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UN: Afghan Drug Crop To Fall Slightly This Year

Workers unload drugs after they were seized in Kandahar in October 2008
KABUL (Reuters) -- Drug cultivation is expected to fall slightly in Afghanistan this year as lower opium prices and higher wheat prices encourage some farmers to switch crops, the United Nations said on February 1.

Afghanistan is locked in a vicious circle where drug production helps fund Taliban militants and increases official corruption, both of which limit government control of many areas which in turn allows more opium poppy to be grown.

Last year Afghanistan produced more than 90 percent of the world's supply of opium, a thick paste from poppy that is then processed to make highly addictive heroin and smuggled abroad.

The number of opium-free provinces could rise from 18 out of 34 Afghan provinces last year, to 22 this year if there is effective crop eradication, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in its annual winter assessment report.

But almost all opium production in Afghanistan, some 98 percent, is concentrated in seven southern and southwestern provinces, and more than half of all production is in just one province; Helmand, where mainly British troops are struggling to contain an entrenched Taliban insurgency.

The international community has poured millions of dollars into counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, but drug production rose dramatically till last year.

Last year's slight drop may have been largely due to bad weather and if production also falls this year, it will also be down to external factors; a 25 percent fall in opium prices due to a market glut and higher world wheat prices.

Taxes on farmers and traffickers netted the Taliban some $470 million last year, the UN has said, but NATO forces in Afghanistan are not permitted to engage in crop eradication.

NATO is currently discussing how to implement a decision made at a ministers summit in October last year authorising direct attacks on the drugs trade, an alliance spokesman said.

The alliance's top commander U.S. General John Craddock has issued guidance to his generals saying all drug traffickers could be attacked, whether or not evidence connected them to the Taliban insurgency, "Der Spiegel" magazine said this week, quoting leaked classified document.

But the commander of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan, U.S. General David McKiernan did not want to follow the guidance, "Der Spiegel" said, fearing the move would seriously undermine NATO attempts to reduce civilian casualties.