AFGHANISTAN PRODUCES 90% of the world’s illegal opium, the tacky gum harvested from poppies that can be turned into heroin. In recent years Afghanistan’s opium business has grown larger than ever before. In 2020 poppies covered more than three times as much land as they did in 1997. Processing resin into heroin used to be done outside the country; now it is done domestically. Today the opium trade is worth between 6% and 11% of Afghanistan’s GDP, according to the UN. What does Taliban control mean for the country’s opium economy?
Opium poppies have been cultivated in Afghanistan for centuries, but growing them became especially popular after the Soviet Union invaded in 1979. The devastation of war led many people to cultivate the crop, which is hardier and more profitable than wheat. The mujahideen rebels who formed the Taliban used the money they made from it to buy weapons.
When the Taliban came to power in the 1990s, however, they declared that intoxicants were “a great crime to Islam”. Their early efforts to limit opium production, from around 1996, had little effect, and so the group’s government instead decided to tax the trade. They justified this hypocrisy by claiming that although consuming drugs was haram (forbidden by Islam), growing poppies to make them was not.
That changed in 2000 when the Taliban once again tried to ban poppy planting. This time it worked, and opium production fell by 90% over the course of a year. It was the most effective opium ban in history, says Vanda Felbab-Brown of the Brookings Institution, an American think-tank. The Taliban destroyed poppy crops, hoping they would be rewarded with foreign aid and recognition. Low prices for opium and high ones for wheat at the time probably helped too. But a shift in commodity prices meant that, within a year, struggling farmers started to defy the ban.
Opium production rebounded after America entered Afghanistan in 2001. Strapped for cash, the toppled Taliban extracted levies from poppy farmers and traders in the areas they still controlled and charged money for protection. When America and its allies launched a crackdown, the Taliban presented themselves as the defenders of poppy-growers and accused Western forces of pushing Afghan farmers towards starvation. The data are murky as to how much money the Taliban have made from the opium trade but a report published by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a think-tank based in the country, claims the Taliban made $39.9m in unofficial levies on the drug in 2018.
Now the group are back in power they say they will stamp out the trade again. But without it they face a big financial hole. In addition, America has frozen nearly $9bn of Afghanistan’s assets. And much of the country’s aid money may disappear. (Grants from foreign countries funded 75% of Afghanistan’s public spending in 2019.) The Taliban admit that they will need help from abroad if they are to enforce an opium ban. Russia and China, among the few countries keeping their embassies open in Kabul, may help. But aid from those countries will not offset the losses from Western ones, says Ms Felbab-Brown. Even if the Taliban mean to stop opium production, doing so will be a sticky business.