By Aarne Heikkila, Producer, NBC News
KABUL – Afghanistan produced record levels of opium in 2013 – despite nearly $7 billion spent by the U.S. to combat the problem, according to a sobering United Nations report out Wednesday.
Propelled by strong demand and an insurgency that has become more hands-on in the trade, cultivation of opium poppies, which are processed into heroin, rose 36 percent, amounting to 209,000 hectares.
Afghanistan remains the world's largest opium producer – last year accounting for 75 percent of the world's heroin supply. This is despite more than a decade worth of international efforts to persuade poppy farmers to switch to other crops such as wheat.
"The narcotics issue in Afghanistan acts as a virus festering on a low immunity system of governance," said Jean-Luc Lemahieu, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime representative for Afghanistan. "The region and international community share responsibility in this."
Poppy cultivation, historically concentrated in the southern and western parts of the country, has spread to the north, which had been largely poppy-free. Two provinces, Faryab and Balkh, are noted in the U.N. report to have lost their poppy-free status.
At $160 to $200 for one kilogram of dry opium, compared to 41 cents for one kilogram of wheat, farmers are making a strictly economic decision when they decide to go into the trade, said Shafeek Seddiq, president of the Afghanistan Justice Organization.
"If farmers are being offered no other financial alternatives, no services, no way out of poverty, they're going to continue to go back to planting poppy every time," Seddiq said.
With 60,000 U.S. forces left in Afghanistan – down from a peak of 100,000 – insurgents have fought hard to reclaim lost ground in poppy producing areas and have used opium production to help finance terrorism, security analysts say.
"The drug economy plays a direct role in severely destabilizing the region," said Wadir Safi, political science professor at the University of Kabul. "Poppy crop sales make it increasingly difficult for the Afghan government to establish control in an ever-increasing part of the country and opium continues to make its way to neighboring countries and Europe."