The United Nations says the amount of land used to grow poppies in Afghanistan fell by nearly 20 percent in 2008. VOA's Barry Newhouse reports from Islamabad that the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime says almost all of the country's opium is grown in just seven provinces in the southwest - but those growers, located in the Taliban's stronghold, have increased their productivity.

The annual U.N. reports on Afghanistan's opium trade have become a crucial barometer of the country's progress and this year's drop was welcomed by the country's top counter-narcotics official. 

General Khodaidad called it an achievement of the Afghan government.

"In three years Afghanistan has gone from 82 percent of the provinces growing poppy to approximately 60 percent of the provinces being poppy free," Khodaidad said.

But while the amount of area cultivated fell by 19 percent, there was only a six percent fall in production.  U.N. investigators said the remaining provinces have more fertile land and growers have improved production methods. They said most of the drop has been due to good governance and bad weather.

The center of Afghanistan's opium industry remains the center of the country's Taliban insurgency - Helmand province.  There, farmers grew two-thirds of Afghanistan's opium crop in 2008. 

The head of the UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, told reporters in Kabul that instead of punishing farmers by eradicating crops, counter narcotics forces should focus on destroying the opium labs, transport convoys and drug markets - which are heavily concentrated in Helmand. 

"At this point in time I would like to ask NATO and ISAF to concentrate on these three very physical targets - targets in the hands of either insurgents or criminal groups," Costa said. "And therefore not attacking the farmers, but attacking those who provide the opportunity for farmers to cultivate opium."

Costa also urged intelligence agencies to search for what he said are thousands of tons of unsold opium. Investigators say for the third year opium supply has far outstripped demand, but prices have not fallen as expected - suggesting that vast amounts of opium-based drugs have been stored instead of sold.