Opium cultivation in Afghanistan has hit record levels -- up by more than 40 percent from last year -- despite hundreds of millions in counternarcotics money, Western officials said.
The increase could have serious repercussions for an already grave security situation, with drug lords joining the Taliban-led fight against Afghan and international forces.
A Western anti-narcotics official in Kabul said about 150,000 hectares of opium poppy was cultivated this growing season -- up from 104,000 hectares last year -- citing their preliminary crop projections. The previous highest recorded figure was 131,000 hectares in 2004, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
"It is a significant increase from last year ... unfortunately, it is a record year," said a senior US government official based in Kabul, who like the other Western officials would speak only on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive topic.
Final figures, and an estimate of the yield of opium resin from the poppies, will be clear only when the UN agency completes its assessment of the crop, based on satellite imagery and ground surveys. Its report is due next month.
The UN reported last year that Afghanistan produced an estimated 4,100 tonnes of opium -- enough to make 410 tonnes of heroin -- nearly 90 percent of world supply.
This year's preliminary findings indicate a failure in attempts to eradicate poppy cultivation and continuing corruption among provincial officials and police -- problems acknowledged by President Hamid Karzai.
Karzai told Fortune magazine in a recent interview that "lots of people" in his administration profited from the narcotics trade and that he had underestimated the difficulty of eradicating opium production.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime estimate that opium accounted for 52 percent of Afghanistan's GDP last year.
"Now what they have is a narco-economy. If they do not get corruption sorted they can slip into being a narco-state," the US official warned.
Opium cultivation has surged since the ouster of the Taliban in late 2001. The former regime enforced an effective ban on poppy growing by threatening to jail farmers -- virtually eradicating the crop in 2000.
But Afghan and Western counternarcotics officials say Taliban-led militants are now implicated in the drug trade, encouraging poppy cultivation and using the proceeds to help fund their insurgency.
"[That] kind of revenue from that kind of crop aids and abets the enemy," Chief Master Sergeant Curtis Brownhill, a senior adviser to the head of the US Central Command, during a recent visit to Afghanistan. "They count on having that sort of resource and money."
Afghanistan has seen its deadliest bout of fighting this year since US-backed forces toppled the Taliban for harboring Osama bin Laden. Officials believe the insurgency, most vicious in the south -- Afghanistan's main poppy belt -- includes die-hard Taliban, warlords and drug lords and smugglers.
Fears of fanning the insurgency has constrained efforts to destroy the poppy crops of impoverished farmers -- particularly in Helmand, where the area being cultivated for poppies has increased most sharply. The province now accounts for more than 40 percent of the poppy cultivation nationwide.
"We know that if we start eradicating the whole surface of poppy cultivation in Helmand, we will increase the activity of the insurgency and increase the number of insurgents," said Tom Koenigs, the top UN official in Afghanistan.