Afghan Opium Cultivation Expected to Rise After Record Year

Afghanistan's 2007 opium poppy cultivation could expand again after last year's record crop, the U.N. drug agency said Monday, underlining the weakness of an international-backed drive against the country's booming narcotics trade.

The world body's Office on Drugs and Crime predicted an increase in a string of provinces, including southern Helmand — Afghanistan's largest poppy-growing region and an area wracked by growing Taliban attacks.

In a report released Monday, the office said a recent U.N. survey found growing evidence that the drug trade flourished in regions with poor security.

"This winter survey suggests that opium cultivation in Afghanistan in 2007 may not be lower than the record harvest of 165,000 hectares in 2006," UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa wrote in the report's preface.

Last year, opium cultivation rose an alarming 59 percent, deepening fears that Afghanistan is rapidly becoming a narco-state. Officials say Taliban militants protect southern farmers and tap drug profits to fuel their insurgency.

The U.N. said that poppy cultivation occurred in 100 percent of villages it visited in Helmand province; 93 percent of villages were growing opium poppies in neighboring Kandahar, the Taliban's former stronghold. The U.N. report did not detail how many villages were visited.

It also predicted a sharp increase in cultivation in Nangarhar — touted in recent years as an example of the success of efforts to persuade farmers to grow licit crops — as well as in Kunar and Uruzgan provinces.

On the other hand, the U.N. saw a decrease in cultivation in seven, mostly northern provinces, and said there was an indication of a split in attitudes between the north and south.

"There is evidence that Afghanistan's opium economy is becoming segmented, with farmers' attitudes, supply conditions and price trends moving in opposite directions in the north and the south," Maria Costa said.

President Hamid Karzai has vowed to rid Afghanistan of opium. International donors are directing hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) in development aid to rural areas to make it profitable for farmers to grow wheat or plant orchards. Eradication teams are supposed to destroy opium in the fields before harvest.

However, critics say corrupt Afghan authorities and security forces are themselves heavily involved in the trade and are unlikely to mount a serious crackdown, while Karzai is wary of a rural backlash against his already weak government.

The U.N. report also found what it called a "new and disturbing trend" in Afghanistan's drug business — an increase in the cultivation of cannabis.

"The last thing we need is for Afghanistan to switch from one drug to another or — worse — to become a world leader in cannabis as well as opium production," Costa said.

Afghan drug production already accounts for more than 90 percent of global supply of opium, the raw material for heroin.