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Warning On Afghan Drug Trade

Opium cultivation in Afghanistan is spiraling out of control, rising 59 percent this year to produce a record 6,100 tons — nearly a third more than the world's drug users consume, the U.N. said Saturday.

Antonio Maria Costa, the U.N. anti-drug chief, said the results from his agency's annual survey of Afghanistan's poppy crop were "very alarming."

"This year's harvest will be around 6,100 tons of opium — a staggering 92 percent of total world supply. It exceeds global consumption by 30 percent," Costa told reporters in Kabul after presenting the survey to President Hamid Karzai. Opium is the raw material of heroin.

In a scathing statement, Costa said the Afghan government should take much stronger action to root out graft, saying governors and police chiefs of opium-growing provinces should be sacked and charged. He accused corrupt administrators of pocketing aid money.

Costa warned that the south of the country was "displaying the ominous hallmarks of incipient collapse, with large-scale drug cultivation and trafficking, insurgency and terrorism, crime and corruption."

The bulk of the increase was recorded in lawless Helmand province, where cultivation rose 162 percent and accounted for 42 percent of the Afghan crop. The province is facing an upsurge in attacks by Taliban-led militants fighting NATO forces.

"Public opinion is increasingly frustrated by the fact that opium cultivation in Afghanistan is out of control," Costa said. "Afghan opium is fueling insurgency in western Asia, feeding international mafias and causing 100,000 deaths from overdoses every year."

Western officials say militants are implicated in the drug trade, encouraging poppy cultivation and using the proceeds to help fund their insurgency. However, government officials and police, particularly at provincial and district levels, also are deeply involved.

The top U.S. anti-narcotics official in Afghanistan also warned that the illicit trade in opium and heroin threatened the country's fledgling democracy, instituted after the ouster of the hard-line Taliban regime nearly five years ago by U.S.-led forces.

"This country could be taken down by this whole drugs problem," Doug Wankel told reporters in Kabul — echoing strong rhetoric voiced by Karzai last month. "We have seen what can come from Afghanistan, if you go back to 9/11. Obviously the U.S. does not want to see that again."

"If this thing gets out of hand, you could move from a narco-economy to a narco-state. Then you have a very difficult chance for this country being able to achieve what it needs to as a democracy and a nation representing its people," he said.

Wankel described the drug trade — already estimated to account for at least 35 percent of the country's gross domestic product — as a "national security threat to Afghanistan, the region and the world."

The survey conducted by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime showed the area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan reached a record 407,700 acres in 2006, up from 257,000 acres in 2005. The previous highest 331,360 acres in 2004.

The estimated yield of 6,100 tons of opium resin — enough to make 610 tons of heroin — is up from 4,100 tons in 2005, exceeding the highest ever global output of 5,764 tons recorded in 1999.

Last year, about 450 tons of heroin was consumed worldwide, according to the U.N.

Costa also criticized international military, political and economic efforts, saying they were having little impact on drug cultivation. He said foreign aid was "plagued by huge overhead costs."

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