- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

KABUL, Afghanistan — Bumper growing conditions meant that Afghanistan’s opium production remained almost unchanged this year even though a crackdown on poppy farming cut the land under cultivation by 21 percent, the United Nations’ anti-drug chief said yesterday.

Antonio Maria Costa warned that it could take 20 more years to eradicate opium from the impoverished country — despite the recent injection of hundreds of millions in foreign aid to fight the world’s biggest drug industry.

The narcotics trade is blamed for fighting in some poppy-growing areas and is suspected to be partially funding an insurgency by Taliban-led rebels that has killed more than 1,100 people in the past six months.

Opium production this year was 4,519 tons, 2 percent less than the 4,630 tons in 2004, said Mr. Costa, director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.

He said Afghanistan is still estimated to produce 87 percent of the world’s supply of opium and its derivative, heroin.

“We see a significant improvement in the amount of land cultivated in Afghanistan, a major reduction. One field out of five that was cultivated in 2004 was not cultivated this year,” Mr. Costa said.

But he said, “Heavy rainfall, snowfall and no infestation of crops resulted in a very significant increase in productivity.”

A report by the U.N. agency said the amount of land being used to grow poppies dropped from 323,570 acres in 2004 to 256,880 acres this year.

But the jump in crop yield — the opium harvested from each acre of poppies — was 28 percent, it added.

The money being pumped into anti-drug campaigns by the United States, Britain and other countries is largely used to train police units to destroy laboratories, arrest smugglers and destroy opium crops, as well as to fund projects to help farmers grow legal crops.

Mr. Costa said $510 million more has been earmarked by donors for further assistance this year and next.

The drug czar praised President Hamid Karzai and his Cabinet for trying to eradicate drug production, but said some provincial governors and other officials were involved in the drug trade and should be removed.

Meanwhile, U.S. military spokesman Col. James Yonts reported that coalition and Afghan forces in southern Kandahar province last week killed four rebels, including a Taliban commander thought to be responsible for rocket attacks, ambushes and other guerrilla-style assaults.

Six suspected rebels also were killed in a separate battle with Afghan police Sunday in neighboring Zabul province, said Ali Khail, a spokesman for the provincial governor.