The illegal drug trade in Afghanistan has been a longstanding cause of misery. During their first time in power in the 1990s, the Taliban banned poppy cultivation and, with a ferocious campaign of destroying croplands, nearly eradicated opium production. The removal of the group from power by the U.S.-led military invasion of the country after the September 2001 attacks on the United States, led to a resurgence of opium poppy cultivation despite billions of dollars of investment made by Washington to help Afghan authorities combat narcotics production. In the next two decades, the Taliban insurgency reportedly made millions of dollars taxing farmers and intermediaries who wished to move their drugs outside Afghanistan. Senior officials of the U.S.-backed government also made millions on the drug trade.
In recent years, Afghanistan’s opium production has skyrocketed despite failed eradication efforts. In 2021, 177,000 hectares (438,000 acres) were planted with poppies, providing enough opium to produce up to 650 tons of heroin. That was an increase from up to 590 tons of heroin in 2020. The total value of Afghanistan’s opiates production in 2021 was $1.8-$2.7 billion, up to 14% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, surpassing the value of its legal exports. Today, Afghanistan is the world’s biggest opium producer. Nearly 80% of the heroin produced from Afghan opium reaches Europe through Central Asia and Pakistan.
The Taliban, who took control of Afghanistan some nine months ago, issued a decree in early April banning poppy cultivation throughout the country. This decree also banned the production, usage, transportation, trade, export and import of all drugs. “If anyone violates the decree, the crop will be destroyed immediately and the violator will be treated according to the Sharia law,” said the order announced by the Taliban Interior Minister for counter narcotics Mullah Abdul Haq Akhund, at a news conference in Kabul.
The opium ban comes at a time when Afghanistan is facing a collapsed economy, deprived from Western aid, under sanctions and with the freezing of Afghan government funds overseas. This has led to catastrophic levels of hunger and poverty. The United Nations estimates that 23 million Afghans are suffering acute food deprivation. Under these circumstances, many farmers have nothing to turn to but illegal crops, primarily opium. The ban, if enforced, will likely strike a substantial setback to millions of impoverished farmers and day labourers who rely on proceeds from the poppy crops to survive.
Agriculture is the dominant economic sector in Afghanistan and employs nearly half of the population in parts of Afghanistan. In some parts of the country, the drug trade is deeply rooted in the local economy. Opium production constitutes a vital economic activity, providing employment, liquidity, and rural income to farmers and traders whose financial well-being is otherwise highly precarious. Day labourers can earn upwards of $300 a month harvesting opium from the poppies. Villagers often rely on the promise of the upcoming poppy harvest to borrow money for goods such as flour, sugar or cooking oil.
With the ban, two questions arise. First, will the Taliban actually manage to pursue this ban? Cutting one of their major income sources, perhaps in search of gaining some international legitimization, is complicated due to the government’s current economic situation. Not to mention the negative affect that this ban will have on the farmers. In April, Mullah Abdul Haq Akhund said that the Taliban were in touch with other governments and non-governmental organizations to work out alternative crops for farmers. However, in order to achieve this, the Taliban government needs some type of funding to eradicate poppy cultivation and support the farmers who rely on the opium poppy. Perhaps funding from the international community in the form of subsidies, can be offered to farmers who grow alternative crops such as pistachios, citrus fruit, figs, dates or almonds.
The second question relates to the crop growth cycles. The southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are the core stronghold of the Taliban movement and centres for poppy production. Nevertheless, cultivation has gradually increased in the North, in areas where the Taliban’s opponents maintain some degree of influence. The crop growth cycle in the South begins around March and April, but the further north it goes, the later it begins. By the time the Taliban government starts enforcing the ban, it may have only the northern harvest to affect, which can translate to a power move to enforce a tighter control on the Taliban’s opponents in the north.
The Taliban government is in a challenging position. In order to proceed with the ban, they need to find a way to support the farmers who depend on the poppy cultivation. If they can find a solution then it is likely that they will enforce the ban, similarly to the way they did it in the 1990’s. Regardless, supporting the farmers is an endeavour that requires financial stability and conditions that the Taliban government do not have now. It is important that the international community cooperate in order to assist the eradication of a drug that has a major impact not only in Afghanistan, but also throughout the world.