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World News

Taliban set for windfall from Afghan opium crop: U.N.

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan, the world’s biggest opium producer, is set for another bumper crop in 2008, providing a windfall for the Taliban who tax farmers to finance their fight against government and foreign forces, the UN said on Wednesday.

More than six years after U.S.-led and Afghan forces toppled the Taliban, the failure to bring spiraling opium production under control means Afghanistan is now locked in a vicious circle -- where drug money fuels the Taliban insurgency and official corruption, weakening government control over large parts of the country, which in turn allows more opium to be produced.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) predicted the 2008 opium crop would be similar to, or slightly lower than, last year’s record harvest. In 2007, Afghanistan had more land growing drugs than Colombia, Bolivia and Peru combined.

“While it is encouraging that the dramatic increases of the past few years seem to be leveling off, the total amount of opium being harvested remains shockingly high,” said UNODC chief Antonio Maria Costa in a statement.

Opium is processed into heroin, increasingly inside Afghanistan, and smuggled mainly to Europe where users often turn to crime to pay for the highly addictive drug.

“Europe and other major heroin markets should brace themselves for the health and security consequences,” he said.

Opium poppy cultivation has become more concentrated in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest, while the more peaceful north is increasingly becoming poppy-free.

That trend is likely to increase this year, the UNODC said.

The number of poppy-free provinces is expected to rise from 12 in 2007, to 14 or 15, mostly in the north and east, out of a total of 34 Afghan provinces, the UNODC said.

ALARMING GROWTH

But opium production continues to grow “at an alarming rate” in the south and west, it said. All the poppy farmers surveyed in southern Afghanistan said they paid a tax of 10 percent of their opium income to the Taliban or corrupt government officials.

“In the north, we would need much more positive incentives for farmers, while in the south we have a very difficult situation with a kind of an alliance of convenience between drug-traffickers, corrupt officials and insurgents,” UNODC representative Christina Gynna Oguz told reporters in Tokyo.

“So there you would have to fight all these three elements, meaning that you must have more emphasis on interdiction and fighting corruption.”

The U.N. report comes as Afghan ministers and international donors are meeting in Japan to discuss developments in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s Foreign Minister, Rangeen Dadfar Spanta, said his country was focused on eradicating opium fields, though he stressed that international financial support was needed to help farmers.

“We are committed to destroying 50,000 hectares of poppy lands this year,” he told a news conference in Tokyo. “We have only one choice. (The) poppy can destroy us, or we destroy the poppy.”

He reiterated Afghanistan’s opposition to using chemicals to destroy crops, despite the U.S. government’s push last year for aerial spraying. The idea to spray herbicide from the air was dropped and instead, a limited trial of ground spraying has been agreed.

The southern province of Helmand, where mainly British troops are engaged in almost daily battles with the Taliban, accounted for 53 percent of Afghan opium production in 2007. If Helmand were a country, it would still be the biggest opium producer.

Additional reporting by Teruaki Ueno, Chisa Fujioka in Tokyo; Editing by Katie Nguyen and Alex Richardson

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