Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan on Monday agreed to bolster regional cooperation to combat drug smuggling at a time when the cultivation of illicit opium poppy is increasing.
Afghanistan provides about 90 percent of the world's opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin, and the U.N. and Afghan government have long tried to wean the country off the lucrative crop. Money from the sale of opium is also used to fuel the insurgency, helping to buy weapons and equipment for the Taliban.
The largest areas of opium poppy cultivation are in the violent south of the country, where it can be hard to make money on legal crops and where criminal networks exist to buy and sell the poppy crop.
"Despite a decade of initiatives by the Afghans and international community, opium production is increasing," said Yuri Fedotov, executive director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. "This situation can't continue."
Most of the opium from Afghanistan is shipped through Iran and Pakistan, and the three countries have for the past four years been involved in a U.N.-sponsored initiative to set up joint planning cells in each country to coordinate their efforts. They pledged to bolster joint operations targeting smugglers and the networks they use to get the drug to the international marketplace.
"Iran is a transit route and the production of drugs in Afghanistan is on the increase," said Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najar, who heads the country's counter-narcotics department. "The reason is high demand."
Ministers in charge of counter-narcotics for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran met in Kabul on Monday at a U.N. organized gathering.
The U.N. has said that insecurity and rising opium prices have driven Afghan farmers to increase cultivation of the illicit opium poppy by 7 percent in 2011, despite a major push by the Afghan government and international allies. Production in Afghanistan had dropped significantly in 2010 because of a plant disease that killed off much of the crop.
Revenue from the drug has helped fund insurgents, and the number of people invested in the underground opium economy has made it difficult for the Afghan government to establish its presence in opium-heavy regions.
Other countries in the region have also expressed worries about increasing production. The Russian government recently said about 2 million of its citizens are addicted to opium and heroin _ most of which comes from Afghanistan. It has repeatedly called on NATO forces to do more to stop Afghan production.
A report last month showed that opium cultivation is spreading to new parts Afghanistan, a troubling trend as international troops are trying to stabilize the country so that they can hand over security responsibilities to the government by the end of 2014.
Much of this is attributed to soaring prices. Dry opium costs about 43 percent more than it did a year ago.