High-level drug meeting focuses on Afghanistan


VIENNA (AP) — U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke Thursday of a losing battle against the fight to eradicate drugs in Afghanistan, noting that opium production there has grown by 61 percent in the past year and warning that "time is not on our side."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also urged the Afghan government to do more to combat drug trade and smuggling, declaring it is up to the government and international troops based in the country "to destroy the opium fields and the laboratories where heroin is produced."

Afghanistan's minister for counter-narcotics, however, suggested that drugs can only be eradicated if security in his country is improved.

The three are among senior officials from more than 50 countries attending a conference dedicated to work on ways to reduce the production and flow of drugs from Afghanistan, and Ban, in an opening statement to the meeting, warned that the problem extends beyond those who abuse drugs and is threatening Afghanistan itself.

"Drug trafficking and transnational organized crime undermine the health of fragile states, (and) weaken the rule of law," he told delegates. "Above all, the Afghan government must prioritize the issue of narcotics."

Lavrov, speaking ahead of the meeting, also urged "the Afghanistan leaders to commit to this ... to destroy the opium fields and the laboratories where the heroin is produced."

Named for the agreement that created it nine years ago, the Paris Pact meeting is meant to review steps taken to reduce production and trafficking of opiates from Afghanistan. It will look at ways to block financial flows from the illicit drug trade, choke the flow of chemicals used to make heroin and strengthen local initiatives to help combat drug abuse by Afghans.

But the meeting has no enforcing powers, and international attempts to reduce the Afghan drug problem have had little success.

A January report by the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime said revenue from opium production in Afghanistan soared by 133 percent last year to about $1.4 billion, or about one-tenth of the country's GDP, after the crop recovered from a 2010 blight and returned to previous levels.

A copy of the Vienna meeting's final declaration obtained in advance by The Associated Press reflects realities, saying that Afghanistan's drug problem "continues to be a serious concern."

"Illicit traffic in opiates, including heroin, is a growing problem," says the document, adding that revenues it generates fuel "corruption, organized crime and in some cases ... terrorist activities and insurgency."

Ban, in his opening comments, cited a 2011 U.N. survey, saying that poppy cultivation has increased by 7 percent and opium production by 61 percent in the past year.

"Export earnings from Afghan opiates may be worth as much as $2.4 billion" annually, he said. "We cannot expect stability when 15 percent of Afghanistan's Gross Domestic Product comes from the drug trade."

Zarar Ahmad Muqbel Osmani, the Afghan minister, said his country understands international concerns but noted that "95 percent of poppy cultivation takes place in nine insecure provinces." He urged the international community to work hard in interdicting the components needed to turn opium into heroin that enter Afghanistan from neighboring countries."

While the meeting formally focuses on drugs, some of the powerful foreign ministers attending have already announced that they will use the conference to discuss Syria on the sidelines.

Lavrov told reporters Wednesday that he will meet with French counterpart Alain Juppe to be briefed on a French plan to set up humanitarian corridors in Syria that are free of violence. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is also attending the conference, along with government ministers from Iran and Afghanistan.

The United States will be represented by Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns.