Opium poppy cultivation shot up a whopping 61 percent in Afghanistan this year in a setback for US and NATO efforts to clamp down on the country's illegal drug industry, according to new figures released by the White House.
The anticipated record crop is seen as another boost for the resurgent Taliban as the Islamic guerrilla movement is often accused by US officials of using proceeds from drug sales to buy weapons and attract new recruits.
Opium poppy cultivation shot up a whopping 61 percent in Afghanistan this year in a setback for US and NATO efforts to clamp down on the country's illegal drug industry, according to new figures released by the White House. Photo:John D McHugh/AFP
The annual US government estimate for Afghan opium poppy cultivation shows that approximately 172,600 hectares (426,503 acres) of poppy were cultivated throughout the country this year, an increase of 61 percent over 2005, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said Friday.
Two southern Afghan provinces -- Helmand and Oruzgan where the Taliban has been the most active -- are responsible for the bulk of the increase. Poppy planting there was up 132 percent from last year, compared to an 18-percent increase in the remaining 31 provinces.
The White House did not hide its concern.
"While 2006 was a record year for poppy eradication, the news that net cultivation has increased is disappointing," John Walters, director of the drug control office, said in a statement.
He acknowledged the booming industry posed a threat to Afghanistan's internal stability, adding that "increased emphasis and continued reductions are necessary" to reduce the country's drug trade.
Assistant Secretary of State Anne Patterson shared his concern, arguing that "stopping the cultivation and traffic of opium is paramount in establishing rule of law in Afghanistan."
She vowed to continue working with the government of Afghanistan and NATO allies to bring the opium industry under control.
The estimate is based on detailed satellite imagery of Afghanistan produced by the US government.
The detected cultivation levels mean that Afghanistan will be able to produce next year 5,644 metric tons of opium, up 26 percent from an estimate issued last year.
If all that raw material were processed, Afghan drug dealers will be able to bring to market approximately 664 metric tons of pure heroin, the White House office warned.
By comparison, in 2001, the last year of Taliban rule, Afghanistan had only 1,685 hectares (4,163 acres) dedicated to opium poppy.
Prior to the US-led invasion, Taliban leaders had declared opium cultivation a sin and ruthlessly punished all violators of their edict.
But the movement, US officials say, has now changed its approach, seeing in illegal drugs a means of financing their anti-Western insurgency.
Areas dedicated to poppy cultivation grew to 30,750 hectares (75,984 acres) in 2002; 61,000 (150,734 acres) in 2003; 206,700 hectares (510,766 acres) in 2004; and 107,400 hectares (265,391 acres) in 2005, according to White House statistics.
The White House promised a renewed effort to clamp down on Afghanistan's burgeoning drug industry.
But a UN and World Bank report released this past week said attempts to combat opium had achieved only limited success and lacked sustainability.
They have been marred by corruption and have failed to prevent the consolidation of the drugs trade in the hands of fewer powerful players with strong political connections, the report said.
"History teaches us that it will take a generation to render Afghanistan opium-free," concluded Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
Copyright © 2006 AFP