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Afghan opium production hits record
Yields 90 percent of world's supply

Fisnik Abrashi, Associated Press | August 17 2006

KABUL , Afghanistan -- Opium cultivation in Afghanistan has hit record levels -- up by more than 40 percent from 2005 -- despite hundreds of millions in counternarcotics money, Western officials say.

The increase could have serious repercussions for an already grave security situation, with drug lords joining the Taliban-led fight against Afghan and international forces.

A Western anti-narcotics official in Kabul said about 370,650 acres of opium poppy was cultivated this season, up from 257,000 acres in 2005, citing their preliminary crop projections. The previous record was 323,700 acres in 2004, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

``It is a significant increase from last year . . . unfortunately, it is a record year," said a senior US government official based in Kabul, who spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Final figures, and an estimate of the yield of opium resin from the poppies, will be clear when the UN agency completes its assessment of the crop, based on satellite imagery and ground surveys. Its report is due in September. The UN reported last year that Afghanistan produced an estimated 4,500 tons of opium -- enough to make 450 tons of heroin -- nearly 90 percent of world supply.

This year's preliminary findings indicate a failure in attempts to eradicate poppy cultivation and continuing corruption among provincial officials and police -- problems acknowledged by President Hamid Karzai.

Karzai told Fortune magazine in a recent interview that ``lots of people" in his administration profited from the narcotics trade and that he had underestimated the difficulty of eradicating opium production.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that opium accounted for 52 percent of Afghanistan's gross domestic product in 2005.

Opium cultivation has surged since the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001. The former regime enforced an effective ban on poppy growing by threatening to jail farmers -- virtually eradicating the crop in 2000.

But Afghan and Western counternarcotics officials say Taliban-led militants are now implicated in the drug trade, encouraging poppy cultivation and using the proceeds to help fund their insurgency.

``(That) kind of revenue from that kind of crop aids and abets the enemy," said Chief Master Sergeant Curtis L. Brownhill, a senior adviser to the head of the US Central Command, during a recent visit to Afghanistan. ``They count on having that sort of resource and money."

Afghanistan has seen its deadliest bout of fighting this year since US-backed forces toppled the Taliban . Officials believe the insurgency, most vicious in the south -- Afghanistan's main poppy belt -- includes die-hard Taliban, warlords and drug lords, and smugglers.

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