The Taliban is likely to receive a boost to its coffers from a sharp increase in the price of heroin caused by a blight that is expected to wipe out almost a quarter of Afghanistan's annual opium poppy crop.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has reported that almost half of the Afghan poppy crop has been affected by a fungus which spreads through the plant and withers the "head" used to produce the narcotic.
The shortfall in supplies has resulted in opium prices rocketing by up to 50 per cent in the region, with a huge increase in the street price of heroin expected in the West. Drug barons and insurgent groups, who are believed to have built up large stockpiles of poppies, are now in a position to cash in.
Some Afghan poppy farmers have blamed Western forces for introducing the disease as a method of eradicating the poppy crop – a charge denied by Nato's International Security and Assistance force in Afghanistan. However, Antonio Maria Costa, the head of UNODC said this was an opportunity for the international community to try to persuade farmers to turn away from planting opium. "Nature really played in favour of the opium economy; this year, we see the opposite situation," he said.
However, another UNODC official, Jean-Luc Lemahieu, warned: "We need to be cautious not to shout victory... It might not just affect opium fields but the alternative crops which we promote such as apricots, apples and pomegranates."
The disease has so far been reported in Helmand, and neighbouring provinces.