An interview with Antonio Maria Costa of the UNODC in the current issue of Newsweek International (dated September 7, 2009)
After spending hundreds of millions of dollars trying to eradicate the fields of poppies that produce opium in Afghanistan, the U.S. suddenly announced in June that, in the words of special AfPak envoy Richard Holbrooke, "eradication is a waste of money." Instead, NATO and Afghan forces are trying to focus on the nexus between the opium trade and Taliban financing. Nobody has watched these developments more closely than Antonio Maria Costa, head of the Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. A frequent visitor to Afghanistan himself, he also has a staff of some 360 locals "crisscrossing the country," tracking the growth and sale of narcotics. In a series of interviews with NEWSWEEK's Christopher Dickey before the recent election in Afghanistan, Costa talked about the surprising drug story behind the war story there. Excerpts:
Why give up on poppy eradication?
Last year the Afghan government eradicated 5,000 hectares of about 159,000 that were cultivated. More than 70 military and militia men were killed, and a couple of hundred million dollars were spent—tens of thousands of dollars per hectare—to destroy 3 percent of the crop. Eradication is supposed to have a double function: first, to reduce cultivation; and, second, to deter farmers from planting. But nobody is deterred by a 3 percent risk. The money would be better spent on development assistance like hospitals and schools.
You've suggested Afghanistan produces much more opium than the world actually consumes.
Oh, yes. Since 2005 the Afghans have cultivated almost twice world demand. The bottom should have fallen out of the opium market. But it hasn't. Prices are back down to where they were a decade ago, but they should be much lower considering the amount of opium being produced. That suggests that a lot of opium is not reaching the market. We have been wondering where it is. Now, in a number of military operations in the southern provinces, NATO troops have found huge amounts, which is evidence that the Taliban have been sitting on huge stockpiles. I can report—and this is breaking news—that opium cultivation and production fell for the second year in a row in 2009. But again this year, supply exceeds demand. Someone is hoarding 10,000 tons of opium—enough to satisfy two years of world heroin addiction, or three years of morphine prescription. Where and why? We don't know. But it's strange and potentially dangerous. ... (MORE)