|Poppy cultivation is down in Afghanistan but Helmand province remains a challenge for anti-narcotics forces [GALLO/GETTY]
For the first time since the US-led invasion in 2001, poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has shown a decline, a joint UN-Afghan government report has shown.
The Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, made public by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) on Wednesday indicated that there was a decline of 19 per cent in the areas known for poppy cultivation.
The report, also released in conjunction with the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics, said that in the past year five more provinces had become "poppy-free" raising the total to 18 of 34 provinces where poppy cultivation has been stamped out.
Five provinces in southern Afghanistan, including Farah, Kandahar, Uruzgan and Nimroz, now account for 91 per cent of Afghanistan's poppy cultivation. The province of Helmand alone accounts for 66 per cent of the country's total.
But the report did offer a stark warning that terrorism and drug trafficking were interlinked; regions of Afghanistan where the Taliban and insurgents are in control account for the highest concentration of poppy cultivation in the country.
Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the UNODC, urged both the Afghan government and the international community to concentrate on high value targets and to shift resources from eradication of poppy fields to destroying opium markets, heroin labs and the drug convoys.
"The geographical overlap between regions of opium and zones of insurgency shows the inextricable link between drugs and conflict," Costa told Al Jazeera.
"Since drugs and [the] insurgency are caused by, and effect, each other, they need to be dealt with at the same time – and urgently."
More action needed
But Haroun Mir, a deputy director of Afghanistan's Centre for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS), voiced caution that the decline in poppy cultivation should not be seen as the beginning of a sustainable downward trend.
He said that a decline in poppy crops was also partially because of severe drought which has struck Afghanistan's northern, north-western and north-eastern provinces.
UNODC officials have also warned that it was possible that recent gains could be reversed if the international community did not immediately take action.
Costa said that neither the Afghan government nor the international community had followed the UN Security Council resolutions that call for naming those funding terrorism with drug money.
"Member states have yet to demonstrate willingness to comply with the Security Council's decisions, for example, by seeking extradition of the criminals who sow death among their youth."
Nato forces have so far refused to contribute to counter-narcotics operations, saying such involvement falls outside their mandate. They instead say the responsibility is that of the Afghan National Police.
Afghan forces, however, have been unable to go it alone.
Colonel General Khodaidad Khodaidad said the lack of security in several Afghan provinces was making eradication of poppy fields and the fight against drug trafficking more difficult.
"In Helmand, for example, we did not have proper force protection," Khodaidad told the media.
UNODC says that unlike earlier attacks on the eradication teams which were carried out by farmers, this year the attacks were carried out by "insurgents".
Investment, encouragement needed
|UNODC: farmers must be given incentives to lure them away from growing poppies [GETTY]
UNODC has attributed the drop in poppy cultivation to strong provincial leadership.
It also pointed to the current drought in Afghanistan which has led to an increase in the price of wheat while the price of opium has come down due to excessive supply.
The UN agency has warned, however, that steps are needed to sustain the poppy-free areas by providing incentives as well as emergency aid in drought-affected areas, where there is a "serious risk of a backlash next year".
Christina Oguz, the country director for UNODC, says that farmers throughout Afghanistan are currently contemplating whether to plant poppy seeds or not.
"That decision is being taken now because the planting season is in October and this is where my worries come in."
"I hope this [decline in cultivation] will be a trend but I would rather see it as a golden opportunity for the government and the international community to go in with massive investment in agriculture and rural development in a much more concerted way than they have done before to those areas which are poppy-free or close to poppy-free," she told Al Jazeera.
Oguz warned that farmers in north and north-eastern Afghanistan were hit particularly hard by the drought.
"They can last for the rest of the year but next year if they don't see that somebody will come to their rescue, they could go back to [growing] opium."
Incentives and rewards
UNODC has called for incentives for the poppy-free areas in the form of a "good performance reward".
Though a good performance fund has been set up to reward provinces that refrain from poppy cultivation, a substantive part of aid from the major donors goes directly to the provinces which are growing poppy.
While the US spends most of its funds in the southern provinces, Canada and the UK spend a substantive portion of their aid in the provinces of Kandahar and Helmand where their troops are located.
Costa acknowledged that Helmand was a dangerous province but called for a two-pronged approach - "combining counter narcotics with counter insurgency".
He called on international forces to destroy the labs that make opium, target the convoys which transport them and dismantle the markets where opium is traded.
He said Nato and international forces should attack those who provide the farmers with the opportunity to cultivate opium.
"If we can delink the activity of farmers for the export market, the price of opium in Afghanistan would decline and I think we would we would make major progress towards major structural changes in the opium economy of this country."
Source: Al Jazeera