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UN Says Opium Turning Afghanistan into Narco Economy


The United Nations says Afghanistan is in danger of degenerating into what a U.N. report calls a "narco-state" if corruption and the ambition of local warlords are not brought under control. The United Nations is concerned about a huge upsurge in opium production in the war-torn country.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, which prepared the report, says opium cultivation in Afghanistan has increased by 64 percent during the past year. It says that, with more than 130,000 hectares dedicated to opium farming, Afghanistan has more land devoted to illegal drug production than any other country and is growing more opium than at any time in its history.

The agency's chief, Antonio Maria Costa, says opium cultivation is now the driving force in the Afghan economy.

"No doubt, we can talk about a narco-economy," he said. "All the connotations, at least in terms of size, are there, when we talk about the proceeds from drug cultivation and trafficking being equivalent to about two thirds of the GDP [gross domestic product] of 2003 of Afghanistan."

Mr. Costa says the opium economy has spread to all of Afghanistan's 32 provinces and has united, what the report describes as, "previously quarrelsome peoples." He says it is a real threat to the country's democracy, reconstruction and stability.

Mr. Costa says much of the opium is refined into heroin in Afghanistan itself and then smuggled out of the country by traffickers linked to local officials, warlords and terrorists who demand transit and protection fees.

The report calls on NATO and U.S.-led coalition military forces to get more involved in fighting the drug trade.

British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell, whose country is spearheading the anti-drug battle in Afghanistan, says that Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government is beginning to tackle the problem but is limited in what it can do because it does not control the entire country. He says that is why it is necessary for NATO-led peacekeepers to expand their presence in Afghanistan beyond the capital, Kabul.

"And I think the expansion of the security forces throughout the country is critical because what fundamentally needs to change is that people need to be prosecuted," Mr. Rammell said. "They need to be taken to court, and they need to be put in prison. If you have an insecure situation, you cannot expect the police, the judges, to be able to carry through with that process. That is why expanding the security beyond Kabul is so important."

Mr. Costa says dismantling the drug trade in Afghanistan will not be an easy task. He says it will have to be done through democratic and legal means and be coupled with improving the lives of farmers. That, he says, requires hard work and patience on the part of the international community.