Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation set a new record this year, according to an annual survey released by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. Total cultivation rose 7 percent, compared with last year's record figure, and potential opium production rose by 17 percent.
In 2014, more than 550,000 acres of Afghan land were cultivated — that's approaching the total land area of Rhode Island.
What's causing the jump in opium cultivation?
The UNODC's director of policy analysis, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, says Afghanistan's disputed presidential election contributed to the increase in several ways:
First, the protracted election — and fears that it could spark civil war — paralyzed the country's economy. Investment stalled, and people moved money out of the country. Afghanistan lost an estimated $5 billion to $6 billion in economic activity. That motivated farmers to turn to the illegal economy, in particular opium.
Second, the "political economy" (shorthand for the candidates and their campaigns) required funding that was not available through the legal economy. So candidates tapped into the illicit drug economy.
Third, Afghan security forces were tasked with securing the country during the two rounds of voting, shifting their attention from eradication efforts, which fell by 63 percent this year.
Also, ongoing fighting between the Taliban and Afghan forces, which are now responsible for security in the country, prevented the government from focusing on counter-narcotics efforts — though eradication in Afghanistan has never had more than a marginal impact.
The U.N. report says global demand for Afghan opium is constant though the price on the world market has steadily declined. So why has cultivation increased in each of the past four years?
The UNODC and other experts say cultivation in Afghanistan is driven mostly by domestic speculation rather than by outside demand. That means as Afghans evaluate economic and security conditions, the more uncertain or fearful they are about the future, the more they hedge by growing opium. Because of growing uncertainty in the past few years about the drawdown of NATO troops and the presidential election, more people turned to speculating on opium.
Now that the election has been decided, the U.N. is hoping this will quell some of the uncertainty and therefore reduce cultivation. But the U.N. warns that the legal economy likely will continue to contract next year as foreign aid money continues to decrease, and that could motivate farmers to continue cultivating opium.
A report out last month from the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction says Afghan opium cultivation is soaring even though the U.S. is spending $7.6 billion on counter-narcotics efforts. Why is this?
The U.N. agrees that efforts so far have failed, and there is a lot of "soul searching" going on about how best to move forward. Lemahieu says past efforts have been "insular" and unconnected initiatives that address symptoms rather than the causes of the problem. Eradication is a tool but not a solution, he says.
Likewise, subsidies and efforts to get farmers to plant alternative crops have been short-term measures that haven't solved the structural causes. Afghanistan is an extremely poor country, and as NPR has reported, many farmers here simply see no alternative to growing poppy to feed their families. Without the growth of a legal economy, the lure of opium money will continue to attract farmers.
The other structural problem is the broader illicit economy. Afghanistan is one of the world's most corrupt countries. Everyone from police officers to powerful politicians profit from the drug trade, and until people start going to jail, there's little incentive for people to get out of the drug business.
President Ashraf Ghani has made cleaning up corruption a top priority. But he's up against a multibillion-dollar industry that's equivalent to 20 percent of Afghanistan's GDP, and Afghanistan's legal institutions are still weak and corrupt.
The U.N. says Ghani is taking the right first steps but that "he's not a magician."
Although world demand for Afghan opium is flat, what about domestic demand — is all of Afghanistan's opium exported?
Domestic demand is soaring. Lemahieu says the addiction rate here also is at record levels, and he believes it hasn't peaked yet. The country is ill-equipped to tackle an epidemic where estimates are as much as 5 percent of the population is addicted to drugs. And if domestic demand for opium is growing, it's that much tougher to cut cultivation.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Opium cultivation in Afghanistan is at a new record. The numbers out today from the United Nations come weeks after a U.S. government watchdog said American counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan have failed. That's despite billions of dollars spent on those efforts. Last year cultivation was up nearly 50 percent over the previous year and now, as NPR's Sean Carberry reports, it has crept up further.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The 7 percent increase in opium cultivation this year comes as no surprise to the U.N. The primary growing regions of the country remain lawless and violent and Afghanistan's legitimate economy was paralyzed by a contested presidential election that raised fears of civil war. That kind of uncertainty drives the cultivation here. So says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, director of policy analysis for the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime.
JEAN-LUC LEMAHIEU: The increase of the opium cultivation in Afghanistan is not because there's more global demand for Afghan opiates.
CARBERRY: In fact, the price of opium has been falling for the last few years as cultivation has increased. Lemahieu admits the patchwork of different initiatives over the years like eradication and alternate crop programs has clearly failed.
LEMAHIEU: There has been a lot of soul-searching being done among the different main actors on counter-narcotics.
CARBERRY: He said the goal now is to look at opium cultivation as part of the broader illegal economy in Afghanistan. That means changing the culture of corruption and impunity here.
LEMAHIEU: That's a hell of a task but that's exactly what this new government seems to stand for.
CARBERRY: He says President Ashraf Ghani appears serious about going after seemingly untouchable criminals. Just yesterday two former bank officials were sentenced to 10 years for their role in a 2010 banking scandal, but some of Afghanistan's most powerful politicians are linked to the drug trade and jailing them will be no small task. Deputy Minister of Counter-Narcotics Ibrahim Azhar says until now the Afghan government has simply lacked the capacity and political will to fight the drug trade.
IBRAHIM AZHAR: No one has put it in first priority for their ministries.
CARBERRY: He says his ministry has never been given the clout to push law enforcement officials and judges to do their part. He's hoping President Ghani will change that, but even if he can, Lemahieu says there's another growing challenge to reducing opium cultivation.
LEMAHIEU: The highest levels of addictions ever witnessed in this country.
CARBERRY: Meaning even if demand in other countries is flat, Afghanistan has a growing market at home for its number one crop.
Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.