UNITED NATIONS - Initial results from a survey of opium-growing areas of Afghanistan in recent days indicate that the Taliban may have succeeded in sharply reducing the annual poppy crop, astonished U.N. narcotics-control officials say.
Last year, Afghanistan was the world's largest producer of opium, from which heroin is made.
Poppies are now in bloom in the Afghan fields, allowing aerial and ground surveys to be done across large areas to test the ban on opium production by the Taliban, the hard-line Islamic movement that rules most of the country. The ban was announced last year to skeptical response from narcotics experts.
Monday, the U.N. Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention's regional office for Afghanistan and Pakistan said that surveys in the northern provinces of Nangarhar, Laghman and Kunar, which together contain more than 25 percent of the total land that had been devoted to the poppy crop, found no significant signs of cultivation this year.
Similar reports are beginning to come in from Helmand, which had 52 percent of the land devoted to last year's crop.
The narcotics experts found that Afghan farmers were trying to grow wheat, onions, garlic and other crops. Afghans told the inspection team, however, that they were very fearful about their livelihoods. Alternate crops require a steady supply of seeds, fertilizer and water - all of which are in short supply, and Afghanistan under the Taliban gets almost no foreign aid.
Moreover, in the past year Afghanistan has suffered the worst drought in half a century.