| ||Afghan Poppy Blight Adds Uncertainty to Course of War|
The Wall Street Journal
By Yaroslav Trofimov
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Afghanistan's poppy crop—the source of most of the world's illicit opiates—appears to have suffered a devastating failure this year, U.S. and Afghan officials say, in a development that is likely to affect the course of the war as U.S.-led forces withdraw.
U.S. commanders and Afghan officials, who ascribe the poor harvest to blight, expect the Taliban to reel as opium revenues dry up in coming months. "It's a blow to the insurgency," says Kandahar provincial Gov. Tooryalai Wesa. The provincial government of Helmand—which accounts for half of the country's opium cultivation—has hailed the blight as a "divine decree" by Allah himself.
The small crop, however, is also certain to bankrupt thousands of ordinary farmers, possibly pushing them to join the insurgency. Already, three farmers have committed suicide in Helmand because of the failed poppy harvest, local officials say.
Opium prices, meanwhile, have soared. A kilogram of dry opium now sells at the farm gate for more than $300, up from some $200 in March, and just $80 or so in 2009, according to United Nations surveys. Such a high price is "scary," as it's likely to lead to increased opium cultivation next year, while also bringing a windfall to large-scale dealers who hoarded last year's stocks, cautions Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the Afghanistan representative for the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
"This is definitely not good news at all Those who already are hedging will definitely gain," Mr. Lemahieu says. "Who will lose out on this? The poor farmers, who often have engaged in expensive loans against the opium to be harvested. If you think security and stability, you can see the frustration and the anger building up."
Whether a blessing or a disaster, the poppy blight injects another complication to the U.S.-led coalition's plans to transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces and withdraw most of their own troops by 2014, a transition discussed Sunday at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit in Chicago. Afghanistan suffered another, apparently less virulent, poppy blight in 2010—the year that turned out to be the deadliest for U.S.-led coalition troops since America's longest foreign war began.
Afghanistan was virtually poppy-free in 2001, the year when the country's Taliban rulers eradicated opium cultivation in a failed bid to win international recognition, and the U.N. disputes American assertions that the Taliban are the main beneficiaries of the Afghan narcotics trade. "The narrative of the Taliban as the major player is something I do not take," says Mr. Lemahieu. "The drug traffickers are not on the side of the Taliban, they are in collusion with the Taliban."
These days, Afghanistan produces some 90% of the world's opium-based narcotics, and Mr. Lemahieu's office estimates that the area under poppy cultivation increased in 2012 once again, from 131,000 hectares last year. Nine-tenths of this cultivation is concentrated in just four southern and southwestern provinces where the harvesting season ended this month: Helmand, Kandahar, Farah and Uruzgan.
U.S. Army Maj. Gen. James Huggins, the commander of the coalition's Regional Command-South that includes Kandahar and Uruzgan, said in an interview that the opium yield in his region this year is estimated as low as one-sixth of last year's levels.
In Helmand, the yields are off by 75% or more in certain areas, according to U.S. Marine Col. Tim Oliver, head of intelligence for the coalition's Regional Command-Southwest, which includes that province.
"Illegal taxation is a principal financial driver for the insurgency," Col. Oliver said. "Less opium has meant less revenue, more competition between insurgent groups for resources, and less cooperation from a population hard-pressed economically from the failure of what for many farmers is their principal cash crop."
The blight, military commanders say, also explains this fighting season's pickup in Taliban activity in the traditional poppy-growing districts of southern and southwestern Afghanistan that were the focus of President Obama's troop surge. "They are suffering from a relatively poor poppy harvest, so they are protecting what they can," Gen. Huggins says.
In addition to the blight, the poppy farms were affected this year by an unusually cold winter and unseasonal rains. In Helmand, improved government presence also pushed the cultivation to less fertile areas on the periphery of the main farming belt, zones where poppies needed artificial irrigation and heavy use of pesticides.
Just as during the previous blight, this year's poor crop has sparked conspiracy theories about the U.S.'s allegedly secretly spraying the fields with unknown poisons that are destroying the crops. The U.N. checked similar claims in 2010, but found that the poppy, apricot and apple crops that year had been infected by unrelated diseases, Mr. Lemahieu says.
Still, many villagers already are blaming the Americans, says Abdul Baqi, a 26-year-old from the Panjway district of Kandahar, one of the province's main poppy-growing areas. "People are worried and angry," he says. "They have borrowed the money, and they can't repay the debts."
Helmand's provincial government said earlier this month that a farmer in the Now Zad district hanged himself because of such debts after his poppy crop failed. A mother and a son in the same district also committed suicide because the bad poppy harvest meant they couldn't raise money for his wedding payment to the bride's family. —Habib Khan Totakhil and Ziaulhaq Sultani contributed to this article.
Write to Yaroslav Trofimov at email@example.com