KABUL – Opium seizures in Afghanistan soared 924 percent last year because of better cooperation between Afghan and international forces, the top U.S. drug enforcement official said Thursday. The Taliban largely funds its insurgency by profits from the opium trade, making it a growing target of U.S. and Afghan anti-insurgency operations. Afghanistan produces the raw opium used to make 90 percent of the world’s heroin.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration now has 96 agents in the country who joined with Afghan counterparts and NATO forces in more than 80 combined operations last year, acting DEA administrator Michelle Leonhart said at a news conference in Kabul. “That is the success of bringing the elements, civil, military Afghan partners together,” Leonhart said. Leonhart did not give figures for total amounts of drugs seized but said the increase was 924 percent between 2008 and 2009.
International groups estimate that only about 2 percent of Afghanistan’s drug production was blocked from leaving the country in 2008 for markets in Central Asia and Europe. The booming drugs trade has compounded Afghanistan’s many problems and deepened Western concern about the war-battered country’s future and hopes it can emerge as a peaceful democracy. In a sign of President Hamid Karzai’s increasingly tetchy relations with key international allies, the Afghan leader on Thursday accused U.N. and European Union officials of interfering in last year’s flawed presidential elections.
A day after the parliament rejected his revised election law, Karzai accused the officials of committing “vast fraud” in the disputed Aug. 20 ballot to push the election into a runoff.
Karzai singled out former U.N. deputy chief Peter Galbraith, who was fired in a dispute with his boss about how to deal with fraud allegations, and the head of the E.U. observers, retired French general Philippe Morillon.
Karzai was forced into a runoff after a U.N.-backed commission threw out nearly a third of his ballots, but it was scrapped when Karzai’s main opponent dropped out. He then issued a decree giving him greater control over the official election fraud watchdog body which was turned down by parliament’s lower house.
Karzai was installed for a second five-year term but his government remains weak as it faces a challenge from a resurgent Taliban.
Since the fall of the former Taliban regime in 2001 until 2007, the illegal cultivation of opium poppies skyrocketed. It has since started to decline, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has forecast that opium production could drop again in 2010.
Opium exports dropped from an estimated $3.4 billion in 2008, to $2.8 billion in 2009, the UNODC said. That represented a fall in opium’s share of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product from about one third to one quarter.
Leonhart said eradication efforts had already scored some success in the south, with opium cultivation down more than 30 percent in Helmand province that is responsible for half of Afghanistan’s total production.
She said the DEA was working with U.S. forces moving into the Taliban heartland, including “significant operations” in Helmand, where the poppy harvest season is in full-swing.
“There is a very good plan put together to have very robust interdiction operations going forward there, eventually moving that to other provinces in the south,” Leonhart said.
Such operations place the Afghan government and its foreign allies in a bind because eradicating poppy fields risks driving angry farmers, for whom opium poppy is a cheap, hardy, low-risk crop, into the arms of the insurgents because they fear loss of their livelihood.
Efforts to replace opium with other crops such as wheat and vegetables haven’t scored wide success because profits for the farmers are much lower than for poppies.
Leonhart gave no details of the strategy for the south, but stressed that the focus was not on farmers but on seizing drugs and weapons, arresting traffickers, and tracing the profits of the trade.
“Because the money is what fuels the insurgency,” Leonhart said.
In a sign that traffickers are striking back against such efforts, 13 people were killed Wednesday when a bomb concealed on a bicycle exploded near a crowd gathered to receive free vegetable seeds provided by the British government as part of a program to encourage them not to plant opium poppy.
No one claimed responsibility for the attack, although the acting provincial head of agriculture, Ghulam Sahki, said the blast could have been the work of drug dealers trying to stop the alternative crop program.
A recent NATO operation that drove militants from the Helmand town of Marjah struck at the heart of the Taliban opium business. While troops discovered acres (hectares) of poppy fields and numerous opium packing operations, farmers were left alone.
Also Thursday, India announced it was suspending teaching and aid operations in Kabul for two or three months following a February bomb attack that killed six Indian staff. Similar Indian aid efforts in four other Afghan cities remained up and running, said Indian Embassy spokesman J.P. Singh.
The Taliban have long opposed India’s involvement in Afghanistan because of its ties to the Afghan group that helped the U.S. oust the Islamist regime in late 2001.
A mine blast Thursday morning in Shajoy district in the eastern province of Zabul killed two civilians and injured three, the Interior Ministry said. It blamed the attack on the Taliban.