Afghanistan opium production hits record as military forces withdraw

U.S. Marines with Fox Company, 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, Regimental Combat Team 6, patrol through a poppy field on their way to Patrol Base (PB) Mohmon in the Lui Tal district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, April 17, 2012. The Marines joined with coalition forces at the PB to begin conducting operations in the area. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Ismael E. Ortega/Released)

Worldwide opium production has reached record levels not seen since the 1930s, mainly due to increased cultivation in Afghanistan. That’s according to a new report by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.

Thomas Pietschmann, co-author of the UN report, says “that opium could make its way to the streets of Europe, Russia and Southeast Asia over the next few years and increase the number of deaths related to opium and heroin, which is also derived from the opium poppy plant.”

The main reason for this increase, say experts, is instability in Afghanistan where Taliban militants are pressuring farmers to grow the plant.

“Taliban has used it to fuel many of its activities. It’s one of its main sources of revenue,” says Michael Kugelman, senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C.

“Farmers in Afghanistan … are pressured, intimidated and threatened by violence … if they don’t keep up with poppy production,” Kugelman says.

According to an article in Marketplace, “With most foreign troops now out of Afghanistan, especially since the end of 2014, and instability growing, farmers are also increasingly planting opium poppies for their own economic survival.”

The Afghan economy has been hit hard by uncertainty following the 2014 elections and the future of international donor assistance, since the withdrawal.

Most NATO forces withdrew from Afghanistan six months ago, but 13,000 troops including 9,800 Americans remain there.  This residual force –expected to be halved by the end of 2015—is training Afghan security forces and supporting counterterrorism operations against remnants of al-Qaeda.

But many government officials fear when the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF), assume security responsibilities from the United States, they will be lacking in logistics, intelligence gathering, and other capacities.

According to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), there’s increased violence and instability in the region and Afghanistan is in a “vulnerable” state, following the drawdown of coalition combat forces.

Suicide bomb attacks by the Taliban have surged. According to some estimates, the number of attacks in Kabul alone more than doubled in 2014, says CFR.  This leads many to believe that a resurgence of the Taliban insurgency could once again turn Afghanistan into a terrorist safe haven.

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