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Opium cultivation in Afghanistan is at a new record. The numbers out today from the United Nations come weeks after a U.S. government watchdog said American counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan have failed. That's despite billions of dollars spent on those efforts. Last year cultivation was up nearly 50 percent over the previous year and now, as NPR's Sean Carberry reports, it has crept up further.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The 7 percent increase in opium cultivation this year comes as no surprise to the U.N. The primary growing regions of the country remain lawless and violent and Afghanistan's legitimate economy was paralyzed by a contested presidential election that raised fears of civil war. That kind of uncertainty drives the cultivation here. So says Jean-Luc Lemahieu, director of policy analysis for the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime.
JEAN-LUC LEMAHIEU: The increase of the opium cultivation in Afghanistan is not because there's more global demand for Afghan opiates.
CARBERRY: In fact, the price of opium has been falling for the last few years as cultivation has increased. Lemahieu admits the patchwork of different initiatives over the years like eradication and alternate crop programs has clearly failed.
LEMAHIEU: There has been a lot of soul-searching being done among the different main actors on counter-narcotics.
CARBERRY: He said the goal now is to look at opium cultivation as part of the broader illegal economy in Afghanistan. That means changing the culture of corruption and impunity here.
LEMAHIEU: That's a hell of a task but that's exactly what this new government seems to stand for.
CARBERRY: He says President Ashraf Ghani appears serious about going after seemingly untouchable criminals. Just yesterday two former bank officials were sentenced to 10 years for their role in a 2010 banking scandal, but some of Afghanistan's most powerful politicians are linked to the drug trade and jailing them will be no small task. Deputy Minister of Counter-Narcotics Ibrahim Azhar says until now the Afghan government has simply lacked the capacity and political will to fight the drug trade.
IBRAHIM AZHAR: No one has put it in first priority for their ministries.
CARBERRY: He says his ministry has never been given the clout to push law enforcement officials and judges to do their part. He's hoping President Ghani will change that, but even if he can, Lemahieu says there's another growing challenge to reducing opium cultivation.
LEMAHIEU: The highest levels of addictions ever witnessed in this country.
CARBERRY: Meaning even if demand in other countries is flat, Afghanistan has a growing market at home for its number one crop.
Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.
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