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Afghan drugs trade still a major threat, U.S. says

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, Mar 2 (Reuters) Opium production and trafficking make up a third of Afghanistan's economy, and security issues and corruption hamper efforts to eradicate the drug, according the State Department.

In its annual worldwide drugs survey, the department said Afghanistan's huge drugs trade severely damaged efforts to rebuild the country's economy and threatened regional stability overall.

''Dangerous security conditions and corruption constrain government and international efforts to combat the drug trade and provide alternative incomes,'' said the report, released yesterday the same day as President George W Bush made a surprise visit to Afghanistan en route to India.

The International Monetary Fund estimated legal Gross Domestic Product for the Afghan fiscal year ending on March 21, 2005, at 5.9 billion dollars while illicit opium GDP was about 2.8 billion dollars for the same period. These figures indicate illicit opium GDP accounted for roughly a third of total GDP.

''Criminal financiers and narcotics traffickers exploit the government's weakness and corruption,'' the report said.

The number of hectares (acres) under poppy cultivation dropped by 48 percent last year but good weather resulted in a better yield than usual, and production dropped by just 10 percent overall to 4,475 metric tonnes in 2005 from 4,950 in 2004.

Senior State Department official Anne Patterson said the drop in opium cultivation last year was also tempered by reports that poppy planting was again on the rise.

CORRUPTION 'AT ALL LEVELS' Afghanistan produces about 90 percent of the world's opium poppies and is the largest heroin-producing and trafficking country.

''I don't want to underestimate the difficulty of this, because Colombia is paradise next to Afghanistan,'' said Patterson of the challenge.

Thousands are killed every year and tens of thousands have been displaced by Colombia's 41-year-old guerrilla war, in which guerrillas fight with far-right paramilitary militias over control of lucrative coca-producing land.

The report said efforts to curb drug production were hampered by the insurgency in Afghanistan and drug-related corruption ''at all levels of government''.

''Corruption ranges from facilitating drug activities to benefiting from revenue streams generated by the drug trade,'' said the report.

An increasingly large portion of Afghanistan's opium crop was processed into heroin and morphine base by drug labs inside Afghanistan, easing its movement into markets in Europe, Asia and the West Asia via Iran, Pakistan and Central Asia.

Pakistani nationals were playing a more prominent role in all aspects of the drug trade, the report said.

Last year's report was more pessimistic about Afghanistan, saying it was on the verge of becoming a ''narcotics state'' and pointing out that Afghan poppy cultivation had tripled in 2004 from the previous year.

Patterson said it would take years to tackle Afghanistan's drug problem.

''But it's important to do, not only because of the security of Afghanistan and Afghanistan's democratic institutions. It's also important to do because of the cheap heroin that's spreading into neighboring countries and Europe,'' she said.

REUTERS DH RAI0444

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