Afghanistan’s opium cultivation surged by 59 per cent this year largely as a result of a Taliban-led insurgency that is pushing the southern part of the country to the verge of collapse, the United Nations drugs agency chief said at the weekend.

Antonio Maria Costa, head of the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime, said in Kabul that the record harvest of 6,100 tons was “staggering” and “very bad news”. The southern part of Afghanistan, where Nato took control from US-led troops on July 31, was “displaying the ominous hallmarks of incipient collapse, with large-scale drug cultivation and trafficking, insurgency and terrorism, crime and corruption”, Mr Costa said in a separate statement released by his office.

Afghanistan now produces 92 per cent of the world’s supply of opium used to make heroin, Mr Costa said. In Helmand, where most British troops are stationed, the area under opium cultivation soared by 162 per cent as a result of corruption and efforts by insurgents to encourage production. Militants, linked either to the Taliban or al-Qaeda, were providing protection to drug convoys travelling to Afghanistan’s borders and demanding money in exchange, Mr Costa added.

That money has been used to fuel the insurgency in which 22 British troops have died since the Nato handover alone.

Afghanistan’s drugs trade now accounts for at least 35 per cent of the economy and is the largest source of employment, foreign investment and income generation.

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