Pubdate: Wed, 19 Jan 2011
Source: Wall Street Journal (US)
Copyright: 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
Author: Maria Abi-Habib


KABUL - A growing insurgency in northern Afghanistan could lead to
renewed opium cultivation in provinces where the crop has been
eliminated, a senior United Nations official warned.

Jean-Luc Lemahieu, Afghanistan representative of the U.N. Office on
Drugs and Crime, said at least two provinces were now "vulnerable to
relapse" into opium production this year.

The U.N. estimates that the Taliban reaps about $125 million a year in
opium profits, an important source of funding for the insurgency.
Afghanistan produces some 90% of the world's opium.

Nearly a decade of Western-backed counternarcotics programs have
reduced the number of Afghan provinces where most of the country's
opium is cultivated to seven from 30, all of them in Afghanistan's
south and west.

Mr. Lemahieu said the northern provinces of Kunduz, Takhar and
possibly Kapisa and Ghor could see a return to opium cultivation.
Renewed production in the once-peaceful northern provinces of Kunduz
and Takhar would represent a major setback.

The Taliban have greatly expanded their presence in northern
Afghanistan over the past year, taking advantage of a sparse coalition
presence there. The Taliban often provide seeds and loans to farmers
growing opium and collect the crop once it has been cultivated.

"In times of conflict, opium is the Afghan currency. It's not heavy
and you can carry it with you. Prices continue to rise, and just a few
kilos is a Swiss bank account for a farmer," said Mr. Lemahieu.
"Compared to pomegranates or wheat, opium has a tremendous shelf life,
well over five years; try storing a bucket of fruit for that long."

A jump in opium prices, partially caused by a blight last year, is
creating an added incentive for farmers to grow opium poppy instead of
legitimate crops. The price for a kilo of dry opium rose to $213,000
in November 2010, tripling from a year earlier when a kilo yielded
$79,000, according to the U.N. office.

Afghanistan's Ministry of Counternarcotics said the north's
vulnerability wasn't surprising given the lure of the steep rise in
opium prices.

"It's definitely a major concern for the ministry," said ministry
spokesman Samer Abdul Qayyum. "We are expecting that the international
community will support our programs and policies more this year to
help sustain opium-free provinces" by building the capacity of
Afghanistan's counternarcotics police.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul wasn't available to comment.

Any solution to Afghanistan's opium problems needs regional
cooperation, the U.N. drug office says, to clamp down on smuggling
routes. Land-locked Afghanistan is bordered by Central Asian states,
China, Pakistan and Iran.

A new UNODC-supported intelligence sharing office, being established
in Tehran, aims to encourage Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani officials
to share information and run joint operations to clamp down on
cultivation and smuggling. 
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MAP posted-by: Jo-D