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Afghan Production of Opium Increases After Fall of Taleban - 2002-09-27

Britain's leading non-governmental anti-drugs group says opium production in Afghanistan has shot up by at least 900 percent since the fall of the Taleban regime last year. The group, called DrugScope, is urging Western governments to redouble efforts to rebuild Afghanistan, so poor farmers will turn away from the lucrative drugs trade.

The DrugScope organization says Afghanistan will produce between 1,900 and 2,700 tons of opium this year, compared with just 185 tons in 2001.

The group says the figure last year was especially low, because Afghanistan's then-ruling Taleban militia had outlawed cultivation of opium poppies, the raw ingredient for heroin.

U.N. drug experts say 75 percent of the world's heroin is produced from poppies grown in Afghanistan.

According to the United Nations, Afghan opium production was 4,600 tons in 1999, and 3,300 tons in 2000, before the Taleban edict took effect.

The U.N. says poppy cultivation has skyrocketed since the Taleban were overthrown last November in the U.S.-led military campaign to rid Afghanistan of terrorist camps.

At the time, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said a key justification for the war was that 90 percent of the heroin on British streets originated in Afghanistan. He said drug profits helped fund the Taleban and the al-Qaida terrorist network.

In April of this year, Britain took over the international lead in helping Afghan authorities combat the drugs trade.

DrugScope spokesman Harry Shapiro says the task ahead is enormous in the aftermath of 23 years of war and chaos in Afghanistan.

"The infrastructure of the country has collapsed," he said. "And, really, their only commodity that is in any sense going to earn them any income is the opium poppy. And so, not surprisingly, they are taking advantage of the fact that they are now able to grow it again."

DrugScope is recommending that the international community fulfill its commitment to help rebuild Afghan society and help farmers find alternative sources of income. It says stricter law enforcement alone will not solve the problem.

DrugScope released its report to coincide with the annual European Conference on Drug Trafficking and Law Enforcement that was concluding Friday in Paris.