Sept. 3, 2006 — -- Already the world's largest producer of opium, Afghanistan's 2006 output has soared a staggering 59 percent, according to a survey by the U.N.'s drug control program.
"Afghanistan is hooked on its own drug," UNODC director Antonio Maria Costa told ABC News. "The drug problem in Afghanistan is running out of control."
And who gained the most? The Taliban.
The most dramatic increases in cultivation took place in five southern provinces where the anti-U.S. insurgency has spiked.
In Helmand province, where Taliban ties to the drug trade are most clear, poppy output grew 162 percent. And Helmand was the province that last year produced a whopping 40 percent of Afghanistan's $2.8 billion poppy crop.
I travelled to Helmand in April, when the poppy was flowering, and it was one of the most incredible sites I have seen. Poppy flowers are stunningly beautiful, and they were everywhere. I drove for hours; nary a moment passed that I was not driving through a poppy field.
For all its beauty, poppy is a deadly flower. Costa and other officials say it's clear now that drugs are the main fuel driving the Taliban and their Al Qaeda allies.
"The large increase in the cultivation by and large explains the exploding insurgency," says Costa.
The Taliban has encouraged, and in many cased coerced, poor farmers to cultivate the cash crop, which yields a market price about four times that of other Afghan staples like wheat, melons and rice.
So this year, the country that the United States invaded five years ago to stabilize will produce 16,000 tons of opium. Drugs now make up more than half of gross domestic product. Top government officials are tied to the drug trade. Corruption runs rampant. Addiction rates in Afghanistan and neighboring Central Asia, Iran and Pakistan are skyrocketing.
For the U.S., this news is scary: How much of these hundreds of millions of dollars are ending up in terrorist coffers?
No one knows exactly how much the Taliban and al Qaeda profit off the drug trade. By some intelligence estimates, the Taliban earns roughly 70 percent of its budget from opium.
But even if the figures are much smaller, they could still fund a horrifying number of terrorist attacks: Afghanistan this year will produce more than $4 billion of drugs.