Afghanistan's government is gearing up to tackle one of the most difficult problems it faces: the narcotics trade. The United Nations says the country is now growing more opium poppies than at any time in its history.

The United Nations says Afghan opium production has shot up 64 percent over the past year. The opium goes to make heroin, an illegal, and lethally addictive drug sold around the world.

The head of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, Antonio Maria Costa, says Afghanistan now has more land devoted to growing opium than any other nation on Earth.

"No doubt, we can talk about a narco-economy. 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 [in Afghanistan]," he said.

Groups from international criminal syndicates to regional warlords are said to profit from the drug trade, and curbing opium production is seen as a key step in returning security to war-ravaged Afghanistan.

Newly elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai sees poppy eradication as one of the most important tasks of his administration.

"There will definitely, definitely not be any drug thing in Afghanistan. We are going to be dedicated, strong, in working against that," he said.

The drug trade can be particularly devastating to poor countries. Farmers are lured by the relatively high prices they can get for opium, but then often fall into debt to drug traffickers, who use threats and violence to keep the farmers growing poppies. Law and order can fall apart in communities where poppies are grown, as police officers and judges often are bribed to look the other way.

But how best to deal with the mounting opium crisis is a matter of some debate. Some experts say the most important step is to use security forces to crack down on opium farmers and their sponsors. Bill Rammell is the parliamentary undersecretary of state for Britain's Foreign Office. He says security forces, particularly the NATO-led peacekeepers based in the capital Kabul, need to take the lead in fighting drugs. "What fundamentally needs to change is that people need to be prosecuted. They need to be taken to court, and they need to be put in prison," suggested Mr. Rammell.

But with attacks by anti-government insurgents still going on throughout the country, Afghan and foreign forces sometimes have other priorities.

Major Scott Nelson, the spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, says there are limits to the help American troops can offer in helping eradicate drugs.

"We will provide this support, as long as this support does not interfere with our primary mission in Afghanistan of creating a secure environment, assisting the reconstruction and with defeating terrorism," he said.

Many of those studying Afghanistan's drug situation say that law enforcement alone will not solve the problem.

A recent World Bank report on the Afghan economy says an opium ban must be combined with programs to ease rural poverty and provide alternative livelihoods for poppy growers.

It notes that the former hard-line Taleban regime was able to virtually stamp out opium production in parts of Afghanistan under its control in 2000, using strict enforcement measures.

But it says the campaign would not have been sustainable, as farmers remained in debt to opium dealers, pushing them to return to growing poppies.

Some foreign officials advocate using planes to spray poppy fields with herbicides, but President Karzai says the health risks from the poppy-killing chemicals are too great to allow aerial spraying.

Another key ingredient in curbing the Afghan drug problem involves public relations. Major Nelson says the support of the Afghan public will be needed to roll back poppy cultivation.

"It has to be looked at from an Afghan perspective, what's important for the Afghan people," said Major Nelson. "And the Afghan people, I think, need to assist us in explaining what their role will be in countering narcotics, as well as how important it is for their families to not have opium production in the region."

While much work remains to be done, Mr. Karzai and his government remain confident of being able to push back the growth in opium cultivation. Officials already are developing a multi-pronged program, including law enforcement, economic development and the promotion of alternate crops. However, no firm timetable for implementing it has been announced.