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UN Report Puts Afghan Opium Poppy Cultivation At Record High


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish.

The poppy crop in Afghanistan has hit record levels, a sign that the drug trade there continues to rise. That's according to the latest numbers from a United Nations report out today. The U.S. warns that a boost in opium production will provide more money for Taliban insurgents.

As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, those rising numbers come despite billions of dollars spent to eradicate the poppy plant.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: First, the numbers. The U.N. report says there are two more provinces growing poppy. That makes 19, more than half the country. Opium production could grow by 50 percent compared to last year. And the number of acres being cultivated is at a 20-year high, mostly throughout the Taliban heartland in the south and west.

MICHAEL O'HANLON: Well, the first thing we have to conclude is clearly that drug eradication has not worked well.

BOWMAN: That's Michael O'Hanlon. He's a defense analyst with the Brookings Institution and has made numerous trips to Afghanistan. He says he worries most about that increased cultivation.

O'HANLON: Frankly, it's more disturbing when you see the acreage grow by a dramatic amount because that would suggest that the control of the Taliban and other outlaw groups may have grown. The government's control may have somewhat shrunk.

BOWMAN: Shrinking Afghan government control at a time when U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan. The U.N. report says the Afghan government has reduced its efforts to destroy those poppy plants. Pentagon officials point to corruption and the lack of political will.

VANDA FELBAB-BROWN: The opium numbers for this year are dramatic.

BOWMAN: Vanda Felbab-Brown has written extensively on Afghanistan and the global drug trade. She says it will take years before the country can slow both opium cultivation and production.

FELBAB-BROWN: It will take at least a decade of very auspicious economic and security conditions to see some dramatic changes in the level of cultivation in Afghanistan. And, of course, we haven't had that decade.

BOWMAN: The U.S. has spent 12 years in Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban, training Afghan forces and helping destroy the poppy plants. But the American anti-drug strategy kept changing. Eradication efforts came to an end in 2009. Officials called it a waste of money. Burning and destroying poppies was only hurting farmers trying to make some money and driving them into the hands of the Taliban. So the Obama administration turned to economic assistance, spending hundreds of millions of dollars. Vanda Felbab-Brown says that effort fell short.

FELBAB-BROWN: Lots of the money was diverted to wrong people, to wrong programs. There was very little oversight of the spending.

BOWMAN: Wrong programs. The Americans encourage farms to grow wheat, for example, as an alternative to poppies. But the price of wheat couldn't compete with the more lucrative poppies. She says the focus should have been on high-end crops: nuts, apricots, pomegranates.

FELBAB-BROWN: The downside, of course, is that they will take several years to start producing and then to generate income.

BOWMAN: And she says there's still one more problem. Some of that Afghan opium, turned into heroin, is now making its way into Canada and the United States. Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.