One aspect of the counternarcotics struggle in Afghanistan that will surely make for interesting study some day is what, exactly, is going on in Nangarhar. This is a province that one year will be virtually poppy-free, yet the next year will be one of the major national centers of poppy cultivation, yet the next year will be virtually poppy-free again. 2008 is one of those poppy-free years, as the UNODC notes in its annual assessment (pdf).
As that chart above indicates, there is indeed some marginal improvement in poppy cultivation levels, down to just under 2006 levels. While this is still bad, the movement is positive, though it is interesting to see how UNODC portrayed the reduction:
Opium production declined by only 6% to 7,700 tonnes: not as dramatic a drop as cultivation because of greater yields (a record 48.8 kg/ha against 42.5kg in 2007). Eradication was ineffective in terms of results (only 5,480 ha and about one quarter of last year’s amount), but very costly in terms of human lives…
Since last year, the number of opium-free provinces has increased by almost 50%: from 13 to 18. This means that no opium is grown in more than half of the country’s 34 provinces. Indeed, 98% of all of Afghanistan’s opium is grown in just seven provinces in the south-west (Hilmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Farah, Nimroz, and to a lesser extent Daykundi and Zabul), where there are permanent Taliban settlements, and where organized crime groups profit from the instability. This geographical overlap between regions of opium and zones of insurgency shows the inextricable link between drugs and conflict. Since drugs and insurgency are caused by, and effect, each other, they need to be dealt with at the same time – and urgently.
They mention the death of one of their colleagues in a suicide attack. But still, this surely can’t be the entire story: Nangarhar is not noticeably safer than it was in 2007, yet poppy cultivation there dropped to virtually zero. Similarly, in Khost poppy cultivation has been practically disconnected from the growing insurgency there, and it hasn’t been a significant source of the crop for years. Indeed, it is remarkable to see the entirety of RC-East almost empty itself of opium while violence rises 40% amid major coordinated militant attacks, while RC-South saw a relatively higher rise in violence that brings it nearly even with violence in RC-East.
Yet RC-South is the epicenter of opium cultivation. Why? UNODC speculates:
First, strong leadership by some governors, for example in Badakshan, Balkh and Nangarhar, discouraged farmers from planting opium through campaigns against its cultivation, effective peer pressure and the promotion of rural development. They deserve tangible recognition. Religious leaders, elders and shura also deserve credit for becoming increasingly effective in convincing farmers not to grow opium, not least because it is against Islam.
Second, drought contributed to crop failure, particularly in the north and north-west where most cultivation is rain-fed. The same drastic weather conditions also hurt other crops, like wheat, increasing significantly its domestic price. This, combined with the global impact of rising food prices, is creating a food crisis. Yet, higher farm-gate wheat prices (because of shortages), and lower farm-gate opium prices (because of excess supply) have significantly improved the terms of trade of food: this may provide further incentive to shift crops away from drugs.
The first explanation I can see being the case, especially if it were tied to alternative crop programs (some speculated that Nangarhar’s drastic 2007 rise in cultivation stemmed from previous attempts to stem cultivation that were successful but happened in a vacuum, which nearly crashed the agrarian economy). The second explanation is more difficult to muster, since in previous eras (namely the late Taliban era) cultivation continued relatively unaffected by severe drought. That doesn’t mean UNODC’s explanation isn’t true, merely that is doesn’t “sound” right.
Then there are the reports from this spring to reconcile. Back in April, there was speculation that the especially brutal winter in Afghanistan might have been a major driver of reduced cultivation; I’d have to gather numbers about other crop performance, but since the UNODC complains about crop substitution using cannabis, I’m unwilling to take it on face value that drought conditions affected the poppy crop that significantly this year (the UNODC report doesn’t quite convince me).
And let’s not forget the food crisis. In 2008, according to UNODC, wheat farmers took in 198% more income per unit of wheat than they did in 2007 (poppy farmers saw a slight decrease). Since everyone loves farmers who grow wheat, that is itself a compelling reason to switch from poppies to wheat, though there is, obviously, nothing more than scattered anecdotal evidence as to how widespread a phenomenon it was.
But, allow me to eat some crow. In April, I was laughing at the idea of Nangarhar being poppy-free. For all intents and purposes, it is. This year. But I wouldn’t take it on faith that the same sources speculating that Helmand would see a slight reduction had any secret insight: Helmand saw production rise 1%. And I still would want to see exactly what is going on with Nangarhar—that province doesn’t seem to have a stable agricultural sector at all, if farmers are switching crops that rapidly and severely. It is premature to declare that province a success.