Afghanistan produces most of the world’s opium and heroin but the Taliban claim drugs will no longer be produced under their rule.
Drugs production, mainly opium and its synthetic derivative heroin, is a large driver of Afghanistan‘s economy and the Taliban has used it as a way to gather revenue to purchase weapons and hold influence in order to take over the country.
As the group relies heavily on ruling the production, cultivation and trafficking of opium, the idea they will stop appears far-fetched to many.
How widespread and lucrative is opium production in Afghanistan?
The country produces between 80 and 90% of the global supply of illicit opium and is also a source of hashish, synthetic drugs such as methamphetamines, and ephedra, a wild herb with speed-like effects used in crystal meth.
In the UK, 95% of heroin comes from Afghanistan and heroin from the country is trafficked to every region of the world except Latin America, which has its own supply.
Europe is the main destination for Afghan heroin, smuggled through Turkey and the Balkans.
Vast swathes of agricultural land have been turned over to poppy cultivation as it is a high return cash crop, with about 224,000 hectares (55,3516 acres) in 2020, an increase of 37% from 2019, according to the Afghanistan Opium Survey carried out by the coalition forces and the UN.
Most provinces in Afghanistan are affected by poppy cultivation – 22 out of 34.
It is estimated that each hectare produces 28kg of opium, meaning a total of 6,300 tonnes of opium was cultivated last year.
Prices of opium at the farm-gate dwindled by 13% from 2019 to 2020 to £40/kg, with the total value of opium production last year estimated at £256m.
This is the lowest since monitoring began in 2009, with 2011 and 2017 reaching the highest prices of about £1.1bn.
At least a fifth of Afghanistan’s GDP is reckoned to come from the opium trade.
What drives opium production in Afghanistan?
Power, politics and money.
With Afghanistan being the sixth poorest country in the world, much of it is to do with earning money.
Agriculture makes up around half of economic activity in Afghanistan, while it also accounts for at least half of all employment in a country where two in five people are jobless.
Compared with other crops, poppies demand more manpower to produce it so more people can be employed.
Afghanistan’s transformation into a “narco-state” stems back to the 1980s with the CIA’s secret war against the Soviet occupation of the country.
In 1986, the US state department reported that opium “is an ideal crop in a war-torn country since it requires little capital investment, is fast growing and is easily transported and traded”.
But the CIA looked the other way as opium production grew, with Charles Cogan, a former CIA Afghan operation director, later saying: “We didn’t really have the resources or the time to devote to an investigation of the drug trade.”
A scarcity of other sources of revenue as the economy collapsed in 2001, when the Afghan War started, forced many of the country’s farmers to resort to growing opium for export.
Despite coalition efforts to halt the industry, corrupt government officials regularly took bribes for turning a blind eye to the drug trade.
Many suspected drug traffickers also became top officials in former President Hamid Karzai’s government when it was formed in 2001.
The US wanted to impose a crop eradication programme in 2004 but the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and his local ally Ashraf Ghani (who later became president) warned that would mean “widespread impoverishment” as so much of the population relied on opium production.
Since then, the Taliban has become heavily involved in every aspect of opium production, from growing and cultivating to trafficking.
Rabina Khan, an adviser to the House of Lords, told Sky News: “Lots of farmers want to do other things but the easiest way is to farm opium and produce heroin.
“It gives people income in rural parts where people are very poor – people need food for their children so what are they going to do?”
How is the Taliban involved in the opium trade?
The group is involved in every part of the operation, from growing to cultivating to trafficking opium – and heroin – around the world, as well as “taxing” cultivators and drug labs and charging smugglers fees for shipments.
A US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan report quoted a US official estimating the Taliban derives up to 60% of its annual revenue from illicit narcotics.
In a bid to be seen as a legitimate group that could govern Afghanistan, the Taliban banned poppy growing in 2000.
But, in a show of how reliant the economy was on opium, that brought society to the brink of collapse – which in turn, made it easier for western military forces to “persuade rural elites and the population to rebel against the regime”, the UN said.
To capture Kabul and other major cities, the CIA funded warlords who also controlled the opium trade and when the Taliban collapsed they resumed their drug trading in a big way.
Taliban fighters were back in the opium trade by 2004 as they “started to extract from the drug economy resources for arms, logistics and militia pay”, the UN’s 2007 Afghanistan Opium Survey found.
They collected “taxes” from opium traffic and made more money with every harvest to recruit young fighters from villages, as they could earn far more than as agricultural labourers.
The US attempted to suppress the drug trade, which was being reflected by an increasing number of Americans addicted to heroin, by sending more troops to Helmand province – the heart of the global heroin trade – in 2010 to target Taliban fighters.
But local opium farmers were not happy and continued to grow poppies, which in turn funded new Taliban fighters.
By 2015, the Taliban had control over more than half Afghanistan’s rural areas and the following year it was confirmed that Afghan government officials were battling with the Taliban for control of opium profits.
US troops and allies carried out interdiction raids and educated farmers to grow alternative crops, as well as carrying out air raids on suspected heroin labs but they “didn’t really have much success”, retired US Army General Joseph Votel, who headed US Central Command from 2016 to 2019, said.
Growing opium is punishable by death in Afghanistan, but the police and government in most provinces let it carry on.
The US has spent more than $8.6bn (£6.3bn) trying to halt Afghanistan’s drug trade
“The Taliban, together with the South American narcos, are the most powerful drug traffickers in the world,” said drug cartel expert and Gomorrah author Roberto Saviano.
What will happen to the opium trade now the Taliban is back in power?
“The US and international partners have continued to pull out and not addressed poppy cultivation,” said a US official with knowledge of Afghanistan’s drug trade.
“What you’re going to find is that it has exploded.”
The Taliban said earlier this week there will be “no drug production, no drug smuggling” but said they “need international help for that”.
With most countries not willing to acknowledge the Taliban as legitimate rulers, that help may never come.
Rabina Khan, who helped set up Afghanistan’s Saffron Story to urge Afghans to grow the pricey spice saffron instead of poppies, said: “The Taliban has control of the borders so that will make it easy to get opium and heroin out of the country.
“They’ll have roadside taxes and if they stop opium production they’ll see a backlash from poor farmers and neighbours.
“I don’t think they’ll stop poppy production because it’s income to them and supports the people they’re ruling.”
Afghanistan also has a serious drug problem, because of the opium trade, with the UN estimating that 2 to 2.5m people use drugs in the country, with many taking heroin multiple times a day.
There is also a significant number of Afghan children using drugs, especially in provinces where child labour is used to harvest the poppies.
How will the Taliban fund its government?
With the Taliban relying heavily on the drugs trade, and those that fuel it, it is not known how they expect to fund themselves if they halt opium production.
In 2019, World Bank figures showed development aid was equivalent to 22% of gross national income but now, those aid flows are uncertain.
Germany has said it will “not give another cent if the Taliban takes over the country and introduces Sharia law” – which it now has.
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Afghanistan has significant natural resources, including copper, cobalt, coal, iron ore, oil, gas, precious stones and lithium – something that is in high demand for electric car and mobile phone batteries.
However, they have yet to embrace that legitimately – with illegal mining also fuelling the Taliban and not the Afghan people.
China reportedly has its eyes set on Afghanistan’s natural resources, but after winning copper and oil contracts little has happened due to security risks and endemic corruption.
Women’s employment has also soared in the past 20 years, with 22% adult female employment in 2019 (low by global standards but rising from zero in 2001).
Despite the Taliban saying they will let women work, most do not believe that and there have already been reports of women being told to leave their offices, schools and universities – which will further damage economic prospects.
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