The 2014 pullout of U.S.-led combat troops from Afghanistan appears to be having a major impact on the country's narcotics trade, with opium poppy cultivation growing to a record high this year, according to a U.N. report released Wednesday.
The boom underscores the failure of U.S.-led international efforts to fight opium poppy cultivation that have cost U.S. taxpayers some $4.42 billion since 2002. Afghanistan remains the world's largest producer of opium, which contains morphine, the alkaloid from which heroin is produced.
The narcotics trade is a key driver of official corruption and a major source of income for the Taliban-led insurgency. Various estimates put the amount of money earned annually by the insurgency from the narcotics economy at between $70 million and $400 million.
In its annual survey of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime and the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics charted a 36 percent increase this year to a record 209,000 hectares, up from 154,000 hectares in 2012. The previous high was 193,000 hectares in 2007.
The number of "poppy-free" provinces fell from 17 to 15, with Balkh and Farayab dropped from the list.
"As we approach 2014 and the withdrawal of international forces from the country, Afghanistan, working with its many friends and allies in a spirit of shared responsibility, must make some very serious choices about the future it wants, and act accordingly," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the UNODC regional representative.
The production of opium rose to an estimated 5,500 tons, almost 50 percent higher than in 2012, the survey reported. That amount was lower than the record 7,400 tons of opium produced in 2007 because poor weather reduced the yield in the main poppy-growing region of southern Afghanistan, it said.
The price of opium of around $145 per kilogram was lower than last year, but much higher than the annual prices of the 2006-2008 period, the survey said.
"Farmers may have driven up cultivation by trying to shore up their assets as insurance against an uncertain future, which could ensue from the with withdrawal of international troops next year," said a UNODC news release.
The total farm-gate price - the amount that the 2013 opium yield brought producers - was around $950 million, or 4 percent of Afghanistan's Gross National Product, and was one-third higher than for 2012.
When the profits of drug traffickers are added, the total value of the country's opium economy was much higher, according to the survey. That implies that the percentage of the economy driven by narcotics production will grow even further as the licit economy shrinks due to reduced spending by the United States and other countries that are pulling their combat troops out by the end of next year, it continued.
Almost 90 percent of the opium produced this year came from nine provinces in southern and western Afghanistan, including those most affected by the insurgency, the report said. Helmand, the southern province that was a major focus of the U.S. troop surge ordered by President Barack Obama in 2009, accounted for nearly half of all opium poppy cultivation.
While government-led eradication efforts decreased, there was a marked increase in narcotics-related violence, with 143 people killed during eradication campaigns this year, compared to 102 in 2012, the survey found.