By Fredrik Dahl
VIENNA (Reuters) - Opium cultivation in Afghanistan is expected to increase for the third year in a row and is at a higher level than during Taliban rule despite efforts by the government and international forces to combat the trade, a U.N. report said on Monday.
High prices for opium, from which heroin is made, is encouraging farmers to grow poppies, it said.
"Poppy cultivation is not only expected to expand in areas where it already existed in 2012...but also in new areas or in areas where poppy cultivation was stopped," the report, called the Afghanistan Opium Risk Assessment 2013, said.
Increased production is likely to line the pockets of traffickers and insurgents alike. Afghanistan supplies about 90 percent of the world's opium and the proceeds help to fuel the war against the U.S.-led forces who ousted the Taliban in 2001.
"The prices are still quite high. That is a very clear economic incentive," Martin Raithelhuber of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told Reuters.
"We can't deny the fact that the level of cultivation now is much higher than it has ever been under the Taliban."
Experts say uncertainty over the future after most foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014 could boost opium growth as a means of earning money.
Last year, the area used to grow poppies was 154,000 hectares, Raithelhuber said. While the area is expanding, it was unclear if it would reach the record of 193,000 hectares in 2007.
The UNODC report, prepared together with Afghanistan's Ministry of Counter Narcotics, said there was a link between insecurity, lack of agricultural aid, and opium farming.
Villages with poor security and those which had not received agricultural help were much more likely to grow poppies in 2013 than others, it said.
WORRYING OPIUM TREND
Twelve provinces were forecast to show a rise in opium cultivation this year, according to the report.
They included the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand - strongholds of the Taliban-led insurgency. This would follow a low yield last year caused by poppy disease and bad weather.
Although lower than in 2010 and 2011, opium prices are still much higher than in 2005-09 "making opium cultivation financially very attractive for farmers," the report said.
Three provinces - Balkh, Faryab and Takhar - may lose their poppy-free status unless effective eradication took place. Cultivation was forecast to decline in one province, Herat, and no major changes were foreseen in seven, including Kabul.
With foreign combat forces leaving in less than two years, and with much of their cash and air power expected to go with them, the Afghan government will need more help fighting poppy cultivation, experts say.
The UNODC in 2011 estimated the opium trade may have earned the Taliban $700 million, up from $200 million a year in the previous decade, with traffickers earning billions more.
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)