Afghanistan seeks help in drugs fight after opium crop hits record

VIENNA (REUTERS) - Afghanistan needs more financial assistance for its anti-narcotics fight after opium cultivation hit a record high last year, a government minister said on Wednesday, as international forces prepare to leave the country.

Afghanistan is the world's top cultivator of the poppy, from which opium and heroin are produced.

Despite more than a decade of efforts to wean farmers off the crop, fight corruption and cut links between drugs and the Taliban insurgency, poppy expanded to 209,000 hectares in 2013, up 36 per cent from the previous year.

"To convince the Afghan farmers to stop cultivating poppy we need to provide them with alternative livelihoods," Din Mohammad Mobariz Rashidi, minister of counter narcotics, said after talks with U.N. anti-drugs chief Yury Fedotov. "More financial resources are needed to combat this phenomenon more effectively," he told Reuters, estimating that US$7 billion (S$8.9 billion) had been spent on the issue in the past 12 years.

He said there was also a need for "severe punishment" of traffickers, adding: "I hope that in 2014 we will witness a declining trend in both cultivation and production of opium." It remains to be seen how donors will react to Afghanistan's funding request. Fedotov said a donor conference would be held in Tokyo later this year.

Last year's increase in the crop was caused by factors including greater insecurity as foreign troops pull back in preparation for withdrawing, a high opium price and a lack of Afghan political will to tackle the problem.

But Fedotov said he was "very encouraged" by his meeting with the Afghan minister at the Vienna headquarters of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"I appreciate his seriousness, his political commitment to face this challenge of illicit drugs in Afghanistan," he said, saying the minister had new ideas for working with neighbouring nations and promoting new livelihoods in Afghanistan.

Fedotov said there had been some positive experiences in Afghanistan in switching to other high-value crops, such as saffron, but acknowledged that the overall picture was "bleak".

Afghanistan's allies have tried to build infrastructure, develop markets and provide farmers with alternatives. But insecurity and graft have largely stymied rural development while poppy eradication has been patchy.

Almost 12 years after US-led forces invaded Afghanistan, large swathes are under Taliban control and Afghan troops still rely heavily on foreign air support, especially in remote areas.

The Afghanistan Opium Survey for 2013, published by the UNODC and the counter-narcotics ministry in December, said poppy growing households in Afghanistan continued to have a higher cash income than non-poppy growers. Per-hectare gross income from opium cultivation amounted to US$4,500, it said.

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