Billions of dollars are made on trafficking opiates into major consumer markets, mainly in Europe and Asia.
The net value of poppy cultivated in Afghanistan in the international market is worth some $68 billion with only $470 million of it going to the Afghan farmers the rest to the militants, local, regional and the international smugglers.
Opium is a significant part of the Afghan economy and provides considerable funding to the insurgency while also fueling corruption.
The Afghanis tend to believe that as long as there is a consistent international demand and prevailing insecurity in the country, the graph of poppy cultivation is not likely to go down anytime soon.