According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the area sown to opium poppy has increased this year by 59%, and reached 165,000 hectares against 100,000 hectares last year, while the gross opium harvest will amount to 6,100 tons.
Afghan experts maintain that this year opium will be exceedingly rich in morphine. A mere seven kilograms of raw opium will produce one kilogram of heroin.
This ratio is very rare. Usually it takes from 10 to 15 kilograms of opium to make this amount. According to UNOCD, last year's harvest - four thousand tons of raw opium - produced 400 tons of heroin. The current concentration of morphine in 6,100 tons of raw opium will make it possible to get more than 870 tons of heroin. This is a fantastic scale.
It is easy to imagine what amounts of first-grade heavy drug Afghanistan will supply to the European and Russian markets, especially considering that the time-tested system of opium harvesting, its procession into morphine and heroin, and the transportation of ready opiates to consumer countries by reliable routes, is as fail-safe as a Swiss watch.
Is there a way to combat Afghan drugs? Afghans cannot do this themselves - either economically, or by force. As for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), it has to have a special UN mandate to destroy opium fields, and heroin-producing labs.
Neither the United States, which leads the anti-terrorist coalition, nor the NATO leaders, who have headed ISAF, will ever request such a mandate from the UN Security Council. The U.S. is even less likely to do so. It stays in Afghanistan not under the UN aegis. Why should it make worse the already complicated relations with the local population? Besides, the Russian-European problems with Afghan drugs are too remote for Americans. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld attributed growing production of drugs in Afghanistan to increasing demand for them in Europe and Russia. He thinks that Russia and Western Europe should pool efforts in Afghanistan to resolve this problem.
UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa has dispelled the illusions about Europe's potential anti-drug action at the international conference on Afghan drugs in Moscow. In his words, pilot ISAF involvement for the destruction of opium fields and chemical labs did not produce the desired effect in 2005, but only generated tension in relations with the locals. Now the efforts will concentrate exclusively on logistics and training of the Afghan personnel.
Inadvertently, Maria Costa also put an end to the myth about "caravans with drugs" next to the U.S. and ISAF troops. There are caravans indeed, but with precursors rather than drugs both in Afghanistan, and especially around it. Precursor is any chemical reagent, which takes part in the production of a toxic chemical by any method. From two to six tons of acetic acid anhydride is a reagent required to produce heroin from one ton of raw opium.
Maria Costa said that more than 10,000 tons of this anhydride was brought to Afghanistan last year to produce heroin from the 4,000 tons of raw opium harvested. This was a real caravan of more than 500 twenty-ton trailers.
The acetic acid anhydride is not made in Afghanistan, and is only available in China, India, and Russia. It is a real mystery how such caravans can remain unnoticed in Afghanistan with its poor road network, or in approaches to it.
In early July the Afghan authorities were compelled to admit their inability to counter illegal drug production. Late last year they adopted a new law on countering drug production, and set up a whole ministry for this purpose, but all was in vain.
It is hard to say how to resolve this problem. A regional UNODC representative for Central Asia said that the transit of drugs does not go down despite the efforts of Central Asian governments to reduce it.
Meanwhile, the Afghan opium is gaining in strength. Apparently, Russia and Western Europe will have to hope that if opium fields continue to expand by 50% a year, there will be less and less available plough land left. After all, Afghanistan only has some seven million hectares of arable land, 165,000 of which have already been developed.