UN Predicts a Bumper Opium Crop

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THE ANNUAL AFGHAN opium crop is set to record bumper returns this year, providing a windfall that will finance the Taliban's war to eject unwelcome intruders, says the United Nations. Western leaders, including the American secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and the British foreign secretary, David Miliband, have made unannounced visits to Afghanistan in the hope of reviving the international campaign to quash the burgeoning poppy trade.

An assurance of fresh funds for the Taliban could exacerbate the sagging will of the Western Alliance that may have to face its toughest operational challenge in the spring.

Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime, forecasts a huge opium poppy harvest in Afghanistan this year, similar or perhaps only slightly lower than last year's all-time high crop of 8,200 tons. Afghan heroin converted from opium supplies 90% of the global blackmarket for the drug.

"This is a massive source of revenue for the Taliban," explains Costa. "They tax farmers, in a tax called 'the usher', set at roughly 10%, which will generate close to $100m this year. Additional money is raised by running heroin conversion labs and drug exports."

Costa presented the UN's Afghanistan Opium Winter Survey in Tokyo during a February conference of the joint coordination and monitoring board of the financial donors overseeing a $2.2bn international reconstruction programme for that war-torn country. At the conference, the World Bank also announced proposals for an additional 10-year, $1.2bn agricultural investment scheme intended to enable Afghan growers to resist the lure of the opium industry.

Shortly after the conference, an explosion by a suicide bomber at a traditional, male-only dogfight festival near Kandahar city in the south of the country killed 80 people including the chief of a local auxiliary police unit, and wounded 100 others. Such festivities were banned in the region under the Taliban rule.

Asadullah Khaled, the governor of Kandahar and the target of an earlier, unsuccessful assassination attempt, blamed the attack on the Taliban. But Qari Yousuf Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, has emphatically denied responsibility.

Another explosion the next day targeting Canadian troops in a Nato convoy killed some 35 civilians in the town of Spin Boldak, also in Kandahar province, near the Pakistani border.

The attack was closely followed by a parliamentary motion tabled in Ottawa, supported by both the Conservative government and the main opposition, calling for the withdrawal of the Canadian contingent, which has lost a total of 78 troops in the volatile south of Afghanistan.

The third explosion in three days in Kandahar province, set off near a police compound, killed one civilian and wounded four. Since then, a remote-controlled Taliban bomb in Khost province killed five police officers, all members of the same family. But the civilian casualty rate in many attacks is a new departure for the Taliban who have hitherto sought to strike only military and police targets.

The Taliban staged dozens of suicide bomb attacks in 2007, killing more than 3,000. The intensity of the war is set to surpass last year's levels, the highest since 2001 when the Taliban were removed from power. The conflict is tying down more than 40,000 Nato personnel as well as 140,000 regular Afghan troops. An additional force of 3,200 US Marines is expected this month to meet the anticipated all-out challenge.

Already, the insurgents have established a significant presence beyond their traditional power base in the south, operating with relative impunity even in Wardak province, near the capital of Kabul.

Recent setbacks suffered by the Taliban include the wounding and capture of Mansoor Dadullah, a senior commander, by Pakistani forces in February, when he tried to cross the frontier accompanied by a small detachment of men. …