US, UN Differ on Afghan Opium Ebb

A U.S. solider speaks on radio during a patrol as Afghan men walks past, in the Chaparhar district of Nanganhar province, eastern Afghanistan, Thursday, Oct. 23, 2008. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool)

WASHINGTON (AP) -- U.S. and U.N. experts agree that Afghanistan will harvest fewer poppy plants bound for the drug trade in 2008 after two years of record crops. But they have radically different estimates about what that decline will mean for opium production.

In a report obtained by The Associated Press ahead of its planned release Friday, the Bush administration claims that production of the heroin precursor will plunge by 31 percent, from 8,800 tons in 2007 to 6,100 tons this year. That's more than five times the drop in production predicted by the United Nations in late August.

The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy maintains its estimate is accurate. Director John Walters says the U.N. report may contain "methodological anomalies" related to on-the-ground surveys of poppy fields and stocks and not factor the effect of poor weather into its production estimate.

The Vienna-based U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, which compiled the U.N. report, was not immediately available to comment, but an official at its New York branch defended its estimate. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

When the U.N. report was released on Aug. 26, officials said that despite a 19 percent drop in cultivation, opium production would go down by only 6 percent because of a rise in yield in fields still under cultivation.

The U.S. report estimates that poppy cultivation is down a similar amount - by 22 percent - but says yields have also fallen. Walters' office noted that the U.S. and U.N. use different data collection and analysis techniques to compile their estimates.

Walters said the U.S. estimate included factors affecting opium production, such as drought, that the U.N. may not have used. Both reports, however, did factor the weather into cultivation.

U.N. experts said the drought was a crucial reason, along with anti-drug campaigns, for the significant decline in poppy cultivation from 477,000 acres in 2007 to 388,000 acres in 2008.

The U.S. report estimates that cultivation fell from 499,000 acres in 2007 to 388,000 acres in 2008.

Regardless of the difference in opinion over what the drop will mean for opium production, Walters said the decline in cultivation - particularly that 18 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are now poppy-free, up from 15 in 2007 and 12 in 2006 - is "good news" and a sign that counternarcotics efforts are working after years of failure.

"It gives us a clear indication that we can do this, we just need to sustain it," he said, noting that anti-drug campaigns were working especially well in Afghanistan's north and east, where incentive programs aimed at rewarding local officials for declines in poppy cultivation have been most successful.

The Bush administration has spent $2.8 billion on fighting drugs in Afghanistan since 2002 but until this year, it had seen poppy cultivation on the rise with record harvests in both 2006 and 2007.

Afghanistan is still the largest opium producer in the world. Were it a country, just one province, Helmand, in the south, would hold that title, as it accounts for more than 60 percent of the country's crop.

The illicit drug trade is financing the Taliban, which could reap as much as $70 million from the 2008 harvest, and fueling rampant corruption that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been slow to address.

Key to sustaining and improving on the 2008 reduction will be stepped-up eradication and crop substitution efforts, along with a focus on fighting corruption and the insurgency.

"Terrorists, opium and corruption have to be attacked together," Walters said.

U.S. defense officials are pressing NATO to conduct more counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan, although they are facing resistance from allies.

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