Afghanistan is losing a multi-billion dollar war on drugs as it combats terrorism, a minister warned, denouncing a lack of political will and dwindling foreign aid to fight narcotics.
The comments from Baz Mohammad Ahmadi, deputy minister of interior for counter-narcotics, come after the UN last week reported a 10 percent jump in opium cultivation this year to the third-highest level in more than two decades.
High levels of cultivation meant the estimated opium production soared 43 percent to 4,800 tons, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said, underscoring a "worrying reversal" in efforts to combat the scourge of drugs.
"Three years ago 20 provinces were poppy-free. Now only 13 are poppy-free," Ahmadi told AFP in a recent interview, citing UN data.
"The government is too busy fighting against terrorism and the Taliban and is losing the battle against drugs -- but everything is interconnected."
Pink-and-white poppy blooms, which in some areas grow within eyeshot of government buildings, help bankroll the Taliban's nationwide insurgency and threaten the existence of the Afghan state.
International donors have splurged billions of dollars on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan over the past decade, with little results.
Eradication efforts have collapsed in the face of ebbing foreign aid. A total of 355 hectares of poppy eradication was carried out this year, a 91 percent plunge from 2015.
Ahmadi said a big setback came in 2010 when a special Afghan unit of around 900 men, trained and equipped by Westerners to spur eradication efforts, was disbanded.
"Mafia groups, traffickers and other vested interests spread the propaganda that the group was not effective, impacting donor support," Ahmadi said.
"It had cost nearly $50,000 to train each of those men.
"In the past we had a lot of support from donor countries for the elimination of poppy. But that has changed rapidly."
Rising poppy cultivation is also spurring a growing crisis of drug addiction despite a costly US-led counter-narcotics programme.
The country has nearly three million drug addicts -- from almost nothing under the 1996-2001 Taliban regime.
Officials have cited favourable weather conditions, rising insecurity and falling international donor support as the main reasons for the increase in cultivation in Afghanistan, the world's leading producer of opium.
Ninety-five percent of poppy cultivation occurs in areas controlled by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, Ahmadi said.
But what hurts the most, Ahmadi says, is the lack of political will to fight drugs.
"We no longer have any support, not even our own budget within the ministry of interior to combat drugs," he said, adding that he regularly faced political pressure on personnel appointments.