Opium seizures in Afghanistan soared 924% last year because of better co-operation between Afghan and international forces, the US's top drug enforcement official said today.
The Taliban largely funds its insurgency by profits from the opium trade, making it a growing target of US and Afghan anti-insurgency operations. Afghanistan produces the raw opium used to make 90% of the world's heroin.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration now has 96 agents in the country who joined Afghan counterparts and Nato forces in more than 80 combined operations last year, acting DEA administrator Michelle Leonhart said at a news conference in the capital, Kabul.
"That is the success of bringing the elements, civil, military Afghan partners together," she said.
She did not give figures for the total amount of drugs seized but said the increase was 924% between 2008 and 2009. International groups estimate that only about 2% of Afghanistan's drug production was blocked from leaving the country in 2008 for markets in Central Asia and Europe.
Ms Leonhart said eradication efforts had already scored some success in the south, with opium cultivation down more than 30% in Helmand province which is responsible for half of Afghanistan's total production.
She said the DEA was working with US forces moving into the Taliban heartland, including "significant operations" in Helmand.
"There is a very good plan put together to have very robust interdiction operations going forward there, eventually moving that to other provinces in the south," she said.
Such operations causes the Afghan government and its foreign allies a dilemma because eradicating poppy fields risks driving angry farmers, for whom opium poppy is a cheap, hardy, low-risk crop, into the arms of the insurgents because they fear loss of their livelihood.
Efforts to replace opium with other crops such as wheat and vegetables have not scored wide success because profits for the farmers are much lower than for poppies.
Ms Leonhart gave no details of the strategy for the south, but stressed that the focus was not on farmers but on seizing drugs and weapons, arresting traffickers, and tracing the profits of the trade.
"Because the money is what fuels the insurgency," she said.
In a sign that traffickers are striking back against such efforts, 13 people were killed yesterday when a bomb concealed on a bicycle exploded near a crowd gathered to receive free vegetable seeds provided by the British government as part of a programme to encourage them not to plant opium poppy.
No-one claimed responsibility for the attack, although the acting provincial head of agriculture, Ghulam Sahki, said the blast could have been the work of drug dealers trying to stop the alternative crop programme.
A recent Nato operation in the Helmand town of Marjah struck at the heart of the Taliban opium business. While troops discovered acres (hectares) of poppy fields and numerous opium packing operations, farmers were left alone.
Nato, US and Afghan forces took control of Marjah in a three-week offensive in February and early March but face a fearful and mistrustful population as they work to set up a functioning government.
Also today, an Indian diplomat said India was suspending teaching and aid operations in Kabul following a February bomb attack which killed six Indian staff.
Those operations should be restored in two or three months and similar Indian aid efforts in four other Afghan cities remained up and running, said JP Singh, spokesman for the Indian Embassy in Kabul.
The Taliban have long opposed India's involvement in Afghanistan because of its ties to the Afghan group which helped the US oust the Islamist regime in late 2001.