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Late spring is the beginning of the fighting season in Afghanistan. The snow thaws in the mountains, travel becomes easier, and the last of the poppy harvest is brought in and shipped out, leaving the Taliban extremists flush with new finances. Drug production is the life blood of the Taliban.
Afghanistan produces over 90 percent of the world's opium and heroin. The farmers sometimes plant opium poppies because other crops do not bring in enough money to support a living, but often they are forced to do so by the Taliban. The United Nations' Drug Control Agency estimates that the trade annually brings the Taliban as much as $470 million dollars.
Curtailing opium poppy production is essential to Afghanistan's long-term security and political stability. The government of Afghanistan, with help from the United States, other allied countries and non-governmental organizations, is working to eliminate poppy production from the country. Using a combination of strategies such as high-value crops as an alternative to poppy cultivation, micro loan credit for supplies, training, infrastructure repair and construction, and irrigation systems construction to name just a few, they are weaning farmers away from illegal opium production. Monetary awards are also a good incentive.
On May 29th, seven provinces in Afghanistan received the 2008 Good Performers Initiative Awards, totaling approximately $6,437,000, in recognition of their efforts to eliminate or significantly reduce poppy cultivation. U.S. Deputy Ambassador to Afghanistan Francis J. Ricciardone and Afghan Minister of Counter Narcotics Colonel-General Khodaidad awarded more than $330 thousand to the province of Kandahar. Khost, Lowgar, Paktika, Panjshir and Wardak each received $1 million dollars, while Herat got over $1,100,000.
The Good Performers Initiative is based on performance. Provinces that achieve significant reductions in poppy cultivation, or achieve “poppy-free” status, are expected to maintain that status and not allow a resurgence of poppy cultivation.
Two years ago, only 13 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces were poppy-free. Last year the list grew to 18. The United Nations estimates that by mid 2009, 4 more provinces will be opium free.
In Afghanistan, eliminating the poppy means cutting off much of what sustains the Taliban. The U.S. is proud to help.