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Update No: 068 - (25/07/07)

Unstoppable poppies
In July the US authorities released their own preliminary estimates of this year's poppy harvest in Afghanistan. Although the government claims to have eradicated almost 50,000 acres, a total of 457,000 acres are estimated to have been harvested by farmers, up 12% on the previous year. The announcement has added fuel to the fire of the debate on eradication, with the Americans renewing their pressure for stepping up eradication efforts and adopting aerial spraying. The main rationale for the Americans insisting on eradication is that they believe the Taliban are largely funded by drug money. However, one of the paradoxes of the last year of eradication efforts is that they were successful where the Taliban are not active, like in northern Balkh province: here almost no poppies are being grown nowadays. By contrast, production grew dramatically in areas affected by the insurgency, such as Helmand province, which now accounts alone for 46% of the harvest. In other terms, the current eradication strategy seems to have moved an even greater percentage of the business in areas under the control of the Taliban.

Civilian casualties and mass graves
Over the last few months a number of mass graves have been discovered around Afghanistan, including one (the largest) in Kabul. The discoveries immediately sparked a bitter political debate. Karzai was the first to try exploiting the issue, to weaken some leftist elements who have recently formed an alliance with Islamist groups on an agenda of constitutional and electoral reform and opposition to the government. However, it is increasingly uncertain how many corpses are in the graves and who are the culprits. Some of the people who have examined the Kabul graves allege that the bodies date back to a relatively recent period and not to the 1980s, when the leftists were in power. Possibly to avoid a major embarrassment, the government decided to prevent the Kabul grave from being subjected to further examinations.
The other major topic of political debate in recent months has been the rise of civilian casualties inflicted by NATO forces when fighting the insurgents. This year for the first time more civilians are being killed by NATO than by the Taliban, a fact which is contributing to stimulate the rise of a xenophobic sentiment among the Afghan population. The practice of offering cash payments to the relatives of the victims is now beginning to have the perverse effect of giving an incentive to fake claimants to come forward. Since it is difficult to verify casualties and the relationship with the claimants, NATO faces quite a dilemma in this regard. If not checked, the result could be spiralling claims of civilian casualties. 

Afghan vulnerabilities
The latest IMF forecast places inflation at 5-6% for the current year, down from 7% last year, while GDP growth is forecast at 12.2%, up from 8% last year. Whether or not these estimates are accurate, economic growth seems to be having little impact in terms of creating jobs in the legal economy. Most legal investment is concentrated in a few projects, such as luxury hotels and mobile telephony, each of which only creates hundreds of jobs. The only component of the economy whose benefits are widely distributes is the narcotics sector. Afghanistan also looks very vulnerable to political developments in the region. Recent measures taken in Iran to reduce the smuggling of cheaply priced fuel out of the country, together with a temporary reduction of fuel imports from Kazakhstan, caused a sudden and unprecedented rise in fuel prices in July, immediately reflected on the fares charged by transport operators. The potential implications of any crisis in neighbouring Iran are obvious.

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