Taliban in the money as disease hits opium harvest
Afghan opium poppy farmers suspect the mystery blight might be the work of Nato forces
Opium poppies in Afghanistan are under attack from a mysterious disease which may have reduced the opium harvest by a quarter - and local farmers are blaming Nato forces for their predicament.
The UN's Office on Drugs and Crime estimates 2,500 tonnes of opium may have been lost to the disease, which withers the opium capsule of infected poppies. The Taliban’s traditional strongholds of Kandahar, Oruzgan and Helmand – the frontline in Nato’s battle against the insurgents – are the worst-affected provinces.
The Taliban government of the 1990s effectively wiped out opium production in Afghanistan, but after they were deposed with the help of Nato forces in 2001, the insurgents turned to the trade as a lucrative source of funds.
Afghan farmers, who remember America’s now-abandoned policy of spraying opium fields with herbicides from the air, suspect foul play – a charge denied by Nato, which in recent years has preferred to use financial incentives to persuade farmers to switch to legal crops.
Conspiracy theorists are recalling a BBC Panorama programme from 2000, which reported on a research laboratory in Uzbekistan studying the Pleospora fungus with the specific aim of wiping out opium poppies in Afghanistan. The US and British governments, the main sponsors of the UN-fronted project, vowed only to use this potential biological weapon with the approval of the Afghan government, which in those days was the Taliban.
Commonsense would suggest the current affliction of the opium plant has nothing to do with that research project. Put bluntly, a biological weapon with a 25 per cent kill rate would be an embarrassment.
Meanwhile Jean-Luc Lemahieu, UNODC's Kabul representative, told AFP that tests by Afghanistan's interior ministry to determine the nature of the disease had proved inconclusive. He added that "plague, pests, blight" had hit Afghanistan’s poppy crop in 2002 and 2006: "Natural phenomenon cannot be excluded, as happens to wheat, corn, apples. It is part of nature."
UNODC’s head in New York, Antonio Maria Costa, was also unable to shed any light on the cause, telling the New York Times that the disease was most likely caused by an aphid, but that it could also be down to an outbreak of fungus or virus.
Another boring but plausible explanation is the drought which has been affecting Helmand. Water shortage stresses plants, reduces yields - and also makes them more susceptible to pests and disease.
However, if foreign governments are indeed waging biological warfare on opium poppies, it could be their enemies who have the last laugh. There are believed to be 10,000 tonnes of opium stockpiles, most of which belongs to the Taliban, who held it back, cartel-style, to inflate prices.
The disease has already boosted opium prices by around 50 per cent – and the Taliban will be expecting a windfall. ·
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