Afghanistan's booming narcotics trade risks splintering the country into a "fragmented criminal state" if the government and its Western allies do not step up efforts to tackle opium production, a senior UN official has warned.
Opium farming in Afghanistan, the world's main producer of the drug, hit a record high this year, with farmers harvesting a crop worth nearly US$1 billion to them and far more to the traffickers who take about four-fifths of the profit.
Jean-Luc Lemahieu, outgoing head of the UN office on drugs and crime in Afghanistan, believes opium production is likely to soar beyond this year's record levels before it falls - and that the transformation of the country's corrupt economy will take up to two decades.
"If we are not careful then Afghanistan has a real risk of becoming a fragmented criminal state," Lemahieu said after five years grappling with corruption and neglect of the narcotics problem in Afghanistan.
"One thing we have learned from the last decade is that the miracle solutions just do not work. They simply do not exist. This will be hard work, long work, that demands a lot of persistence and courage. The remedy is known, the medicine is on the table - all we have to do is take it."
Lemahieu said there was cause for hope in the transformation of the narcotics police into a disciplined force.
Change must involve slow work with communities that grow opium, offering them improvements in quality of life to compensate for the drop-off in income that is an inevitable result of ending drug production, he said.