Huge Afghan opium harvest brings fears of new terrorism

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Opium cultivation is spreading like a "cancer" in Afghanistan, a United Nations survey has found.

Afghanistan produces three quarters of the world's illicit opium - the raw material for heroin - and two thirds of all opiate users take drugs of Afghan origin, according to a report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

The UN said yesterday that unless the problem was tackled the country could be over-run by violence, corruption and terrorism. High prices for opium had recruited more farmers, spreading poppy cultivation to 28 of Afghanistan's 32 provinces, from 18 four years ago.

The alarming report by the UN's drugs and crime agency based in Vienna found that Afghan opium farmers and traffickers took home about $2.3bn (£1.4bn), or about half of the country's legitimate GDP in 2003.

Afghanistan has re-established itself as the world's biggest opium producer after the fall of the Taliban regime, which banned cultivation. Drug agencies in Britain and other western European countries are alarmed at the quantities of heroin from Afghanistan, which is thought to produce 90 per cent of heroin sold in Britain.

These fears were reinforced byyesterday's UN report. The 2003 harvest of 3,600 tons was the second biggest recorded since the agency began surveying the country in 1994. The biggest harvest, of 4,565 tons, was recorded in 1999. The area devoted to opium poppy cultivation was the third largest since 1994, and is comparable to the area used before 2001, when a Taliban ban on cultivation reduced it to 8,000 hectares.

Antonio Maria Costa, the director of the UN drugs agency, warned: "Either major surgical drug-control measures are taken now or the drug cancer in Afghanistan will keep spreading and metastasise into corruption, violence and terrorism."

He added: "Out of this drug chest, some provincial administrators and military commanders take a considerable share. The more they get used to this, the less likely it becomes that they will respect the law, be loyal to Kabul and support the legal economy. Terrorists take a cut as well: the longer this happens, the greater the threat to security."

To combat the problem, he said, the country must take energetic measures to "repress the traffickers, dismantle the heroin labs, and destroy the terrorists' and warlords' stake in the opium economy, thus enabling the legitimate economy and the constitutional process to move forward".

Poppy cultivation involves 1.7 million people, or 7 per cent of Afghanistan's population. Though declining prices have reduced the average opium grower's annual income by 15 per cent to $594 (£400), this is more than three times the average national income. Farm-ers' revenues from opium in 2003 were about $1.02bn, or $3,900 per family.

Mr Costa said that although the scale of Afghanistan's cultivation was disheartening, the survey found some evidence of improvements.

Those included a new drug strategy to oversee rural development, while a new drug control law aimed to thwart trafficking and money laundering. But he said law enforcement alone was not enough and called on the international community to help rebuild the country's economy.