WASHINGTON — Afghanistan's opium poppy crop this year is set to break all records, surging past the peak levels reported under the Taliban regime, top American and international counter-narcotics officials said.
At the same time, U.N. and U.S. officials are increasingly worried by signs of a nascent drug trade developing in Iraq, where smugglers are taking advantage of the continuing chaos and unguarded borders.
Instability in the wake of the U.S.-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has resulted in one booming market for the production of drugs, and a second potential market for narcotics sale and transit, officials said.
"All post-conflict situations, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan, are always characterized by a significant increase in addiction," said Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the United Nations' Office on Drug and Crimes. "The problem is definitely there."
In testimony last month, Robert B. Charles, the assistant secretary who heads the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told Congress that CIA figures, expected to be released in a matter of weeks, show Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation approaching 250,000 acres, up more than 60% from the 2003 level.
In an interview late last week, Charles acknowledged that the cultivation levels apparently exceed even the previous record of about 160,000 acres of opium poppy, reached in 2000. The Taliban was aggressively promoting the crop at the time to finance military operations but banned it later that year, citing religious reasons.
Afghanistan is already the world's leading supplier of opium, which can be processed into a variety of narcotics, including heroin. Most of Afghanistan's heroin is exported to Europe and surrounding countries; less than 10% reaches the U.S. Charles said that although there was growing momentum behind efforts to halt production, the U.S. continued to fear the development of a narco-economy that could swamp Afghanistan's nascent democracy.
"There is a dark shadow that hangs over the country," Charles said. "If we don't do the right thing about tackling this potentially damaging heroin economy, we're certainly all going to regret it."
The country's exploding drug production has already become an issue in the U.S. presidential campaign. In Thursday's debate in Florida, Democratic candidate Sen. John F. Kerry cited the burgeoning opium poppy crop as evidence of President Bush's "colossal misjudgment" in turning his attention from Afghanistan to wage war in Iraq.
Repeating a U.N. estimate, Kerry said heroin production represents between 40% and 60% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. The U.N. and the Economist magazine's Intelligence Unit have estimated that the value of last year's heroin and opium production in Afghanistan ranged from $1 billion to as much as $2.3 billion -- equivalent to the whole aid package pledged by the U.S. at a March donor's conference in Berlin.
"Iraq is not even the center of the focus of the war on terror; the center is Afghanistan," Kerry said.
Indeed, U.S., U.N. and Afghan officials believe that opium smuggling is a source of funding for Taliban insurgents, Al Qaeda terrorists and criminal gangs operating in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Much of the opium is exported through the lawless border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan where Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden is believed to be hiding, officials said. Insurgents encourage small farmers in areas they control to grow the drug, and charge a tax on it for transportation.
During a surprise visit to Afghanistan in August, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld described the drug boom as one of the biggest threats to Afghanistan's democracy, which is preparing for presidential elections Saturday.
"To the extent the demand for drugs continues to produce hundreds of millions of dollars for revenue to ... criminals engaged in the drug-trafficking trade, it is harmful," Rumsfeld said. "We see what happens in countries where that takes place. It's corrosive. It can affect the entire political process. It leads to other types of crime and corruption. It is a very dangerous thing." So far, efforts to stem the production boom have been ineffectual. The British have taken the lead in Afghanistan in eradication efforts, and seized some 34 tons of opiates this year -- about 1% of the estimated production.
Efforts by Afghan and coalition forces to convince farmers to give up growing poppy plants also have yielded few results. In a country whose economy remains a shambles, the crop represents one of the few profitable enterprises.