Cash-strapped Taliban cannot afford to turn their back on opium trade
In Afghanistan’s southern Uruzgan province, Habibullah sat and listened to a recording of drug dealers rattling off opium prices, one after another, reminiscent of traders on the stock market.
He is just one of many Afghans who have escaped poverty through the prolific Afghan opium trade, which has grown since British and American forces fled the country and the Taliban swept to power in August 2021.
Research published by the UN in November looking at the 2021/22 opium harvest outlined a 32 per cent increase in opium cultivation across the country since western forces fled Kabul. With the subsequent economic collapse, and more than 90 per cent of Afghans facing some form of food insecurity since the takeover, involvement in the drug trade has become increasingly tempting.
“The number of people in this district of Uruzgan involved in drug dealing has doubled since the Taliban took control,” said Habibullah*, a district-level drug dealer in one of the country’s most conservative provinces who has been dealing for three and a half years, alongside family members.
“Many of the people are former government and NGO workers who lost their jobs after the government collapsed,” he claimed.
During their last stint in power in the late 1990s the Taliban cracked down on the un-Islamic drugs trade, managing to reduce it by 90 per cent across the country. When they were ousted in 2001 by US forces, cultivation resumed despite efforts by the newly installed Islamic Republic government to curtail production. Now Afghanistan is the world’s largest producer of opium, supplying about 80 per cent of the global opiate demand.
Since returning to power, the Taliban are looking to prove they can tackle the issue again, announcing in April that they were cracking down on the cultivation, trafficking and use of narcotics. This is partly driven by pressure from neighbouring countries and others in the region to tackle the issue of drug production and trafficking. In an interview with The Times, Abdul Haq Akhund, deputy interior minister for counter-narcotics, pointed out that many Afghans were suffering from drug addiction.
However, shortly after the ban was announced the Taliban clarified that there would be a two-month grace period, after which time “the ban would be rigorously applied”.
The US spent about $8.6 billion between 2002 and 2017 in its fight to stifle the trade. Poppy crops were eradicated, heroin labs were the target of raids and airstrikes, and alternative crop programmes were implemented.
None of it worked; alternative crop programmes were not sustainable, while those affected grew increasingly resentful of the Kabul government and its international backers and increasingly sympathetic towards the Taliban.
Habibullah believes the Taliban are mindful of the country’s economic woes and are concerned about a backlash, so for now, a mixture of newly cultivated opium and that of previous harvests is still coming to the market.
Poppy farmers and opium dealers in Uruzgan say the local authorities have destroyed poppy fields but are seemingly turning a blind eye to the trading of opium. Bags of the tar-like substance can be seen openly traded in a market just metres away from a police checkpoint in Uruzgan’s district centre Tarin Kot.
Although attempts to ban the trade over the past two decades resulted in hardship for many, there were more alternative job opportunities: big developmental projects, Afghan migrant workers were more welcome in neighbouring countries, and the army was always seeking recruits. Today the situation is very different.
Prices have soared after the April announcement; a kilogram of opium would fetch about £50 before the Taliban takeover in August 2021. Now the same amount can be sold for between £300 and £525, depending on the region.
Farmers who have long grown poppies say no alternative is being offered to them by the Taliban. Despite witnessing the destruction of neighbours’ poppy fields, Ahmadullah* still planted poppy seeds this season, albeit across a significantly smaller area compared with previous years. Instead of splitting the family’s 4.5 acres of land between wheat for their animals and poppies, his newly planted opium crop is now across 50 sq m, hidden within a walled area of land.
“We have no choice but to keep growing poppies, especially while the prices are so high. There’s no other way to make money to feed my family,” said the farmer in his twenties, whose family has cultivated and produced opium for four decades.