Afghan poppy growing hit record high in 2013: US

Poppy production in Afghanistan hit record levels last year even though the United States has poured some $7 billion into destroying the deadly crop which supplies some 80 percent of the world's opium. A new report released Tuesday by a US watchdog warned "the narcotics trade poisons the Afghan financial sector and undermines the Afghan state's legitimacy by stoking corruption" as well as feeding trafficking gangs.

It comes as new President Ashraf Ghani takes up the helm, seeking to steer his strife-torn and impoverished country into a new era after the rule of Hamid Karzai, president since the Taliban regime was ousted by a US-led coalition in 2001. Despite spending some $7.6 billion to wipe out poppy fields, poppy production in 2013 "hit an all-time high in 2013."

"Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 209,000 hectares (516,000 acres) of opium poppy in 2013, surpassing the previous peak of 193,000 hectares in 2007," the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John Sopko, said. "With deteriorating security in many parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014."

The increase is in part due to affordable deep-well technology which has allowed farmers to turn some 200,000 hectares of desert in south-western Afghanistan into arable land over the past 10 years. "Poppy-growing provinces that were once declared 'poppy free' have seen a resurgence in cultivation," Sopko said in the report which was sent to US Secretary of State John Kerry and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel.

High opium prices coupled with poverty levels in Afghanistan are helping to feed the renewed drive towards cultivating opium poppies after some success in past years to stamp out the scourge. Sopko insisted the current situation "calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts." The US administration should consider the trends in opium production in future planning "given the severity of the opium problem and its potential to undermine US objectives in Afghanistan," he recommended.

Copyright Agence France-Presse, 2014