Afghanistan's opium trade: Will the Taliban's poppy ban work?

6 min read
09 June, 2022

After using the opium trade to fund decades of war, in April the Taliban announced a ban across the country on the cultivation of poppies.

“We are committed to bringing poppy cultivation to zero,” Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Takor told the Associated Press last week.

Those violating the ban will reportedly be arrested and tried according to Sharia law and Taliban forces have already begun destroying poppy fields.

Cultivation of the plant has a long history in Afghanistan; Alexander the Great is said to have introduced opium to the country in 330 BC and it was cultivated over the last century, booming in the 1980s.

In recent decades, several regimes have tried to ban the cultivation and export of opium but dramatically failed.

"Over the past twenty years, the Taliban has earned tens to hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the Afghan poppy economy"

Opium production still constitutes a crucial economic activity in the country, providing employment, liquidity, and rural income to farmers and traders whose financial well-being is otherwise highly precarious.

Afghanistan's opium production has skyrocketed despite years of eradication efforts, with agriculture the dominant economic sector and employing nearly half of the population.

With Afghanistan an arid and semi-arid country where agriculture is highly dependent on irrigation, the opium poppy thrives. It is very drought resistant and requires just one-fifth or one-sixth of the water needed by traditional crops such as wheat.

It also takes just four months to mature, without excessive care or water. In a country whose irrigation systems are dilapidated or destroyed by decades of conflict, and there exists prolonged drought due to climate change, there is a huge incentive for farmers to grow poppies.

Veering between ignoring the opium crop and demanding its total eradication, various US administrations in Washington dithered for two decades while the heroin trade boomed.

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In turn, it helped create a drug economy that corrupted and crippled the government of the Republic of Afghanistan and secured ample funding for the Taliban.

Between 2002 and 2017, Washington spent an estimated $8.6 billion to put a stop to Afghanistan's drug trade in order to deny the extremist group funding, according to a 2018 SIGAR report.

Apart from poppy eradication, the United States and allies backed interdiction raids and alternative crop programs, airstrikes on suspected heroin labs, and other measures.

Despite these attempts, Afghanistan set a 2017 record for producing 9,900 tons of the crop – estimated at $1.4 billion or 7% of the country’s GDP, according to the UNODC.

Those efforts "didn't really have much success," retired US Army General Joseph Votel, told Reuters last year.

The UNODC contended that the Taliban was involved in all facets of the trade, from poppy harvesting, opium extraction, trafficking, and taxing cultivators, to drug labs and charging smugglers fees for shipments bound for Europe, Africa, the UK, Canada, Russia, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia.

In this sense, with the Taliban seeking international legitimacy following its takeover of the country in the summer of 2021, the recent announcement to ban the cultivation of poppies will likely repeat the same script as the 1990s.

Afghan farmers harvest opium - AFP
In April the Taliban announced a ban across the country on the cultivation of poppies. [Getty]

In the past, the former Taliban regime could sustain a temporary poppy ban but has struggled to maintain it for an extended period.

By the summer of 2001, following a ban the previous year, some farmers started planting poppies again and the price of opium skyrocketed due to uncertainty in the market.

In 2001, its price multiplied from $87 per kilogram in 2000 to $385 in 2002, creating huge profits.

Indeed, poppy cultivation and trafficking have been a key source of income for the Taliban. Over the past twenty years, the Taliban has earned tens to hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the Afghan poppy economy.

In 2020, the extremist group earned $416 million from drugs, compared, for example, to $240 million from foreign countries and individuals or $160 million from taxes.

Most significantly, drug money allowed the Taliban to pay and arm its troops, compensate the families of suicide bombers, and import new and advanced weapons.

The Taliban has in the past used armed violence to secure poppy harvesting while also allowing its fighters to disengage from fighting to collect the harvest.

"Veering between ignoring the opium crop and demanding its total eradication, various US administrations in Washington dithered for two decades while the heroin trade boomed"

Through the latest ban, the Taliban might also seek to boost the price of opium and consolidate its control over the illicit opium trade.

"After restrictions, the prices of opium dramatically increased from $100 per kilogram before April to $245 per kilogram. Everyone is storing their opium to sell for higher prices," Shah Zaman, 33, from Bahram Chah district of Helmand province, told The New Arab.

So rather than seeking to disrupt the trade, the long-term objective could be moving towards the centralisation of the narcotics industry in the hands of the Taliban government, ultimately maximising revenues for a regime under severe economic pressure.

But this might also prove more difficult than it seems due to the Taliban’s relationships with the drug mafia and traffickers.

After the 2020 Doha deal with the Trump administration, for example, the Taliban pushed the US to release Haji Bashir Noorzai, the godfather of drug trafficking and a significant financier of the Taliban.

At an individual level, meanwhile, banning the cultivation of opium will affect the country’s poorest farmers.

During the pandemic, and as Afghanistan's economy collapsed due to widespread drought, catastrophic humanitarian crises, and food insecurity, many farmers turned toward illicit crops, primarily opium, to bring quicker and higher returns.

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The current ban could well escalate the humanitarian crisis in the country by leaving thousands of small farmers and sharecroppers without an income.

Under such conditions there could be a significant backlash against the Taliban, increasing the risk of people joining groups such as Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K).

Drugs have also always been a primary source of income for insurgency and terrorist groups. Afghanistan’s ongoing anarchism and lack of governance are boosting hardline extremist groups, including IS-K and al Qaeda, who could finance themselves through drug cultivation and trafficking.

When announcing the ban in April, the Taliban asked the international community for cooperation, largely in seeking alternative businesses for farmers and helping to treat drug addicts.

In the past, however, there has never been a consensus on how to eradicate opium, ban shipments, or apprehend drug traffickers, with international policy dramatically failing.

With the trade woven into Afghanistan’s conflict and the impact of prohibiting opium cultivation possibly forcing a future reversal from the Taliban, the long-term effects of the ban remain highly unpredictable.  

Mujtaba Haris is an Afghan researcher, journalist, and youth advocate. He spent 15 years working in major cities — Kabul, Herat, and Mazar-e Sharif — and rural areas — Logar province. He is an MBA graduate from Cumbria University, UK. He is a Global Peace award winner. 

Follow him on Twitter: @mujtaba_haris