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UN Reports Highest Ever Levels of Opium Production in Afghanistan

A United Nations report says opium production in Afghanistan has jumped to record levels this year. U.N. officials warn the booming drug trade is fueling instability throughout Afghanistan and threatens the country's fragile democracy.

The report, released Saturday by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, says poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has increased nearly 60 percent in the past year.

Saturday, the U.N. drug agency chief, Antonio Maria Costa, told reporters in Kabul that the explosive growth in opium production is a major challenge to Afghanistan's long-term stability.

"This news is very bad. We face a state of emergency. Opium cultivation in Afghanistan has increased by almost 60 percent in 2006 to an all time high of 165 hectares. That is a crop of staggering amounts, 6,100 metric tons."

He says the sharpest rise has occurred in Afghanistan's southern provinces, where the Taleban-led insurgency has destabilized the entire region.

In Helmand Province, part of the Taleban's traditional stronghold, the cultivation of opium poppies has risen more than 160 percent since 2005.

The U.N. report says Afghanistan now produces more than 90 percent of the world's illegal opium supply.

The U.N. says the illicit drug trade nets roughly $2.7 billion a year, about one-third of Afghanistan's gross domestic product.

The U.N.'s Antonio Costa says much of the profits are helping fund insurgent activity in the south, and fueling widespread political corruption throughout the country.

He urged the government to crack down on corruption, and go after the leading drug lords as soon as possible.

"We insist on arresting and bringing to justice the 100 most serious drug traffickers and opium farmers," he added. "We propose to seize their assets and redistribute them to the people."

The U.N. report marks a significant setback for international efforts to combat Afghanistan's drug trade.

Western countries, including the United States, have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to help train Afghan police and provide alternative resources for local farmers growing poppies.

Doug Wankel, director of the U.S. drugs control office in Afghanistan warned the country is slowly but surely spinning out of control.

Wankel told reports in the capital Saturday that, unless Afghanistan curbs the drug trade, the country risks slipping from, in his words, a narco-economy to narco-state. And in that case, he said, the country's young democracy could collapse.