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Opium farming rises in Afghanistan

UN antidrug officials urge crackdown

KABUL, Afghanistan -- World-leading opium cultivation rose a ``staggering" 59 percent in the country this year, the UN antidrugs chief announced yesterday in urging the government to crack down on large traffickers and remove corrupt officials and police.

The record crop yielded 6,100 tons of opium, or enough to make 610 tons of heroin -- outstripping the demand of the world's heroin users by a third, according to UN figures.

Officials warned that the illicit trade is undermining the Afghan government, which is under attack by Islamic militants that a US-led offensive helped drive from power in late 2001. ``The news is very bad. On the opium front today in some of the provinces of Afghanistan, we face a state of emergency," Antonio Maria Costa, chief of the U N Office on Drugs and Crime, said at a news conference. ``In the southern provinces, the situation is out of control."

He talked after presenting results of the United Nations survey to Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, who voiced ``disappointment" over the figures. ``Our efforts to fight narcotics have proved inadequate," Karzai said in a statement.

With the economy struggling, there are not enough jobs and many Afghans say they have to grow opium poppies to feed their families. The trade accounts for at least 35 percent of Afghanistan's economy, financing warlords and insurgents.

The top US narcotics official in Afghanistan said that the opium trade is a threat to the country's fledgling democracy.

``This country could be taken down by this whole drugs problem," Doug Wankel said.

The bulk of the opium increase was in lawless Helmand Province, where cultivation rose 162 percent and accounted for 42 percent of the Afghan crop. The province has been wracked by the surge in attacks by Taliban-led militants .

Opium-growing increased despite the injection of hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid to fight the drug over the past two years. Costa criticized the international effort and said foreign aid was ``plagued by huge overhead costs" in its administration.

Costa said Afghanistan's insecurity is fueling the opium boom, saying he has pleaded with the NATO force that took over military operations in the south to take a ``stronger role" in fighting drugs. NATO says it has no mandate for involvement in the anti drug campaign.

``We need much stronger, forceful measures to improve security or otherwise I'm afraid we are going to face a dramatic situation of failed regions, districts and even perhaps even provinces in the near future," Costa said.

The U N report, based on satellite imagery and ground surveys, said that the area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached 407,700 acres in 2006, up from 257,000 acres in 2005. The estimated yield of 6,100 tons of opium resin, described by Costa as ``staggering," is up from 4,100 tons last year .

Last year, about 450 tons of heroin was consumed worldwide, 90 percent of it from Afghanistan, according to the UN.

The report will increase pressure on the Afghan president. Karzai has often talked tough on drugs, even declaring a ``holy war" against the trade, but he is increasingly criticized for appointing and failing to sack corrupt officials.

At the news conference, the Afghan counternarcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, said the government had the will to make arrests, but lacked the capacity to prosecute ``the big fish."

Yet he maintained that with its new national antidrugs strategy, Afghanistan could ``control" drug production within five years.

A Western counternarcotics official who requested anonymity said that police and government officials are involved in cultivating poppies and providing protection for growers .

He said the Taliban, which managed to nearly eradicate Afghanistan's poppy crop in 2001, now profit from the trade.

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