The amount of land being cultivated for opium in Afghanistan has increased for a third straight year as farmers return to planting illicit poppies as other markets fail, a report has said.
A United Nations survey released today shows Afghanistan moving towards record levels of opium cultivation - twelve years after the fall of the Taliban.
The report, which was produced by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says cultivation is also dramatically increasing in areas of the southern Taliban heartland, especially in regions where thousands of US-led coalition troops have been withdrawn or are in the process of departing.
Last year opium cultivation stood at 154,000 hectares - an increase from 131,000 in 2011. The report claims increased production is being driven by unusually high opium prices.
Opium cultivation is mainly concentrated in four southern and southwestern provinces: Helmand, Kandahar, Farah and Uruzgan.
The new report claims that poppy cultivation is, however, spreading into areas where it has not been seen before.
The increase in cultivation comes as the US and allied forces in Afghanistan are preparing for a withdrawal of combat forces by 2014.
The report indicates that three times as much opium was produced in Helmand last year as when British troops went there in 2006 and experts are expecting this year's crop to be even larger.
In 2001 the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, cited the production of illegal heroin as one of the reasons for war in Afghanistan, stating that the drugs trade was a part of the Taliban regime that "we should seek to destroy".
Britain sent counter-narcotics teams to Helmand Province in 2006 as it is the largest area of poppy cultivation.
Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, the raw ingredient in heroin, and last year provided about 75 per cent of the global crop — a figure that may spike to 90 per cent this year due to increased cultivation.