WASHINGTON - Illegal opium production in Afghanistan, already the world's leading supplier, continued to grow in 2003, according to a United Nations report released yesterday.
"The country is clearly at a crossroads," Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime, said in a statement detailing the latest survey.
He repeated a warning he has made for months about what he called "the drug cancer": If major actions are not undertaken, the country faces heightened corruption and violence.
"There is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists," the report stated.
Among the survey's findings:
An increase of opium production to 3,600 tons from 3,400 tons in 2002. The country continued to produce about three-fourths of the world's illegal opium.
An increase of 8 percent in the area under opium poppy cultivation, with the number of the nation's 32 provinces where poppies are cultivated expanding from 18 in 1999 to 28 in 2003.
Opium poppy cultivation "plays a direct role in the livelihood of about 1.7 million rural people," roughly 7 percent of Afghanistan's population.
The income of opium farmers and traffickers was about $2.3 billion, more than half the country's estimated gross domestic product in 2003, despite a drop in opium prices.
Drug money is used by Afghanistan's warlords who command personal militias, by criminals and by militants, according to the U.N. agency, which is based in Vienna, Austria, and has conducted an annual drug survey in Afghanistan since 1994.
The threat represented by the illegal drugs extends far beyond Afghanistan's borders.
Much of the opium is smuggled through former Soviet republics and Russia and is sold as heroin in Europe.