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Opium Threats in Afghanistan, Iran

Prepared by: Lionel Beehner
September 14, 2006

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The UN Office of Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) says Afghanistan’s surge in opium production now seriously threatens efforts to stabilize the country. Production is way up—59 percent—from last year. The UNODC links much of that rise to resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan’s poppy-rich provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. Profits from the bumper crop finance an insurgency deeply entrenched along the porous Afghan-Pakistani border. In effect, European and American heroin users are “subsidizing the enemy,” Michael Yon argues in the National Review Online. General Barry McCaffrey, former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, tells Yon that we will “lose the war if [we] don’t confront the issue.” 

The Afghan government has proven ineffective at curbing opium production. Antonio Maria Costa, who heads the UNODC, recently called “on NATO forces to destroy the heroin labs, disband the open opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys and bring to justice the big traders.” NATO commanders rejected the appeal (CNN), claiming it was not within the alliance’s mandate. Meanwhile, the United States has dangled a carrot—financial incentives to push Afghans to cultivate alternate crops like vegetables or wheat, which farmers complain neither grow well nor earn them a profit like opium. Washington also brandished the stick—spraying Afghans’ poppy fields with poison from planes. Both methods tend to anger farmers and shift their allegiances to the Taliban. “Poppy cultivation is a food survival strategy for millions of Afghans, and the United States' and the United Kingdom's poppy eradication policies are fueling violence and insecurity," reports the Senlis Council, a European think tank.

The booming drug trade is raising security concerns among Afghanistan's neighbors as well. Pakistan and Tajikistan have grappled with traffickers and rising addiction rates for several years. But Iran may be bearing the brunt of the resurgent Afghan opium trade. According to the UNODC, seizure rates along the Iranian border are up, but large amounts of opium still make their way into Iran, whose population has the world’s worst heroin habit. A representative of the Supreme Leader calls drug abuse Iran’s “thorniest problem,” one that contributes to theft, murder, suicide, violence, and divorce, reports Bill Samii of RFE/RL (PDF). The authorities traditionally have responded by treating drug use as a criminal matter, replacing drug treatment programs with “rehabilitation” camps, according to this July 2005 report by the Beckley Foundation. Further, drug use has ushered in higher HIV/AIDS infection rates, which, as the Washington Post reports, have raised difficult questions for a fundamentalist religious society like Iran’s. This new Backgrounder examines the Iranian government’s efforts to kick this addiction problem, as well as the economic, social, and health effects of the drug trade on Iran’s young population.

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