Friday, February 09, 2007

Poppy update: cultivation up 70% on last year

This is the first report I've seen suggesting that this year's opium poppy crop in Afghanistan may dramatically exceed last year's record yield. I flagged up a report three months ago that the crop might match last year's. The explanation given by the head of Helmand province's agricultural department is refreshingly blunt. "Farmers are not receiving adequate support from the government", he admits, "so they are growing more poppy." He believes that there are 60,000 hectares under cultivation in Helmand, a 70% increase on last year.

This news arrives amid debate over what to do about the town of Musa Qala which, after Sangin, is the region's major opium market. The British withdrew from the town last year following a series of clashes with the Taliban, leaving the local elders to keep the peace. This negotiated solution attracted criticism from the Americans, criticism which has strengthened since the Taliban recently reoccupied the town. The Taliban commander, Mullah Ghafour, was killed shortly afterwards by a NATO airstrike, and some people are now arguing that a fuller offensive designed to drive the Taliban out of the town would also disrupt the harvest and the subsequent sale of the crop.

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