By ROD NORDLAND
For the third year in a row, opium cultivation has increased across Afghanistan, reversing earlier gains from a decade-long international and Afghan government effort to combat the drug trade, according to a United Nations report released on Monday.
The report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime increased concerns among international law enforcement officials that if the trend continues, opium would be the country’s major economic activity after the departure of foreign military forces in 2014, raising the specter of what one referred to as “the world’s first true narco-state.” Afghanistan is already the world’s largest producer of opium, and last year had accounted for 75 percent of the world’s heroin supply.
“The assumption is it will reach again to 90 percent this year,” said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the United Nations’ top counternarcotics official here.
The report, the Afghanistan Opium Risk Assessment 2013, based on extensive surveying around the country, found that opium cultivation has increased in 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. In only one province, eastern Herat, is cultivation expected to decrease.
Overall, the acreage of farmland in opium production is expected to top the figure in 2008, when 388,000 acres were devoted to opium cultivation, Mr. Lemahieu said. After 2008, eradication and crop substitution efforts, as well as a cash incentive program for provinces that eradicated all opium poppy crops, helped to reduce that dramatically through 2010.
This year, however, three provinces, Balkh, Faryab and Takhar in the north and west, are in danger of losing their poppy-free status, according to the report. Opium production has remained particularly high in southern Helmand Province, the country’s major opium-producing area, and in Kandahar Province, both places where the surge of American troops helped to beat back Taliban influence. More than a third of opium production now takes place in surge provinces.
The report suggests that the insurgents took advantage of insecurity in those areas to assist opium farmers and win over popular support. Opium cultivation has increased most dramatically wherever there has been insecurity.
“This country is on its way to becoming the world’s first true narco-state,” said one international law enforcement official. “The opium trade is a much bigger part of the economy already than narcotics ever were in Bolivia.”
The United Nations has estimated in the past that opium trafficking constitutes 15 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, a figure that is expected to rise as international military and development spending declines with the NATO withdrawal at the end of 2014.
The mining sector, the other big hope of economic self-sufficiency for Afghanistan, is still moribund, as the Afghan Parliament continues to bicker over a mining law and lack of security and legal clarity has so far prevented large-scale exploitation of mineral resources.
The increase in opium poppy cultivation is attributed mainly to historically high prices for opium; prices began rising dramatically in 2010 when a poppy blight severely cut back production, but they have remained high since. Farmers are paid as much as $203 a kilogram for harvested opium, compared to only 43 cents a kilo for wheat or $1.25 for rice, according to the report.
Mr. Lemahieu praised efforts of the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics but said international donors had greatly underfunded programs to combat trafficking, with only $300,000 of a requested $11 million pledged this year.