The State Department Monday said opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan soared to near-record levels last year, though U.S. officials say the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is solidly committed to fighting the drug trade. The State Department's annual International Narcotics Control Strategy report also said there is some progress in the drug fight in the Andean region of South America.
The State Department is not faulting Mr. Karzai for the soaring poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, and in fact it says his commitment to curbing drug trafficking is "rock-solid."
However, the report says that because of the dire economic situation of Afghan farmers, the amount of land in Afghanistan under poppy cultivation nearly doubled last year to some 61,000 hectares, and that opium may have provided between 40 and 60 per cent of the country's total economic output.
At a news briefing, the State Department's chief counter-narcotics official, Assistant Secretary Robert Charles, said it is urgently necessary to combat that trade and help Afghan farmers profitably switch to other crops before an opium industry in the country becomes a permanent part of the landscape.
"We have to prevent the institutionalization of the heroin market. If we get to a point two years from now where we have the same environment we have now, we will be basically be on course to institutionalize cartels in Afghanistan, and we cannot allow that to happen. As a result, you have to hit the warehouses and you have to hit all the stockpiles, and you have to hit the labs," he said.
Mr. Charles said he expects U.S. forces in Afghanistan to get new Pentagon guidance soon enabling them to move "aggressively" against drug traffickers if they are encountered in the course of anti-terrorism operations.
The State Department report cites progress in curbing coca production in the Andean region of South America and said output in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru underwent a combined eight per cent reduction last year.
Mr. Charles said while Colombia still has a long way to go to achieve victory in the drug war, it may be near a "tipping point" at which coca output begins a permanent decline.
He said because of its location and weak economy, Haiti remained a major conduit for transporting South American cocaine to the United States and that the government of the now-deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was riddled with drug corruption.
"We do know that elements of that government were corrupt and shot through with drug money. And I think that at this point the focus should be and is, I think, on how to stabilize and then move forward to establish and maintain rule of law, and again to wring the drug money out of that economy and out of that society, because it brings with it so many devastating consequences," he said.
The State Department report says while opium poppy production in Burma declined in 2003 for a seventh straight year, it was still the world's number two producer after Afghanistan. It also said Burma remains Asia's main source of amphetamine-type stimulants.
It says North Korea was almost certainly involved in state-sanctioned drug operations, citing incidents last year in which authorities in Hong Kong and Australia seized heroin and amphetamines on North Korean vessels.
In all, the congressionally mandated report identifies 23 countries, mainly in Asia and Latin America, as major drug producing or transit countries.
Nine countries, including the United States and major allies Germany and Canada, are said to be major sources of precursor chemicals for synthetic drugs, and 54 countries are identified as major money-laundering states.