March 1, 2006

Afghan drugs trade still a major threat: US

By Sue Pleming

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Opium production and trafficking
make up a third of Afghanistan's economy, and security issues
and corruption hamper efforts to eradicate the drug, the State
Department said on Wednesday.

In its annual worldwide drugs survey, the department said
Afghanistan's huge drugs trade severely damaged efforts to
rebuild the country's economy and threatened regional stability

"Dangerous security conditions and corruption constrain
government and international efforts to combat the drug trade
and provide alternative incomes," said the report, released on
the same day as President George W. Bush made a surprise visit
to Afghanistan en route to India.

The International Monetary Fund estimated legal Gross
Domestic Product for the Afghan fiscal year ending on March 21,
2005, at $5.9 billion while illicit opium GDP was about $2.8
billion for the same period. These figures indicate illicit
opium GDP accounted for roughly a third of total GDP.

"Criminal financiers and narcotics traffickers exploit the
government's weakness and corruption," the report said.

The number of hectares (acres) under poppy cultivation
dropped by 48 percent last year but good weather resulted in a
better yield than usual, and production dropped by just 10
percent overall to 4,475 metric tonnes in 2005 from 4,950 in

Senior State Department official Anne Patterson said the
drop in opium cultivation last year was also tempered by
reports that poppy planting was again on the rise.


Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world's opium
poppies and is the largest heroin-producing and trafficking

"I don't want to underestimate the difficulty of this,
because Colombia is paradise next to Afghanistan," said
Patterson of the challenge.

Thousands are killed every year and tens of thousands have
been displaced by Colombia's 41-year-old guerrilla war, in
which guerrillas fight with far-right paramilitary militias
over control of lucrative coca-producing land.

The report said efforts to curb drug production were
hampered by the insurgency in Afghanistan and drug-related
corruption "at all levels of government."

"Corruption ranges from facilitating drug activities to
benefiting from revenue streams generated by the drug trade,"
said the report.

An increasingly large portion of Afghanistan's opium crop
was processed into heroin and morphine base by drug labs inside
Afghanistan, easing its movement into markets in Europe, Asia
and the Middle East via Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Pakistani nationals were playing a more prominent role in
all aspects of the drug trade, the report said.

Last year's report was more pessimistic about Afghanistan,
saying it was on the verge of becoming a "narcotics state" and
pointing out that Afghan poppy cultivation had tripled in 2004
from the previous year.

Patterson said it would take years to tackle Afghanistan's
drug problem.

"But it's important to do, not only because of the security
of Afghanistan and Afghanistan's democratic institutions. It's
also important to do because of the cheap heroin that's
spreading into neighboring countries and Europe," she said.