3 Sep. 2007

Press briefing

by Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director
of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC)

JAMES APPATHURAI (Spokesman, NATO): Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming and sorry for the delay. Let me get right to business; take the opportunity to introduce the head of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Mr. Antonio Maria Costa. Many of you remember him from his last visit. As we discussed earlier today, the issue of the relationship between narcotics and insurgency in Afghanistan and the affects of narcotics on governance on the economy, all of which are in ISAF's lines of main effort are something of constant discussion and in fact discussion today in the North Atlantic Council. And again now with Mr. Costa, what he does is very much close to our heart and vice versa. So we had a very interesting meeting now with not only the NATO nations but the ISAF troop contributing nations and other bodies as well. He has taken the time to meet with you and to take your questions, so let me turn the floor over to him immediately.

ANTONIO MARIA COSTA (Executive Director, UNODC): Thank you very much, James. It's a pleasure to be here again. Obviously it was an honour to address the NATO Council and ISAF contributing nations and neighbouring countries to Afghanistan.

The event today is in relation to our publication about four or five days ago, at most a week ago of our survey, the annual survey on the opium cultivation in Afghanistan. I will be very brief because I believe the heart of this session is the question and the answer period.

The information I shared with the NATO Council is relatively good. Good in the sense that it shows a significant decline in the cultivation of opium in Afghanistan, almost 20 percent, 19 percent to be precise, to 157,000 hectares. An important major increase in the number of provinces that are opium-free, more than half of the 34 provinces of the country, 18 namely, obviously a decline in production. Earlier I talked about cultivation, so the hectares declining by 19 percent; production decline. A smaller amount because increase in yields and increase in productivity of the fields, it decreased by six percent, 7,700 tonnes. So the news as I said is good, between the merit, in its own merit, the news is relatively good because we want to make sure that this lasts over time.

You see quite often people make comparison between opium and cocaine and Afghanistan and Colombia; I do that myself. Cocaine is a multi-year plant, is a permanent plant, is… there are no big oscillation year over year. Opium is a crop, just like tomato crop or for that matter zucchini crop. It could be planted or not. This year in 18 provinces farmers decided to abstain, refrain from planting. It could turn be upside down tomorrow or the next few weeks. Opium is planted now, September, October, early November. So it's good in its own merit, but it's relatively good because the… relapse could not be excluded without the consequence coming from it.

How was… question I asked myself, how was this not about results obtained? Governors and local administrations positions, attitude that in the past have been a bit more towards the benign neglect or perhaps even participation in deriving benefit from the opium economy. Now we see at least in the provinces I mentioned earlier, 18 of them, governors’ attitude very strongly determined against opium, for a number of reasons: to acquire additional resources as promised by the international community, because of pressure from the central government, because of realization that sooner or later that illicit activity will be repressed and therefore better prepared for something else. But especially or and especially because with the current food crisis which is a worldwide problem and the current upward pressure almost inflation of food prices, cultivating legal crops for example, wheat, is becoming almost, I stress almost, as competitive as cultivating opium. Simply a few years ago, two, three years ago opium revenues per hectare were about ten times higher than wheat revenues. Today they're only twice as high. So it's becoming more remunerative to cultivate wheat which is still not fully competitive with opium, but it's quite well.

Then finally the question of the NATO's role in counter-narcotics, I have been saying that participating in eradication would be an error. Eradicating crops is a policy which should be run by the government and only the government. It is one which affects the livelihood of farmers. It's an illicit livelihood, but still it is a source of revenue. But there are links between the farmers and foreign markets, namely the traffickers, namely the markets, namely the labs. I'm asking ISAF to destroy, to focus upon and destroy high value targets: the labs, the open markets which are so visible in the south of the country, and the convoys. The convoys which are bringing opium abroad, or heroin, and the convoys which are bringing into the country the precursor chemicals, substances, there's no chemical industry in Afghanistan, but there are a lot of diversion, several thousand tonnes, hear me right, several thousand tonnes of precursors getting into Afghanistan. They come from Germany diverted in the Balkans, they come from China, they come from Korea, they come from a variety of sources.

I'm also asking NATO to focus on the major traffickers. I understand this is a law enforcement measure, and NATO has fundamentally a security briefing not a law enforcement. But to the extent that we know that opium is concentrated, cultivation and the labs and the processing, fundamentally in the five southern provinces which in one way or another, to one extent or another, are under control by of permanent Taliban settlement. Well then hitting the traffickers, neutralizing them or in any event at least recognizing them so that they can be included in the list which has been decided by the Security Council of the United Nations, Security Council of the United Nations in July, I believe, June, July, approved a resolution, 1822 which authorizes… requests countries to list the major traffickers. Let us list them, not only to name and shame them, to arrest them or in any event to stop their movements, their travels as well as to seize their asset.

Finally two more points always in terms of NATO and its role, we launched, this was four years ago, the counter-narcotic new policies of the entire international community and the country based on regaining control over province after province. Few years ago, three years ago there were six provinces opium-free. Now or last year there were 13; this year there are 18. We need to regain control of the remaining provinces, regain control militarily which means offering to the Afghan government and retaining in the hands of NATO control of the territories so that illicit activities are limited. We are focusing on Nimruz and Zabol in the centre south, part of the southern part of the country… sorry, I take it back. Zabol and Daykundi in the southern central part of the country, and Nimruz in the western part of the country. These are areas with relatively low three, four, five, 6,000 hectares, relatively low opium cultivation. Opium is cultivated in uncompetitive, non-competitive conditions, low productivity, and above all there are no strong NATO… no strong insurgent presence, and therefore NATO could, I believe regain control of Nimruz, Zabol and Daykundi.

Finally my emphasis is on strengthening border security, practically borders are open, certainly from the Afghan side. They are controlled by the Iranian, but only to the extent that is convenient to do so. They are open we know vis-à-vis Pakistan, they are practically open towards Turkmenistan, they are just a line on the sand of a gigantic desert. They are open towards the other Republics of Central Asia, so definitely I think the security, the countries offering bilateral and multilateral assistance, including security assistance to Afghanistan should focus on sealing the borders so as to stop this nonsense of trafficking narcotics out, precursors in.

This is all what I wanted to say. I'm in your hands now for possible question and answer period.

APPATHURAI: My friends, (inaudible).

Pascal Mallet, French News Agency: I just wanted to know what are the reasons behind this relative success you mentioned, I mean according to you is that because NATO is more involved? Is that because Afghan corruption is… going down? Is it because as you say economic factors like the price of wheat or other agricultural crops is growing? Or is there any… other circumstances that you could mention?

COSTA: Thanks. An important question, I should have said that; what our findings are in on the matter. Two basic situations have affected the cultivation this year. First and foremost governors' attitude in the relevant provinces, as I said the zero opium cultivation situation in 18 provinces is due to farmers abstaining from planting. This was because of pressures from the governors, including peer pressure, perhaps even threats from the governors; we have evidence of that to farmers. Certainly in terms of shuras and local councils meeting and deciding that opium was against the law, but above all the Mullahs there is evidence of religious, the fatwa that was launched some time ago against opium cultivation was better publicized by the Mullahs. And so we have sort of a psychological, let us say local government-related reasons.

A second factor played a role, but again do not misunderstand me, do not present it as the key factor: weather conditions. The conditions in December and again in March, first because of very bad cold spell, second because of drought conditions were adverse to all agriculture, not only to opium, to all agricultures. And this has been a blessing in disguise if you wish, or a curse if you wish, better not, but with some positive dimensions. The bad weather conditions and the bad agriculture harvest have increased the price of all commodities, including wheat which has become now more competitive. Some opium fields were abandoned because of the weather conditions, but this has been marginal with respect to rather the very strong impact of governors' attitude.

The international community is playing a role and increasingly visible, not militarily, this is not what brought about the decline in the cultivation, but more in terms of development assistance. Either because it is disbursed which has a positive impact or it is because it is promised, and when it is only promised my plea with governments and international organization is to expedite the disbursing so as not to facilitate a reversal of attitude or a relapse which otherwise I would fear for 2009.

APPATHURAI: Next question?

UNIDENTIFIED (Kuwait News Agency KUNA): You spoke about one of the reasons being the fatwa, but this fatwa was always there, you know, in Islam it is forbidden to use narcotics, so what do you think was behind now, the reason that you are saying, the fatwa, that led to this drop?

COSTA: That's interesting what you are saying. First of all the origin of the attitude for example even at a time of the Taliban was the beginning for four years the Taliban, sorry I know the Taliban is not fatwa, but I will get there in a minute. For the first five years actually, from '96 to 2000 the Taliban supported and actually promoted the cultivation. Then they declare it against Islam, but interesting enough the Taliban declare against Islam the cultivation, not the trafficking, not the export. Actually there was a sort of a concept that by cultivating, by exporting the narcotic that could hurt the infidels and indeed cause damage in importing country which is a fact. So the Taliban banned it on the basis of religious consideration, they banned the cultivation. Of course the Taliban regime was to a large extent, if you can use the modern term was a theocracy with religious leaders in power, so the fatwa became the policy of the government and therefore of the authority of the government, authority if you wish. That tended to disappear from the logic of the internal dynamics of the Afghan society for a couple of years, and then starting in 2003, 2004 there's been again a fatwa. But a fatwa which was more notional… but this time against a cultivation and against refining, processing, dealing with… basically it was declared against Islam to deal with narcotics in general at whatever level, even to touch them.

As of late the general attitude of institution whether government or administrative institution, governors and district leaders and so forth, all those institutions which play a role in society, religious and faith-based groups, all of this seems to have coalesced in the provinces and has produced a result which I have just mentioned. Thank you.

APPATHURAI: If there are… Please.


COSTA: The figure is 157,000 hectares cultivated this year which is minus 19 percent with respect to last year when the record was, 2007, 193,000. Eighteen opium-free provinces against 13 last year. In terms of production, opium, we estimated this year as 7.7 thousand, 7,700, minus six percent with respect to last year. Last year record crop in the history of humanity, obviously leaving aside China 150 years ago, last year 8,200 tonnes.

APPATHURAI: Last question.

UNIDENTIFIED: Could you tell us does the Afghan government has its own anti-narcotic force for the present? We know that there is a situation between NATO and Russia.

COSTA: Yes, the answer is strongly affirmative. The government has, we have established it, we have funded it, obviously with resources provided by member states. It has an anti-narcotic police force, at the moment 3,200 people. I would say by my international comparisons standards, by my reckoning it's relatively good. When I first travelled to Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban, well I must say that there was basically no police or any no effective police of any sort. We started in spring 2003 to establish a counter-narcotic force. It is now reasonably efficient. Again by international standard it is not as efficient as the one in Colombia which is probably the best in the world, it beats any, even of the rich countries' expertise and knowledge and dedication and technical capability. They are getting there. It's not enough what they have, but they are getting there. This is the counter-narcotic police; this is not the national police. The national police, you're talking about 60,000 people, but not effective as yet.

APPATHURAI: Colleagues, Mr. Costa has another appointment so let me thank you and thank you very much again for this very insightful. Let me take 30 seconds to say one thing which I need to say: there is apparently a misconception in the press and possibly in the Pakistani government about the authors of a possible transgression into Pakistani territory from Afghanistan, 4 helicopters reportedly crossed the border. Let me say I don't have any more information about that than to say this: there has been no NATO, I repeat no NATO or ISAF involvement in crossing the border into Pakistan, so let me be very clear with that to you. Thank you very much.