Afghanistan: a nation abandoned to drugs

Country produces 87% of global opium. One in ten Afghans works in opium trade. UN: state is world's second worst to live in
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Three years after the fall of the Taliban, the United Nations issued a dramatic plea for help yesterday, saying that Afghanistan's opium crop is flourishing as never before and the country is well on the way to becoming a corrupt narco-state.

The UN's annual opium survey reveals that poppy cultivation increased by two-thirds this year, a finding that will come as a deep embarrassment to Tony Blair, who pledged in 2001 to eradicate the scourge of opium along with the Taliban.

So alarmed is the UN that it is suggesting a remedy more radical than any that has been put forward before - bringing in US and British forces to fight a drugs war similar to the war on terror. It wants them to destroy farmers' crops on a massive scale before they can be harvested.

The report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODOC) says the narcotics trade is far bigger than anybody had realised. Most experts in Afghanistan believe it is a more significant factor in the continuing violence and instability than the Taliban insurgency.

On the eve of the Afghan war Mr Blair informed the Labour Party conference that "90 per cent of the heroin on British streets originates in Afghanistan". Despite evidence from the UN that the Taliban was suppressing the drugs trade, Mr Blair said: "The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for by the lives of young British people buying their drugs on British streets. That is another part of their regime we should seek to destroy."

There is growing evidence, however, that despite some improvements, Afghanistan has become a failed state. It is now ranked by the UN as the second worst country in the world to live in - after Sierra Leone.

British officials point out that the Afghan economy is booming, that three million refugees have returned home and that four million children are in schools. But yesterday's report reveals that the engine of economic growth is opium production. Last year Afghanistan exported 87 per cent of the world's supplies. Opium is now the "main engine of economic growth and the strongest bond among previously quarrelsome peoples", according to the UN. Most of the opium is smuggled across the Pakistan border, where the Taliban and al- Qa'ida charge drug traffickers transit and protection fees.

The UN report for 2003 found that one in 10 Afghans - many of them unemployed returned refugees - is involved in the drugs trade which last year employed 2.3 million people, and made up 60 per cent of gross national product.

In just one year the area under cultivation increased by 64 per cent. Output was estimated at 4,200 tons, a 17 per cent increase on last year with only disease and bad weather acting as drag factors. The only year with bigger output was 1999, before a Taliban edict completely stopped production.

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of UNODC, urged Nato and the US-led alliance to fight the drugs trade and gave a warning in words usually reserved for war. "In Afghanistan drugs are now a clear and present danger," he said.

The US, worried about narcotics funding terrorism, is promising to spend $780m (£420m) next year on a war against drugs. Some money will be spent on alternative livelihoods for farmers, but most will probably go on measures such as spraying poppy fields, currently being discussed in Washington, and transporting drugs barons to US courts to stand trial.

Before going to war on the Taliban, Mr Blair promised Afghans: "This time we will not walk away from you." Last week he vowed that a fresh assault on Afghanistan's opium poppy trade is to be launched. Britain is leading the international effort to stem production and has provided £70m over three years to fight the trade.

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