KABUL, Afghanistan – The U.N. anti-drugs chief announced Saturday a "staggering" 60 percent rise in opium cultivation in Afghanistan this year, and demanded the government arrest scores of major traffickers and remove corrupt officials and police who are profiting from the trade.
The record crop yielded 6,100 tons of opium — enough to make 610 tons of heroin — outstripping the demand of the world's drug users by a third.
"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, told a news conference after presenting results of its crop survey to Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
"In the southern provinces, the situation is out of control."
The bulk of the increase was recorded in lawless Helmand province, where cultivation rose 162 percent and accounted for 42 percent of the Afghan crop. The province is currently wracked by an upsurge in attacks by Taliban-led militants that has sparked the deadliest fighting in Afghanistan in five years.
The rise comes despite an injection of hundreds of millions 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."
Costa said insecurity had fueled the opium boom, and that he was pleading with NATO forces who took command of military operations in the region a month ago to take a "stronger role" in fighting the drugs industry. NATO says it has no mandate for direct involvement in counternarcotics.
"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 UNODC survey showed the area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached 165,000 hectares (407,700 acres) in 2006, up from 104,000 hectares (257,000 acres) in 2005. The previous highest 131,000 hectares (323,700 acres) in 2004.
The estimated yield of 6,100 tons of opium resin — described by Costa as "staggering" — is up from 4,100 tons in 2005, and exceeds the highest ever global output of 5,764 tons recorded in 1999.
Last year, about 450 tons of heroin was consumed worldwide, according to the U.N.
The top U.S. anti-narcotics official in Afghanistan warned Saturday that the illicit trade threatened the country's fledgling democracy, instituted after the ouster of the hardline Taliban regime by U.S.-led forces in late 2001. The trade already accounts for at least 35 percent of the country's gross domestic product.
"This country could be taken down by this whole drugs problem," Doug Wankel told reporters. "We have seen what can come from Afghanistan, if you go back to 9/11. Obviously the U.S. does not want to see that again."
Karzai voiced "disappointment" over the figures. "Our efforts to fight narcotics have proved inadequate," he said in a statement.
The results will increase pressure on the beleaguered Afghan president. He has often talked tough on drugs, declaring a "jihad" or "holy war" against the trade, but is increasingly criticized for appointing and failing to sack corrupt provincial governors and police.
Costa urged the arrest of "serious drug traffickers" to fill a new high-security wing for narcotics convicts at Kabul's Policharki prison. "It has 100 beds. We want these beds to be taken up in the next few months," he said.
He said Afghan opium was "fueling insurgency in western Asia, feeding international mafias and causing 100,000 deaths from overdoses every year."
Addressing the same news conference, counternarcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, said the government had the will to make arrests, but still lacked the capacity to gather evidence to prosecute "the big fish."
Yet he maintained that with its newly unveiled national anti-drugs strategy, Afghanistan could "control" drug production within five years.
Costa was less upbeat.
"It's going to take possibly 20 years to get rid of the problem," the diplomat said, citing the experience of former opium producers like Thailand, Turkey and Pakistan.
In an indication of the alarming extent of official complicity in the trade, a Western counternarcotics official said between 10,000 and 12,000 hectares (24,710 and 29,650 acres) of government land in Helmand was used to cultivate poppy this year.
The official, who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said police and government officials were involved in cultivation or providing protection for poppy farmers and taking bribes to ensure that farmers' crops weren't destroyed.
He said the Taliban — which managed to virtually eradicate Afghanistan's poppy crop in 2001, just before their ouster for hosting Usama bin Laden — have now capitalized on the trade. In some instances, drug traffickers have provided vehicles and money to the Taliban to carry out terrorist attacks, he said.
Costa said also said insurgents derived revenues from crop cultivation and protecting drug traffickers.
However, the Western official said the ties between the drug traffickers and insurgents was localized, and there was not evidence of coordination between drug lords and the Taliban leadership.