Washington - The United States says there has been a significant reduction in the poppy crop in Afghanistan and a steep decline in the potential production of opium that is being used by the Taliban to help fund the insurgency in the country. The latest statistics were released during a news conference in Washington and VOA correspondent Meredith Buel has details.
After two straight years of record high opium production in Afghanistan, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy estimates the nation's poppy crop has dropped 22 percent and the potential for opium production has declined by 31 percent this year.
The 2008 estimate says opium poppy cultivation has been nearly eliminated in most of Afghanistan's north and east.
The report says 29 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are now poppy free or have low levels of cultivation.
However, John Walters, the director of the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, says the insecure south of Afghanistan continues to be a center for poppy growing.
"Ninety-three percent of Afghanistan's opium crop is in just five provinces," he said. "Over 60 percent is in one province, Helmand. But even here, President [Hamid] Karzai and the Afghan government have replaced governors, sought to put in people this year who will be more dynamic and more aggressive and that also helps move this problem forward."
The United Nations estimates more than 90 percent of the world's heroin comes from poppies grown in Afghanistan and U.S. officials say the Taliban makes up to $80 million a year from drug trafficking.
At the urging of U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, NATO defense ministers recently authorized a counternarcotics role for their forces in Afghanistan.
John Walters, who is also known as President Bush's anti-drug czar, says there is increasing international recognition that fighting illegal narcotics is critical to restoring security in Afghanistan.
"The Afghan drug trades poses not only a drug threat, but obviously a security threat," he said. "More and more I think there has been recognition of the power, money and resources that the poppy trade gives to the Taliban and to powerful criminal organizations. In short, we can not have security in Afghanistan without attacking the opium trade."
Ashraf Haidari, the political counselor at the Afghan embassy in Washington, says a sustained strategy is now under way to defeat the illegal narcotics industry and the terrorist groups that rely on the drug trade for funding.
"In the Afghan context we strongly believe that the best weapon against narcotics is gradual, but a steady prevention in the form of improved governance, rule of law, sustainable alternative development assistance and increased security," he said.
The Bush administration is currently reviewing its strategy in Afghanistan and a stepped-up anti-drug trafficking effort is expected to be a key recommendation to fight the increasing violence in the country.