The Associated PressKABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai said Thursday that Afghanistan must offer alternative livelihoods to poppy farmers if the country is to eradicate soaring opium production, and he called on the international community to help in the effort.
U.N. officials estimate the country's opium harvest could top 2,500 tons this year, putting Afghanistan among the world's top producers and exporters of opium.
The estimated harvest is a massive increase from 2001, when Afghanistan produced 185 tons of opium under the former Taliban regime, according to the U.N. International Drug Control Program. In 2000, the year before the Taliban banned poppy production, output totaled 3,276 tons.
"Victory in this war is not only vital for the people of Afghanistan but also for the whole international community," Karzai said in a statement read on his behalf at the start of a narcotics control conference in Kabul.
Karzai asked the international community to help eradicate the opium trade, which he said threatens the stability of his government.
Many farmers rely heavily on opium sales to feed their families. Karzai said providing alternatives to poppy cultivation was vital to the eradication effort.
"They need to see the physical evidence out there in the fields and farmlands, that we are able to provide other means for them to improve their lives," Karzai said.
The government banned opium production nationwide in April, offering farmers $500 per acre of poppy. But the ban has done little to dissuade farmers, who can earn as much as $6,400 an acre for the crop, according to the United Nations.
Poppy production increased drastically when Afghan farmers began to plant the crop again after the Taliban were ousted last year by U.S. and opposition forces.
"I am told that the poppy offers a return on investment that is 38 times that of wheat. If farmers are to accept assistance to pursue alternative livelihoods, they must also be convinced that the assistance will be there, reliably," said Lakhdar Brahimi, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan.
Government officials told U.N. officials, diplomats and international donor representatives attending Thursday's conference on drugs about efforts to improve law enforcement, offer alternative livelihoods to farmers and strengthen the judicial system.
On Wednesday, authorities in Kabul burned 5,500 pounds of hashish and raw opium in a bonfire -- a public warning intended to show the government was serious on cracking down on drug trafficking.