As opium prices soar and allies focus on Taliban, Afghan drug war stumbles
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By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 14, 2011; 12:00 AM
KABUL - After several years of steady progress in curbing opium poppy cultivation and cracking down on drug smugglers, Afghan officials say the anti-drug campaign is flagging as opium prices soar, farmers are lured back to the lucrative crop and Afghanistan's Western allies focus more narrowly on defeating the Taliban.
That combination adds a potentially destabilizing factor to Afghanistan at a time when the United States is desperate to show progress in a war now into its 10th year. The country's Taliban insurgency and the drug trade flourish in the same lawless terrain, and are often mutually reinforcing. But Afghan officials say the opium problem is not receiving the focus it deserves from Western powers."The price of opium is now seven times higher than wheat, and there is a $58 billion demand for narcotics, so our farmers have no disincentive to cultivate poppy,"
said Mohammed Azhar, deputy minister for counternarcotics. "We have gotten a lot of help, but it is not enough. Afghanistan is still producing 85 percent of the opium in the world,
and it is still a dark stain on our name."
International attention to Afghanistan's drug problem has waxed and waned over the course of the war, often as a result of shifts in Western priorities as elected governments have changed and conflict with Islamist insurgents has intensified.
In the first several years after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, U.S.-led policy was military-driven and drugs were not seen as a critical issue. Poppy cultivation, once banned by the Taliban, surged. By 2004, the U.S. and British governments stepped in with programs to eradicate poppy, encourage farmers to grow other crops and train Afghan police and prosecutors in how to combat drug trafficking.
Those efforts met with mixed success. Afghanistan eliminated poppy cultivation in 20 of 34 provinces, but it continued to flourish in the south and west, where the insurgency was strongest. Anti-drug police arrested hundreds of smugglers, but few major traffickers were caught and some were released under high-level political pressure. Insecurity and Taliban threats made some alternative crop programs hard to carry out.
Now, Afghan officials say, the latest NATO push to wipe out the Taliban leadership and focus on military goals has once again led to a reduced international interest in the drug war.