Now, however, these concerns have to a large extent diminished. For the first time, the UNODC reports the magnitude of cannabis (marijuana) cultivation in Afghanistan. It says that with 30,000 hectares of cannabis, Afghanistan is now providing one-third of the world's supply of the drug -- and is second only to the number-one supplier, Morocco.
While the numbers for 2005 might be encouraging -- approximately one in five farmers, or 50,000 households, switched illegal for legal crops -- Afghanistan still produces 87 percent of the world's opium poppies. That represents 4,500 tons of the plants from which opium and heroin are derived.
Aside from farmers' fading concerns over the government's opium-eradication initiative, the UNODC chief says, free distribution of opium seeds and deterioration of security situation in certain parts of Afghanistan are seen as factors that might lead to an increase opium output in 2006.
"First of all we have news that in a number of provinces traffickers are distributing free of charge opium seeds, which may lead to a higher cultivation in 2006," Costa said. "Point number two is that the security situation is deteriorating in some of the provinces which were not cultivating large amount of opium last year, which may again lead to a higher cultivation at least in these provinces."
The changes in opium production vary widely throughout the country, the UNODC report says. The eastern Nangarhar Province, for instance, recorded a stunning 96 percent decline, while in the western Farah and northern Balkh provinces cultivation increased more than three-fold.
Annual gross profits to opium farmers, however, are some $1,800 per household, the report says, while traffickers grossed more than $2.14 billion. Most of the drug revenues presumably end up in foreign bank accounts of a few big drug lords and traffickers.
Prices for opium also significantly vary inside the country, the report says, with the highest over $140 for a kilogram of raw dry opium and the lowest $114 for a kilogram in northern Afghanistan bordering Tajikistan.
For the first time, the UNODC publishes its findings about the number of opium users in Afghanistan itself -- approximately 1 million people, or 3.8 percent of the population.
Ethnic Participation And Trade Routes
For the first time, the UNODC reflects in the report the disposition of Afghanistan's ethnic groups in the drug trafficking.
"About 10 years ago, 90 percent of the trafficking was run by Pashtuns. This year the Pashtuns are running just about half of the trafficking," Costa said. "More than a quarter is now run by Tajik minorities -- whether the minorities are on this side of the border, namely in Afghanistan, or that side of the border, namely in Tajikistan."
The report notes significant changes in the activity on drug trafficking routes. For instance, the trafficking through Iran increased dramatically -- from 40 percent in 2004 to 61 percent of overall Afghan drug trafficking in 2005. On the other hand, trafficking through the other routes decreased: Pakistan -- from 37 percent to 20 percent, and Central Asian countries -- from 24 to 19 percent.
"The amount of opium and heroine going through the Central Asian republics has declined from last year, [when] we estimated it at 24 percent; this year it has declined to 19 percent," Costa said. "Basically it means there's been a major readjustment in trafficking -- lesser through Central Asia and Russia, less through Pakistan and then through the Gulf, and more though Iran, the Kurdish region, Iraq, Turkey, Balkans, and so forth."
Isobel Coleman of the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations told RFE/RL that widespread corruption in Central Asia is a major obstacle for President Karzai's government initiative to effectively fight drug cultivation and trafficking.
"The ability of drugs and the amount of money around the drug trade -- it's so easy to corrupt people -- poorly paid or even well-paid government officials," Coleman said. "They turn a blind eye to the drug trade because of their ability to so enrich themselves. You see that corruption in the Afghan government, you see it in Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, you see it in the whole region, it's very debilitating on their countries."
(For more on the UNODC report, see http://www.unodc.org)