By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan hit an all-time high in 2013 despite years of counter-narcotics efforts that have cost the United States $7.6 billion, the U.S. government watchdog for Afghanistan reconstruction spending said on Tuesday.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported that Afghan farmers grew an "unprecedented" 209,000 hectares (516,000 acres) of opium poppy in 2013, surpassing the previous high of 193,000 hectares (477,000 acres) in 2007, said John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
"In past years, surges in opium poppy cultivation have been met by a coordinated response from the U.S. government and coalition partners, which has led to a temporary decline in levels of opium production," Sopko said in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other top U.S. officials.
"The recent record-high level of poppy cultivation calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts," he said.
Afghanistan produces more than 80 percent of the world's illicit opium, and profits from the illegal trade help fund the Taliban insurgency. U.S. government officials blame poppy production for fueling corruption and instability, undermining good government and subverting the legal economy.
The United States has spent $7.6 billion on counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since launching the programs following the start of the 2001 war, it said.
Sopko said the U.N. drug office estimated the value of poppy cultivation and opium products produced in Afghanistan in 2013 at about $3 billion, a 50 percent increase over the $2 billion estimated in 2012.
"With deteriorating security in many parts of Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014," Sopko said in the letter.
He said affordable deep-well technology brought to Afghanistan over the past decade had enabled Afghans to turn 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) of desert in southwestern Afghanistan into arable land, much of it devoted to poppy production.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul, in a letter responding to the findings, said the rise in poppy cultivation and decline in eradication efforts by provincial authorities was "disappointing news." It said U.S. officials were helping Afghans develop the ability to lead and manage a long-term counter-narcotics effort.
The embassy said the fight against poppy cultivation had an impact on growers, resulting in a change in where the crop is planted.
"Essentially, poppy cultivation has shifted from areas where government presence is broadly supported and security has improved, toward more remote and isolated areas where governance is weak and security is inadequate," it said.
Michael Lumpkin, the assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict, said in a response letter that the Pentagon had supported counter-narcotics operations by other U.S. government agencies but was not responsible for managing poppy eradication programs.
"In our opinion, the failure to reduce poppy cultivation and increase eradication is due to the lack of Afghan government support for the effort," Lumpkin said.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)