Opium Production Soars: The UK Foreign Affairs Committee on International Terrorism Has Delivered a Disturbing Report on Afghanistan's Drug Trade, Which Reveals the Country's Cultivation of Poppies, Already the Highest in the World in 2003, Will Increase Even Further This Year

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WITH THE GOVERNMENT HAVING little control outside Kabul, and farmers choosing the most profitable crop, opium production has flourished since the Taliban regime was ousted in late 2001. In 2003, over 80,000 hectares were used for poppy cultivation and the country produced 3,600 tons of opium--up from 185 tons in 2001--taking up 75% of the world market. The drug trade accounts for half of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

When British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke at a Labour Party conference in October 2001 to gain support for the invasion of Afghanistan, he mentioned that on top of ousting the Taliban regime and destroying Al Qaeda training camps, the attack would eliminate a major supply of heroin.

"Ninety per cent of the heroin on British streets originates in Afghanistan," said Blair. "The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of people buying their drugs on British streets. That is another part of their regime we should seek to destroy."

However, over the intervening years far from being eradicated, the lucrative poppy trade in Afghanistan has gone from strength to strength. It is forecast that land for poppy cultivation will increase to between 90,000 and 120,000 hectares this year. "Our assessment of poppy cultivation has not been completed, but indicators show that cultivation continued to rise in 2004," said Alexandre Schmidt, crime prevention expert of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

Earlier this year, the Afghan government implemented an eradication programme to start its war on the drug industry. According to Afghanistan's Counter Narcotics Directorate, 25,000 hectares of poppy fields were destroyed in late spring and early summer.

But according to officials, the programme had little effect since farmers harvested the poppies before the destruction of fields began.

"To please the international audience, the eradication procedures that took place were nothing but a show," said Azizullah Lodin, president of the General Administration of Anti-Bribery and Corruption. "They were late destroying the poppies, so the farmers had already harvested the fields."

More alarming is the absence of a plan to help Afghan farmers find an alternative crop.

"There has been an immediate focus on eradication with little focus on what happens afterwards," said Schmidt. "September was the time to plant poppies again. What are people going to do while they need to earn a living? There is no other choice but to plant poppies."

It is estimated that farmers can receive up to $125,000 per hectare for growing poppies, compared to $215 per hectare for wheat. Many farmers say they are not against changing to another crop but are angry that they are left with no assistance after losing their best source of income.

"If they give us seeds, help us rebuild irrigation facilities and it is good for the nation, we will grow something else," said Jamal Jaffery, a farmer in the Herat province where poppy fields were destroyed. "But if there is nothing else to grow, we will have no choice but to grow poppies."

Rebuilding Afghanistan is also vital for farmers to be able to move away from cultivating poppies. After years of ongoing warfare, roads have been left in a shambles, which has made it difficult for farmers to ship produce to markets. Irrigation facilities have been destroyed, so farmers rely on poppies that require less water than most other crops.

But reconstructing Afghanistan has been slow. President Hamid Karzai requested $27.5bn over a seven-year period to rebuild the country soon after he took office in 2001, but money coming in from donor countries has not kept up with the amount needed each year. The Bush administration has diverted military and financial resources from Afghanistan to the war in Iraq. To rebuild the two countries, the United States has come up with $2.2bn for Afghanistan and $18. …