Bumper growing conditions meant that Afghanistan's opium production remained almost unchanged this year even though a crackdown on poppy farming cut the land under cultivation by 21 percent, the UN anti-drug chief has said.
Antonio Maria Costa warned it could take another 20 years to eradicate opium from the impoverished country -- despite the recent injection of hundreds of millions in foreign aid to fight the world's biggest drug industry.
The narcotics trade is blamed for fighting in some poppy-growing areas and is suspected to be partially funding an insurgency by Taliban-led rebels that has killed more than 1,100 people in the past six months. It has also sparked warnings the country is fast becoming a "narco-state" less than four years after the US-led invasion.
Opium production this year was 4,099 tonnes, just 2 percent down from the 4,200 tonnes in 2004, said Costa, director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Speaking on Monday, he said Afghanistan is still estimated to produce 87 percent of the world's supply of both opium and its derivative, heroin, despite the authorities' destruction of some crops.
"We see a significant improvement in the amount of land cultivated in Afghanistan, a major reduction. One field out of five that was cultivated in 2004 was not cultivated this year," Costa told reporterss in an interview.
But he said that "heavy rainfall, snowfall and no infestation of crops resulted in a very significant increase in productivity."
A report by the UN agency said the total amount of land being used to grow poppies dropped from 130,9444 hectares in 2004 to 103,9560 hectares this year.
But the jump in crop yield -- the opium harvested from each hectare of poppies -- was 22 percent, it added.
The money being pumped into anti-drug campaigns by the United States, Britain and other countries is largely used to train police units to destroy laboratories, arrest smugglers and destroy opium crops, as well as to fund projects to help farmers grow legal crops.
Costa said another US$510 million has been earmarked by donors for further assistance this year and next.
The drug czar praised President Hamid Karzai and his ministers for trying to eradicate drug production, but said some provincial governors and other officials were involved in the drug trade and should be removed.
"Together with the removal of corrupt governors, we are championing the indictment of officials who are corrupt or warlords who have benefited from the poppies," he said.
Meanwhile, the US military spokesman Colonel James Yonts reported that coalition and Afghan forces in southern Kandahar province last week killed four rebels, including a Taliban commander believed responsible for rocket attacks, ambushes and other guerrilla-style assaults.
Six suspected rebels were also killed in a separate battle with Afghan police on Sunday in neighboring Zabul province, said Ali Khail, spokesman for the provincial governor.
Afghan and coalition forces have stepped up offensives in recent months in a bid to prevent the Taliban from subverting landmark legislative elections on Sept. 18.
Yonts said American forces were also doing all they can in Afghanistan to locate Osama bin Laden but he cannot say when the al-Qaeda leader will be captured.
"When will he be captured? ... I can't give you a date, but I can tell you this: Everyone remembers 9/11," he told reporters in Kabul.