The Big Question: Why is opium production rising in Afghanistan, and can it be stopped?

Why are we asking this now?

Nato and the US are ramping up the war on drugs in Afghanistan. American ground forces are set to help guard poppy eradication teams for the first time later this year, while Nato's defence ministers agreed to let their 50,000-strong force target heroin laboratories and smuggling networks.

Until now, going after drug lords and their labs was down to a small and secretive band of Afghan commandos, known as Taskforce 333, and their mentors from Britain's Special Boat Service. Eradicating poppy fields was the job of specially trained, but poorly resourced, police left to protect themselves from angry farmers. All that is set to change.

How big is the problem?

Afghanistan is by far and away the world's leading producer of opium. Opium is made from poppies, and it is used to make heroin. Heroin from Afghanistan is smuggled through Pakistan, Russia, iran and Turkey until it ends up on Europe's streets.

In 2008, in Afghanistan, 157,000 hectares (610 square miles) were given over to growing poppies and they produced 7,700 tonnes of opium. Production has soared to such an extent in recent years that supply is outstripping demand. Global demand is only about 4,000 tonnes of opium per year, which has meant the price of opium has dropped. in Helmand alone, where most of Britain's 8,000 troops are based, 103,000 hectares were devoted to poppy crops. if the province was a country, it would be the world's biggest opium producer.

In 2007, the UN calculated that Afghan opium farmers made about $1bn from their poppy harvests. The total export value was $4bn – or 53 per cent of Afghanistan's GDP.

Is it getting better or worse?

There was a 19 per cent drop in cultivation from 2007 to 2008, but bumper yields meant opium production only fell by 6 per cent. Crucially, the drop was down to farmers deciding not to plant poppies, and that was largely a result of a successful pre-planting campaign, led by strong provincial governors, in parts of the country that are relatively safe.

Only 3.5 per cent of the country's poppy fields were eradicated in 2008. High wheat prices and low opium prices are also a factor in persuading some farmers to switch to licit crops.

In Helmand, one of the most volatile parts of Afghanistan, production rose by 1 per cent as farmers invested opium profits in reclaiming tracts of desert with expensive irrigation schemes. Opium production was actually at its lowest in 2001. The Taliban launched a highly effective counter-narcotics campaign during their last year in power. They used a policy of summary execution to scare farmers into not planting opium. Many analysts attribute their loss of popular support in the south, which contributed to their defeat by US-led forces in late 2001, to this policy.

How are the drugs linked to the insurgency?

The Taliban control huge swaths of Afghanistan's countryside, where most of the poppies are grown. They tax the farmers 10 per cent of the farm gate value of their crops. Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, said the Taliban made about £50m from opium in 2007.

They also extort protection money from the drugs smugglers, for guarding convoys and laboratories where opium is processed into heroin. The UN and Nato believe the insurgents get roughly 60 per cent of their annual income from drugs. The Taliban and the drug smugglers also share a vested interest in undermining President Hamid Karzai's government, and fighting the international forces, which have both vowed to try and wipe out the opium trade.

What about corruption?

The vast sums of drugs money sloshing around Afghanistan's economy mean it is all too easy for the opium barons to buy off corrupt officials.

Most policemen earn about £80 a month. A heroin mule can earn £100 a day carrying drugs out of Afghanistan. Most Afghans suspect the corruption reaches the highest levels of government. President Karzai is reported to have called eradication teams to halt operations at the last minute for no apparent reason.

When an Afghan counter-narcotics chief found nine tonnes of opium in a former Helmand governor's compound, he was told not burn it by Kabul – but he claims he ignored the order.

President Karzai's brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is widely rumoured to be involved in the drugs trade – an allegation he denies. The New York Times claimed US investigators found evidence that he had ordered a local security official to release an "enormous cache of heroin" discovered in a tractor trailer in 2004. Privately, Western security officials admit they suspect that a number of government ministers are drug dealers.

Where does that leave the international community?

Right across Afghanistan, the government is corrupt and Afghans are fed up. The police organise kidnappings. Justice is for sale. Violence is spreading and people don't feel safe. The progress promised in 2001 hasn't been delivered.

Education is a rare success. There are now more than six million children at school, including two million girls, compared with less than a million under the Taliban.

But the roads which link the country's main cities aren't safe. Taliban roadblocks are increasingly normal. UN convoys are getting hijacked.

A report published by 100 charities at the end of July warned violence has hit record highs, fighting is spreading into parts of the country once thought safe, and there have been an unprecedented number of civilian casualties this year.

General David McKiernan, the US commander of almost all the international forces in Afghanistan, insited to journalists at a press conference on Sunday that Nato isn't losing. The fact he had to say it suggest public perception is otherwise. He also said that everywhere he goes, everyone he speaks to is "uniformly positive" about the future. Those people must be cherry-picked.

Crime in the capital, Kabul, is rising. The Taliban broke 400 insurgents out of Kandahar jail this summer, and they attacked the provincial capital in Helmand last weekend. People are frustrated at the international community's failures and scared that the Taliban are coming back.

What does that mean for the future?

President Karzai has touted peace talks with the Taliban through Saudi intermediaries. The international community maintains it will support the Afghan government in any negotiations, but privately diplomats admit that if they opened talks tomorrow they would not start from a "perceived position of strength".

General David Petraeus is about to take command at CentCom, which includes Afghanistan, and he is expected to focus on churning out more Afghan soldiers and engaging tribes against the insurgents.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, it remains to be seen whether Asif Ali Zardari will rein in his intelligence service and crack down on the Taliban safe havens in the Pakistani tribal areas, which they rely on to launch attacks in Afghanistan.

There are also elections on the horizon. The international community is determined that they must go ahead, despite the obvious security challenges, and anything the Afghan candidates do should be seen in the context of securing people who can deliver votes.

Does the war on drugs undermine the war on terror?

Yes

*Working to eradicate poppies will remove farmers' best source of income and turn them against Nato

*Using resources to fight against the entrenched poppy trade diverts them from the war with the Taliban

*Corruption in government means that battling opium turns the mechanism of the state against our forces

No

*In the end, an Afghanistan without opium production will be much less prone to the influence of the Taliban

*Money from the international drugs trade may find its way to terrorists outside of Afghanistan

*Removing the source of corruption will strengthen the country's institutions in the long term

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable