Afghanistan’s opioid trade, the largest in the world, has been thriving under the new Taliban regime. Driven by a desire for economic and political stability, the Taliban’s actions around the opioid trade have serious implications for Afghanistan’s citizens who were plunged into poverty following the group’s takeover in 2021.
The Taliban’s Ban on Drugs
Once processed, opium poppies from Afghanistan sell as opium, morphine and a range of grades of heroin in every region of the world, with the exception of Latin America. The production and sale of drugs constitute a significant portion of the country’s GDP each year.
When the Taliban assumed power in Afghanistan in August 2021, it vowed to end the production and trade of drugs in the country. The group, however, faced a production system on an upward trend. In 2020, Afghanistan saw a 37% increase in the area of land used to grow opium poppies compared to the year before. In that same year, Afghanistan produced 85% of the opium consumed across the world.
The History of the Opioid Trade in Afghanistan
Afghanistan has been producing opium poppies in large numbers since the mid-1950s. Fraught with political and economic inconsistency for decades, the history of efforts to reduce the opioid trade in Afghanistan is complex. In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The war that followed created economic devastation that left many in Afghanistan with no reliable source of income aside from trading narcotics. The Taliban, established in 1994, made significant steps towards banning the trade, halving the land used for growing poppies in the regions of Afghanistan it controlled at the time.
When the Taliban gained power in Afghanistan in 1996, however, it had already relaxed its approach to the drug trade. Instead of clamping down on production, the Taliban began to tax opioid farms and labs and even sought to expand the trade by providing farmers with official government licenses to grow opium poppies. The group declared an outright ban on poppy cultivation in 1999, but by September 2001, it had reversed this decision, and the practice was thriving again.
Under the Afghan government from 2002 to 2021, following U.S. intervention in 2001, drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan soared. International aid funded the majority of counter-narcotic efforts over these two decades. The United States spent more than $8 billion over a 15-year period in attempts to reduce the trade of opioids in Afghanistan.
The Opioid Trade in the New Taliban Regime
In April 2022, the Taliban issued a decree prohibiting all poppy cultivation and narcotics trade, representing a new wave of counter-narcotic efforts in Afghanistan. However, the timing alone of this decree caused many to question the motives of the Taliban, as it came shortly after the largest annual harvest of opium poppies. High-ranking Taliban officials claim that drug production and trafficking are over, but the evidence suggests that the trade is still thriving and may have increased since the regime change.
The gap between the Taliban’s stated intention to rid Afghanistan of drugs and its lack of action is likely due to the fact that it is not currently in its interests, economically or tactically, to crack down on the opioid trade in Afghanistan. Since its formation in 1994, estimates suggest that the opioid trade has accounted for more than half of the Taliban’s revenues, according to Colin Mathers. The Taliban have for many years collected a tax on all opium poppies grown in Afghanistan, all laboratory-based processing of opioids and all trading of these drugs. From 2018 to 2019 alone, the Taliban received more than $400 million from narcotics.
The Economic Impact
To survive as a regime, the Taliban need enough income to be able to keep factions, soldiers and civilians on its side. In the Taliban’s first year in power, Afghanistan’s GDP dropped from $20.15 billion to $14.79 billion due to economic sanctions and the removal of foreign aid. This marked the country’s lowest GDP since the 2008 global financial crisis.
With the country deprived of billions of dollars from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and bilateral aid, reports suggest that the income from opium poppies is more critical than ever to both the security of the Taliban and the stability of the country, according to Brookings. In 2022, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated that since the regime change, the number of Afghans living in poverty had doubled to nearly 34 million, representing 85% of the country’s population. The removal of the opioid trade would further cripple the Afghan economy and hundreds of thousands of citizens would fall into extreme poverty, creating a serious risk of domestic unrest.
The Future of the Opioid Trade in Afghanistan
For these reasons, the reward remains higher than the risk for those involved in the opioid trade in Afghanistan, which encourages its continuation and expansion, according to UNODC. Forecasts suggest that there is no end in sight for global sanctions and the Afghan economy seems unlikely to grow significantly in the short term. Therefore, the tactical and financial incentives remain for the Taliban to support this industry and Afghans have few viable alternatives to growing opium poppies, according to VOA News.
Nonprofit organizations like Afghanaid have been working closely with those crippled financially by the Taliban takeover. Since August 2021, Afghanaid has provided around 1.8 million men, women and children with emergency aid. The NGO runs schemes across impoverished areas of Afghanistan that could be vital in creating reliable alternative sources of income for those who may otherwise rely on opium poppy cultivation.
For example, Afghanaid supports farmers and village communities in the Badakhshan Province to replant and irrigate their forests. This scheme has led to the employment of members of more than 130 households across the region. And as a result, some families have been able to send their children to school. Schemes such as this support the development of reliable alternative sources of income for impoverished families in Afghanistan. The goal is to minimize or end the country’s reliance on the opioid trade.
The opioid trade in Afghanistan is thriving in the current financial crisis, as the trade provides stability for both impoverished citizens and the new Taliban regime. One of the ways to end the opioid trade involves providing viable alternative sources of income for those that rely on the consistency of producing and selling opioid products. In this way, NGOs like Afghanaid could be central in reducing the growth of a trade that has negative impacts worldwide.
– Polly Walton