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Afghan Opium Crop Gets Clipped

KABUL - "More aggressive" anti-drug efforts by U.S. and NATO forces have contributed to a significant decline in illegal opium crops in Afghanistan, damaging a critical source of cash for the Taliban insurgency, a new report says.

An annual study by the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said the amount of land used to grow opium fell for the second straight year in the 2009 harvest, down 22%. A third of Afghanistan's territory is virtually opium-free, the United Nations said.

"At a time of pessimism about the situation in Afghanistan, these results are a welcome piece of good news and demonstrate that progress is possible," Antonio Maria Costa, the U.N. office's executive director, wrote in the report.

The U.N. study attributed the progress to "an effective mix of sticks and carrots." They include a U.S.-sponsored program that eradicates opium while encouraging Afghan farmers to grow legal crops such as wheat by giving them free seeds and fertilizer.

A military crackdown on major drug traffickers and a 10-year low in opium prices also helped, the report said. Despite the 22% decline in the amount of land cultivated for opium, overall production fell by a less dramatic 10% because producers are getting better yields on existing crops, the United Nations said.

August was the deadliest month for U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the war began almost eight years ago. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. commander here, is studying whether to ask President Obama for more troops.

Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of opium, which is used to make heroin. Most opium is grown in southern provinces where the Taliban is strongest, particularly Helmand. However, the U.N. report said Helmand experienced the biggest drop in cultivation - nearly 84,000 acres less than last year - thanks to Afghan and NATO anti-drug programs. Lt. Gen. Mohammad Daud-Daud, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister for counternarcotics, told USA TODAY his forces seized 440 tons of drugs in 2008 and expected a greater number in 2009.

Though a drop in opium production would damage the Taliban over the long term, the immediate effect is less clear, said Doug Wankel, a former anti-narcotics coordinator at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The U.N. report said drug smugglers have stockpiled up to 10,000 tons of opium, or enough to satisfy two years of world heroin demand.

Wankel said that could provide a cushion for the Taliban's drug smuggling operation. "That's where the real money is," he said.

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