Two years after the Taliban was ousted from power by US-led forces, opium production has skyrocketed as farmers in lawless provinces crank up output, threatening efforts to strengthen the government and establish a proper economy.

"The conference is looking at income alternatives, demand reduction and law enforcement," said Adam Bouloukos, deputy representative of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

UNODC Executive-Director Antonio Maria Costa is scheduled to speak at the conference on Monday, but was unable to fly into Kabul on Sunday because a snowstorm closed the airport.

Decades of violence

"We face critical decisions. If we don't start translating counter-narcotics commitment into lower levels of production, we run the risk of opium economy undermining all that has been achieved in creating a democratic new Afghanistan," Costa said in a statement before leaving for Kabul.

"We face critical decisions. If we don't start translating counter-narcotics commitment into lower levels of production, we run the risk of opium economy undermining all that has been achieved in creating a democratic new Afghanistan"

Antonio Maria Costa,
UNODC Executive-Director

Afghan president Hamid Karzai has banned opium cultivation and trafficking and set up the Counter-Narcotic Directorate.

But with the country and international donors still scrambling to build an infrastructure after two decades of violence, opium output has climbed again.

UNODC estimates that Afghan opium production last year hit 3600 tons, up 6% over the previous year, and said that surveys of farmers show a further increase is likely this year.

Lucrative industry

Afghan output accounts for two-thirds of world opium production, and officials have voiced concern because it is spreading to areas in the country where it has not been grown before.

UNODC has estimated that the output could be worth $2.3 billion, compared to Afghanistan's official exports of $40 million to its neighbour Pakistan.

Costa praised Afghanistan for setting up its first counter-narcotics institutions and passing counter-narcotics laws but said more needed to be done.

"These institutions and laws now need to reach opium-growing areas. This needs to be complemented by much better focused efforts to replace deeply rooted opium economy with sustainable alternative livelihood for Afghan farmers," he said.

Critical report

"The fight against terrorism will be more effective if drug trafficking is interrupted. There is a mounting evidence of drug money being used to finance criminal activities, including terrorism," Costa said.

The official's remarks come after the recent
publication of a Human Rights Watch report on Afghanistan, which documented how opium production had exploded in the country.

"Farmers who have waited futilely for agricultural assistance from the central government or the international community have turned to poppy cultivation. As a result, Afghanistan has regained its position as the world’s leading producer of heroin"

Human Rights Watch report

The rights organisation said in the absence of the Taliban, which in some years managed to stop nearly all poppy production, the industry is generating billions of dollars for forces outside the control of any legitimate authority.

"Much of this trade and the money it generates is under the control, or at least the influence, of various major and minor military commanders, who use this money to increase their military capability and gain independence from the central government and any international troops working with them," wrote report author Sam Zia-Zarifi.

US 'irresponsibility'

However, HRW said these problems could have been avoided had the US and the international community acted more responsibly.

"Farmers who have waited futilely for agricultural assistance from the central government or the international community have turned to poppy cultivation," said the report.

"As a result, Afghanistan has regained its position as the world’s leading producer of heroin."