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Drug trade menaces Afghanistan despite progress: U.S.

A large field of poppies grows on the outskirts of Jelawar village in the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar
A large field of poppies grows on the outskirts of Jelawar village in the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States has made headway in building up Afghanistan's counternarcotics forces, but the war-torn country needs more international help to hold onto those fragile gains, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.

Top Defense Department, State Department and Drug Enforcement Administration officials told the U.S. Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control that Afghanistan's opium poppy cultivation was down, drug seizures were up and Afghan counternarcotics agents had gained capacity.

At the same time, however, a troubling nexus of the narcotics trade, Taliban insurgency and corruption continues to threaten Afghanistan, the officials said.

"Drug production and the drug trade continue to undermine all aspects of the government of Afghanistan's ability to build political stability, economic growth, and establish security and rule of law," said Brian Nichols, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs.

He said in prepared testimony to the caucus hearing that success in U.S. and allied efforts to curb drug production and trafficking "will help set the conditions for a successful drawdown of U.S. military assets in Afghanistan."

In Afghanistan, which supplies about 77 percent of the world's opium, nationwide opium poppy cultivation fell by one-third to 304,000 acres in 2009 from a peak level of 477,000 acres in 2007, Nichols told the panel.

Poppy cultivation did not increase in 2010 despite the highest opium prices since 2004, and the number of poppy-free provinces has steadily increased to 20 in 2009-2010 from 6 in 2006, added Nichols.

"While opium poppy cultivation has decreased overall, it is predominately concentrated in southern and southwestern Afghanistan where the narcotics trade continues to fuel corruption and insurgency," William Wechsler, deputy assistant secretary of defense for counternarcotics and global threats, said in his prepared statement to the panel.

The U.S. official said the United States and its allies had helped build up the capacity of the Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan to the point where its forces could conduct investigations and request and execute warrants.

In 2010, the anti-drug police and its U.S. mentors conducted more than 100 operations, and these led to the seizure of 11 metric tons of heroin -- a 700 percent increase from 2009, said Nichols.

International Security Assistance Force statistics indicated that Afghan and allied forces have seized more than four tons of heroin and more than 43 tons of opium so far in 2011, he added.

(Reporting by Paul Eckert)

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