Growing regional drugs problem

US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan do not expect any reduction in opium production in the country in the short term, a high-ranking US Central Command official said in the Tajik capital, Dushanbe, on Wednesday.

"The war against narcotics - it is going to be a long battle," Michael Health, Air Vice-Marshal, Special Adviser to the Commander, said at a news conference following a three-day meeting on the issue in Dushanbe.

The International Conference on Counter-Narcotics and the Second Meeting of the Central and South Asia Counter-Narcotics Security Working Group (CSACNSWG) was organised in the former Soviet republic by the George C. Marshall European Centre for Security Studies.

"If you ask the question - can that [major reduction in Afghan narcotics] be achieved in the near future, the honest answer is no," the US official added.

Speaking at the opening of the conference, Tajik President Emomali Rahmonov aired his concern about the problem. "The level of narcotics production from the beginning of the anti-terrorist operation in Afghanistan [autumn of 2001] has increased more than three times," Rakhmonov said.

Bordering Afghanistan, Tajikistan lies on the frontline of the drug flow from the country to Russia and on to western Europe. Heroin addiction and criminality have increased sharply as Afghan opium production rises.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has reported that some 20 percent of Afghan drugs are trafficked via three ex-Soviet Central Asian republics - Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Tajikistan accounts for about 70 percent of drugs, mainly heroin, seized in Central Asia.

The Tajik leader said that billions of US dollars of aid could not solve the problem and called for more economic development in Afghanistan.

According to UNODC, Afghan opium production increased two and a half times in 2005, hitting 4,000 mt – the equivalent of 400 mt of heroin.

A UNODC survey carried out in 2005 revealed that almost 70 percent of the Afghan farmers growing opium were going to expand the illegal crop the following year.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) estimates that narcotics account for 40-60 percent of Afghanistan’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

The Afghan illicit drug trafficking business is worth around $2.3 billion a year, according to UNODC. The UN agency says that some 246,000 families cultivate opium in the country. But estimates suggest that at least 20 percent of the Afghan population is benefitting directly or indirectly from the income generated by the drugs trade.