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LONDON (Reuters) - The United States and its allies face a very serious situation battling drug production in Afghanistan, a senior U.S. official said on Wednesday, two days after a U.N. report revealed rampant opium poppy growth.
The area of Afghanistan used to grow poppies -- the source of heroin -- rose by 17 percent in 2007, the U.N. said, despite widespread efforts by the United States, Britain, the Netherlands and Afghan authorities to clamp down on cultivation.
More than half the opium is grown in Helmand province, in southern Afghanistan, where British troops are in charge.
"There's no question about it, in the south the challenge is huge," Richard Douglas, the deputy assistant secretary of defence for counter-narcotics, told Reuters during a stopover in London on his way back from a visit to Afghanistan.
"It's a very serious situation, but by no means hopeless," he said. "We've got a long way to go, but there's also some very encouraging signs."
As a positive, he pointed to the fact that 13 of Afghanistan's 34 provinces are now considered "opium free", up from just six last year. Yet despite that, overall production still grew as more land was set aside for poppy growing.
Afghanistan now produces 93 percent of the world's opium, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said in its report, released on Monday, up from 92 percent in 2006.
More land is dedicated to drug production than in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia combined and no country has produced so much drugs on a deadly scale since China in the 19th century.
The United States and its allies have tried various methods to cut production since taking over the country in 2001, from poppy eradication to inducements for farmers to plant other crops, but the financial incentive to grow poppies is too great.
The Taliban, the staunch Islamist group that ran Afghanistan until 2001, once opposed poppy production, but now encourages it in areas where it remains strong, and uses the proceeds to buy arms and fund its insurgency, U.S. and other officials say.
At the same time, high-level corruption within the Afghan government means there is an unwillingness in some parts to enforce a full crackdown on opium growing countrywide as drug lords become ever more wealthy and powerful.
That combination of factors has created a vicious circle that weakens the government's hold on an already unstable land.
The drug trade is now estimated to be worth more than $3 billion a year, or half Afghanistan's gross domestic product.
"I think it's probably safe to say that the Taliban has discovered that drug money is easy money," Douglas said.
"What we come back to is the question of security. We have to continue to work with Afghan security forces to make sure that farmers" can get access to healthcare, education and other incentives being offered by the international community.
Douglas dismissed suggestions the Taliban was growing stronger, and said he couldn't say how long it would be before Afghanistan was drug free.
"It's hard to put a timeline on it. Your own government has talked about 10 to 15 or 20 years. I think it's going to take a while.
"What we need is to find that tipping point, that point of stability where the government is able to treat the problem as a law enforcement problem rather than as a national security or stability problem. We're not there yet."