U.N. survey finds surge in opium cultivation in Afghanistan | NevadaAppeal.com

U.N. survey finds surge in opium cultivation in Afghanistan

PAUL GEITNER
Associated Press Writer

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AP) – Afghanistan is on its way to becoming a “narco-state” and U.S. and NATO-led forces in the country should get more involved in fighting the drug trade as well as terrorists, according to a U.N. report released Thursday.

The agency found that this year’s cultivation of opium – the raw material for heroin – was up by nearly two-thirds. Bad weather and disease kept production from setting a new record, although it still accounted for 87 percent of the world supply, up from 76 percent in 2003.

“It would be an historical error to abandon Afghanistan to opium, right after we reclaimed it from the Taliban and al-Qaida,” said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

The illegal trade is booming despite political progress in the country, including the first presidential election, and local drug control efforts led by British military advisers.

Opium is now the “main engine of economic growth and the strongest bond among previously quarrelsome peoples,” the report said. It valued the trade at $2.8 billion, or more than 60 percent of Afghanistan’s 2003 gross domestic product.

Most is smuggled across the eastern border with Pakistan, where Taliban and al-Qaida remnants hiding out demand transit and protection fees, Costa said.

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“Fighting narcotics is equivalent to fighting terrorism,” he said.

Calling the problem “overwhelming” for the weak Afghan army and government, Costa called on U.S.- and NATO-led forces to help out more in operations against drug labs and convoys of traffickers. He cited two recent raids conducted by the Afghan army but aided by U.S. air cover and British troops on the ground.

“We are not really talking necessarily about even a greater NATO involvement directly in the operation, but a greater assistance to enable the Afghan army progressively so, and the Afghan police to go ahead with this kind of exercise,” Costa said.

NATO nations have been reluctant to get their troops directly involved in the drug fight.

But last week in New York, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer urged the United Nations to develop a drug-fighting plan for Afghanistan and said the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan would be willing to discuss working under that umbrella.

International donors also must lend support with measures to alleviate poverty in the countryside and to root out corruption in the Afghan army, police, judiciary and provincial administrations, he said.

Costa also urged the Afghan government to pursue a “significant eradication campaign,” prosecute major drug trafficking cases and take “measurable actions against corruption in government.”

“The fear that Afghanistan might degenerate into a narco-state is slowly becoming a reality,” he said in the report. “Opium cultivation, which has spread like wildfire throughout the country, could ultimately incinerate everything: democracy, reconstruction and stability.”

The Afghanistan Opium Survey 2004 found that cultivation rose 64 percent over 2003, with 323,701 acres dedicated to the poppies that produce opium.

That set a double record, Costa said, for the highest drug cultivation in the country’s history, and the largest in the world.

The total output of 4,200 tons was only 17 percent higher than last year because bad weather and disease reduced yields by almost 30 percent, the survey found. Still, 2004 production was close to the peak of 4,600 tons in 1999 – a year before the Taliban banned new cultivation.

By contrast, opium production in southeast Asia’s notorious “Golden Triangle” has diminished 75 percent and “may soon be declared drug-free,” he said.

More than three-fourths of the opium is exported as heroin, meaning 9,000-10,000 tons of chemicals needed for processing has to be imported into Afghanistan, Costa said.

“That shows it has become a major industry.”

Most heroin from Afghanistan ends up in Europe.

British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell conceded that NATO members had been slow to build up forces in Afghanistan.

But he said recent moves to extend NATO patrols outside the capital and broaden their mandate, as well as to build a judiciary and penal system, should start paying off next year.

“The troops will now destroy seizures and hand over suspects” for trial, he said. “That will have an impact.”