There is strong evidence that narcotics trafficking in Afghanistan is linked to the Taliban insurgency, according to Gary Lewis, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) representative for South Asia.
"The drugs from Afghanistan travel to foreign destinations across regions controlled by scores of warlords, insurgents who are often affiliated with the Taliban and Al -Qaeda as well as extremists from Central Asia and Pakistan," Lewis told IANS in an e-mail interview.
Around 92 per cent of the world's heroin comes from poppies grown in Afghanistan, Lewis said.
"Opium production in Afghanistan rose almost 60 per cent in 2006. Even more worryingly, our preliminary survey in February 2007 suggested that opium cultivation in Afghanistan this year may not be lower than the record harvest of 165,000 hectares in 2006."
According to Lewis, Helmand province in southern Afghanistan, severely threatened by insurgency, was becoming the world's biggest drug supplier, with illicit cultivation larger than in the rest of the country put together and even more than entire nations such as Myanmar and Colombia.
"Effective surgery on Helmand's drug and insurgency cancer will rid the world of the most dangerous source of its most dangerous narcotic and go a long way in bringing security to the region."
UNODC estimates that opium exports from Afghanistan increased by 68 per cent in 2006 while morphine and heroin exports increased by 32 per cent. Lewis said that about 80 per cent of the opium was estimated to flow through Pakistan and Iran.
The Afghan government, the UN and other agencies have made a far more intense effort to eradicate opium cultivation in 2007, compared to 2006. "However, the resistance to eradication is much more severe compared to 2006," Lewis said.
Even when it comes to hosting illegal heroin distillation laboratories, Afghanistan leads the region, he pointed out. "Afghan traffickers trade in all forms of opiates, including semi-refined morphine base and refined heroin.
"An increasing share of Afghanistan's opium is refined into morphine base and heroin in Afghanistan itself. Helmand is also the most significant province in terms of heroin processing and trafficking."
Compared to Afghanistan, Lewis was far happier with the situation in the area of opium cultivation in Southeast Asia known as the Golden Triangle. Here, there was an 85 per cent fall in the area under cultivation from 1998 to 2006, he said.
"This is an immense success. The largest reduction took place in Myanmar. However, Myanmar still is the second largest opium poppy grower in the world after Afghanistan."
With the reduction of opium cultivation in this region, opiates are now being smuggled into China from Afghanistan, Lewis warned. "The new trafficking routes from Afghanistan via Pakistan and Central Asia to China are a potential growth area that will need more careful monitoring."
But in the Golden Triangle area, Lewis was worried about production of the synthetic drug methamphetamine in Myanmar. "The production is concentrated in the Shan state, which borders China and Thailand, and is produced mainly for export to those countries.
"The strongest growth is currently in the methamphetamine destined for the Chinese market. In 2006, the Chinese authorities reported 55 percent of their total methamphetamine seizures as having taken place in Yunnan province bordering Myanmar. This showed a significant increase from the 18 per cent in 2002."