BRUSSELS, 12 September (UNODC) - The head of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, called on Tuesday for robust military action by NATO forces to destroy the opium industry in southern Afghanistan.
Presenting details of the 2006 UNODC Annual Opium Survey at a news conference in Brussels, he noted that the dramatic surge in opium cultivation and production had occurred mainly in the increasingly lawless southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.
"In the turbulent southern region, counter-insurgency and counter-narcotics efforts must reinforce each other so as to stop the vicious circle of drugs funding terrorists and terrorists protecting drug traffickers," the UN drugs chief said.
"I call on NATO forces to destroy the heroin labs, disband the open opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys and bring to justice the big traders. I invite coalition countries to give NATO the mandate and resources required."
Opium cultivation throughout Afghanistan surged 59% to 165,000 hectares in 2006. The opium harvest was an unprecedented 6,100 tonnes, an increase of 49 percent from 2005, making Afghanistan virtually sole supplier to the world.
Only six of the country's 34 provinces are opium-free. Cultivation fell in eight provinces, mainly in the more stable north. Around the country, the number of people involved in opium cultivation increased by almost a third to 2.9 million, representing 12.6% of the total population.
"Revenue from the harvest will be over three billion dollars this year, making a handful of criminals and corrupt officials extremely rich," Mr Costa said. "This money is also dragging the rest of Afghanistan into a bottomless pit of destruction and despair."
The UNODC Executive Director warned drug-consuming nations that the Afghan opium boom was likely to fuel a surge in the number of lethal drug overdoses when the new heroin starts reaching users in 2007.
"Experience shows that massive over-supply of heroin does not lead to lower prices but to higher-purity heroin doses. That means more deaths from overdoses," he said. "I fear that in 2007, once the new crop has reached the retail markets, Afghan opium will kill more than the 100,000 people of the recent past."
Concerted action was needed in response to the alarming increase in opium production.
This should include:
· making farmers think twice before planting opium this autumn. The carrot of development assistance should be combined with the stick of eradication of illegal crops. "The goal should be to double the number of opium-free provinces next year, and double them again in 2008. That is ambitious, but achievable," Mr Costa said.
· increasing development aid. "The Taliban offer daily wages twice the earnings of opium sharecroppers. Aid money needs to increase and to flow faster."
· making aid programmes conditional on drug and integrity clauses. The more vigorously district and provincial leaders commit themselves to eliminate opium and curb corruption, the more aid they should receive. This would help poor farmers and reassure western taxpayers who fund the relief effort. "If we lose their support, insurgents will have an unlimited supply of foot-soldiers and no resources will be available to fight them," the UNODC chief warned.
· bringing major criminals to justice. It is imperative for the Afghan government to pursue the most notorious drug traffickers and the most glaring cases of corruption so as to fill the one hundred beds of the new, maximum-security prison at Pul-I-Charki near Kabul. Seizure and redistribution of illicitly acquired assets, particularly land and houses, will strengthen the government's credibility and popular support.
· encouraging Afghanistan's neighbours to curb the flow of volunteers, arms and money for the insurgency as well as the import of the chemicals needed to make heroin.
· curbing heroin consumption. Coalition nations assisting Afghanistan are also the biggest consumers of its heroin. They need to be more vigorous in tackling demand for the drug.
The UNODC Executive Director said the superficially enticing proposal to turn illicit opium into morphine for medical purposes was no panacea. It would take at least a generation before Afghanistan would be able to guarantee the security of the morphine trade, there was no global shortage of medical morphine and the price of illicit opium was five times that of medical opium.
"There is no magic formula to save Afghanistan," he said. "Instead, we need to insist on full implementation of the Afghan national drug control strategy, which is based on development, security, law enforcement and good governance."
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