KANDAHAR, Afghanistan -- Driving tractors through fields of poppy plants, Afghan counternarcotics agents started a major opium eradication campaign yesterday in the heartland of the world's largest producer of illicit drugs.
The effort comes amid warnings of another bumper crop that would feed millions of heroin addicts in Asia and the West and endanger Afghanistan's emerging democracy.
Some 1,000 heavily armed police and soldiers guarded the drug agents because Taliban insurgents have threatened to defend the poppy farms, said provincial administrator Ghulam Muhiddin.
However, there were no reports of violence as about 100 tractors moved across the poppy fields, grinding up the young plants in southern Helmand province's Dishu district, he said.
The eradication, part of an initiative funded by the United States and Britain, comes two days after the Afghan government and the United Nations warned that they expect cultivation of opium poppies to increase across large swaths of the country this year.
The government has been criticized for not being tough enough on the drug trade. Counternarcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi has even accused senior government officials of involvement.
Afghanistan is the source of nearly 90 percent of the world's opium and heroin, even though the international community has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into fighting the trade since the Taliban regime was ousted by a US-led invasion in 2001.
When the Taliban ran Afghanistan, its leader banned poppy growing, and cultivation dropped to practically nothing in 2000.
But Afghan and Western counternarcotics officials say the Taliban militia fighting the US-backed government is now implicated in the drug trade, and uses the proceeds to help fund its insurgency.
Poppy eradication started in Kandahar province two weeks ago. About a quarter of Afghanistan's opium is produced in Helmand, more than double the amount of any other province.
''We have started in Dishu and we will work our way up from the south of Helmand to the north, destroying poppies in every district and village," Muhiddin said.
Nationwide, Afghan authorities plan to destroy 50,000 acres of poppy fields. Last year, opium was harvested from about 257,000 acres, yielding more than 4,500 tons of opium.
A Western diplomat said that for Afghanistan to avoid becoming a narco-state, it needs not only to sustain the eradication program, but to crack down on mid- and high-level traffickers and corruption. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The diplomat said wiping out poppy fields in Helmand was the key to controlling opium production in the country.