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U.N.: Record Afghan Drug Cultivation

AP | August 27, 2007

KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan opium poppy cultivation exploded to a record high this year, with the multibillion-dollar trade fueled by Taliban militants and corrupt officials in President Hamid Karzai's government, a U.N. report said Monday.

Afghanistan has opium growing on 477,000 acres of land, a 17 percent increase from last year's record 408,000 acres, according to an annual survey by the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime.

"The situation is dramatic and getting worse by the day," said Antonio Maria Costa, the UNODC's executive director.

The country now accounts for 93 percent of the global production of opium, the raw material for heroin, and has doubled its output since two years ago, the report said.

"No other country in the world has ever had such a large amount of farmland used for illegal activity, beside China 100 years ago," when it was a major opium producer, Costa said in an interview in Kabul.

The report casts doubt on the effectiveness of efforts by the United States and other Western donors to battle the illicit trade.

It also adds pressure on Karzai to consider new ways of curbing an expansion that threatens to turn Afghanistan into a "narco-state," where some observers warn that groups such as al-Qaida could once again find sanctuary.

Karzai last year rejected U.S. offers to spray this year's crop after Afghans said the herbicide could affect livestock, crops and water supplies -- fears the U.S. calls unfounded.

Costa said the U.N. supports the government's position, but added that crop eradication was a key element of any strategy to combat its growth.

Afghanistan is on track to produce 9,000 tons of opium this year, up 34 percent from 6,724 tons in 2006, Costa said.

The farm value of Afghanistan's annual crop is about $1 billion, the U.N. survey said. The street value of the heroin produced from it is many times higher.

While the number of poppy-free provinces in the country's north has increased from six in 2006 to 13 in 2007, production in the insurgency-hit southern province has exploded to unprecedented levels.

The southern province of Helmand alone, with 253,944 acres under cultivation, now accounts for more than half of the national total.

"The government has lost control of this territory because of the presence of the insurgents, because of the presence of the terrorists, whether Taliban or splinter al-Qaida groups," Costa said.

"It is clearly documented now that insurgents actively promote or allow and then take advantage of the cultivation, refining and the trafficking of opium," he said.

Taliban militants levy a tax on farmers and also provide protection for convoys smuggling opium into neighboring countries, Costa said.

Some 3.3 million of Afghanistan's estimated 25 million people are involved in producing the opium, according to the report.

Costa said there was a "tremendous amount of collusion" between traffickers and government officials.

"The government's benign tolerance of corruption is undermining the future: no country has ever built prosperity on crime," Costa said in a summary of the report.

Gen. Khodaidad, Afghanistan's acting counternarcotics minister, acknowledged that the counternarcotics strategy has failed in the country's south and west, which he blamed on bad local officials, poor policing, failure in eradication and open borders with Iran to the west and Pakistan to the east.

Khodaidad, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, said the government needs to review its strategy at an upcoming national conference Wednesday. He said inefficient and corrupt local officials should be threatened with dismissal and those who curbed the production and trade should be rewarded.

While urging NATO to stay clear of eradication efforts, Costa said the link between the insurgency and the trade meant the alliance had a direct interest in supporting counternarcotics operations by destroying opium labs, targeting traffickers and closing opium markets.

"The opium economy of Afghanistan can be bankrupted by blocking the two-way flow of imported chemicals and exported drugs," Costa said. "In both instances materials are being moved across the southern border and nobody seems to take notice," he said. Refiners need chemicals to turn opium into heroin.

The report did not say how much of the opium gets made into heroin in Afghanistan before being smuggled out.

Costa also urged Afghanistan's government to submit the names of about a dozen known traffickers -- whom he did not identify -- to the U.N. Security Council for inclusion alongside al-Qaida and Taliban members on a list of individuals who are barred from traveling, have their assets seized and face extradition.

"The Afghan opium situation looks grim, but it is not yet hopeless," Costa said. "It will take time, money and determination -- worthwhile investments to spare Afghanistan and the rest of the world more tragedies."

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