BRUSSELS, Belgium – The United Nations urged NATO forces Tuesday to take military action to destroy the opium industry in southern Afghanistan, saying cultivation of the crop is out of control in the embattled Asian country.
U.N. anti-drug chief Antonio Maria Costa said opium production was being used to fund terrorist groups, and that eradicating it was crucial to establishing order in the south.
"In the turbulent southern region, counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics efforts must reinforce each other so as to stop the vicious circle of drugs funding terrorists and terrorists protecting drug traffickers," Costa said.
He urged NATO countries to give the alliance the mandate and added resources to expand its mission in southern Afghanistan and take action against production of the crop used to make heroin.
"I call on NATO forces to destroy the heroin labs, disband the open opium bazaars, attack the opium convoys and bring to justice the big traders," he said.
Last week, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said it was not planning to play a leading role in the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan, but the alliance has suggested its troops could play a backup role if they had the time and resources to support Afghan forces and police in eradication of the crops.
Costa said his office had met with NATO to discuss the problem, and he met Tuesday with European Union External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
"Its clear the mission of NATO in Afghanistan has evolved into a full-fledged attempt to eradicate Taliban," he said, adding that NATO would find it "very difficult" to defeat Taliban and insurgents in the south unless they cracked down on drug traffickers.
The U.N.'s Office on Drugs and Crime released its annual survey of Afghanistan's poppy crop in Kabul earlier this month, which said opium cultivation rose 59 percent this year to produce a record 6,100 tons of opium — a massive 92 percent of total world supply.
The U.N. agency said only six of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are opium-free. It said some 2.9 million people were involved in growing opium, representing 12.6 percent of the total Afghan population, and that revenue from this year's harvest was predicted to hit more than $3 billion.
"The goal should be to double the number of opium-free provinces next year, and double them again in 2008. That is ambitious, but achievable," Costa said.
He called for increased development aid from international donors such as the European Union to get farmers off their dependency on growing opium. Costa said the aid should be made conditional on commitments by regional political leaders to fight opium cultivation and to curb corruption.
Costa also said the Afghan government should step up policing to bring to justice drug traffickers, seizing their assets such as houses and land. He said Afghan authorities also had to do more to stem the import of chemicals needed to make heroin, and to deter "the flow of volunteers, arms and money for the insurgency."
Costa said legalizing Afghanistan's opium trade was not a solution either. He said the market for opium-made morphine was not lucrative enough, adding that the price of illicit opium was five times that of medical opium.
"There is no magic formula to save Afghanistan," Costa said. "Instead we need to insist on full implementation of the Afghan national drug control strategy, which is based on development, security, law enforcement and good governance."
The EU acknowledged in June that its program to fight the narcotics trade in Afghanistan has not worked. The EU has pumped several hundred million dollars into fighting drugs in Afghanistan.
Ferrero-Waldner said the EU would continue to offer alternative crops for farmers to grow.
Afghanistan's counternarcotics minister, Habibullah Qaderi, said the government suggested farmers be offered big cash crops, such as dates or saffron, which bring them better income than wheat. He also called for international donors to step up efforts to build infrastructure to ensure better transport for farmed goods to market.
Opium production in Afghanistan — centered mainly in the two southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where NATO troops are meeting stiff resistance from Taliban and other insurgents — has boomed since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Last year, more than 4,500 tons of opium were harvested, about 90 percent of the world supply.