Press Briefing



Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased by 64 per cent when compared to 2003, said Vincent McClean, New York Representative of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, speaking this afternoon at a Headquarters press conference to introduce the “Afghanistan Opium Survey 2004”.

Among the report’s findings were that Afghanistan remained the world’s largest producer of opium, now responsible for approximately 87 per cent of the global supply, and that opium cultivation in 2004 had spread to all 32 of the country’s provinces.  While potential opium production in 2004 was lower than the record set in 1999 (4,200 metric tons in 2004, compared to 4,600 in 1999), that was mainly due to drought, cold weather, and some plant blight.

“Proceeds from [drug] trafficking are bolstering the positions of warlords and terrorist organizations, and threatening the development of democratic institutions”, said Mr. McClean.  “Trafficking presents a clear threat to the national security of Afghanistan.”

Meanwhile, there were also serious implications for public health, with intravenous drug use driving the spread of the HIV infection in Afghanistan and a number of neighboring countries.  That was a matter of serious concern for the governments involved.  He noted that in Pakistan, for instance, there were recent signs that the extent of the HIV infection among intravenous drug users was rising sharply, which could have consequences for the general population as well.

The Office identified four major counter-narcotics goals that the Afghan Government should pursue:  a significant eradication campaign; the prosecution of major drug traffickers; action against corruption in the Government; and a reinforced counter-narcotics structure, with a cabinet-level official in charge.

As for the international community, the Office suggested that more should be done to alleviate poverty in the countryside; to step up military operations against heroine laboratories and traffickers’ convoys; to support Government efforts to fight corruption in the army, police, provincial administrations, and the judiciary; and to provide assistance for improving the judicial system.

Mr. McClean stressed the importance of offering opium growers support to find an alternative means of livelihood, but noted that aid efforts should also be directed to the 85 per cent of farmers who do not grow opium so that “they don’t reach the conclusion that they need to start growing opium to get assistance”.  An estimated 356,000 families were involved in opium poppy cultivation in 2004 –- representing roughly 10 per cent of the country’s total population.

The main reason farmers grew opium was that it offered a way out of extreme poverty.  “Many of the farmers, landless laborers and sharecroppers are heavily in debt”, he said. Growing opium was considered both “relatively lucrative” and “relatively safe”, meaning that it was more resistant than other crops to drought and bad weather.

Asked by a journalist what economic alternatives could be presented to farmers, Mr. McClean conceded that “as a cash crop, nothing can compete with opium”.  However, he added, experience in other parts of the world had shown that if real economic alternatives were introduced, along with the provision of personal security and social services, farmers were prepared to make changes.

Also, while opium was certainly the most lucrative crop in Afghanistan, he emphasized that the farmers were not the people who were realizing the highest profits.  “The money is going to traffickers, warlords, corrupt officials and terrorists”, he said.

Drug eradication was not a goal that could be easily achieved, with experience elsewhere suggesting that efforts would have to be sustained over a period of years –- “some would even say a generation”, he noted.  However, he cited the recent conduct of a peaceful presidential election and the removal from power of one prominent warlord in western Afghanistan, Ismail Khan, as signs of hope for the consolidation of democracy.  It was very important to continue the demobilization, disarmament, and rehabilitation of ex-combatants. Improving security and dealing with warlord activity were linked closely to trafficking activity.  To that end, much more work was needed to train Afghan security forces.

He highlighted the importance of investing in drug interdiction efforts closer to the source of production, noting that approximately 50 per cent of global seizures of opiates were in Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and other countries in the region.  That figure demonstrated that investment in law enforcement in those countries was an extremely cost-effective measure.  “Because the drug consignments and caravans are large, it is somewhat easier to interdict them [there] than it is once the consignments have been broken down and gotten further away from the source”, he said.

The Office also suggested that the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and coalition troops in Afghanistan consider taking a much more active role against drug laboratories and traffickers.  “We would like to see trafficking become a much riskier operation than it has been”, he said.

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