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Taliban’s Opium Dilemma

An opportunity or a curse?

By Alessia Cappelletti

Taliban leaders pledged not to turn Afghanistan into a narco-state, but whether the fight on opiates and illegal poppy farming is just another piece of the group’s rhetoric remains to be seen. With a long history of involvement in the narcotics business, the current economic struggles of the country, and the dependence of thousands of livelihoods on poppy and other illicit crops, eradicating the production of such a profitable endeavor will not be met without challenges. On the other hand, not showing efforts to address the issue will lessen the probability of the Taliban getting international recognition.

Pink opium poppy fields in article about Afghanistan

The Taliban and Opium Poppy Production

The Taliban did not always have an interest in the drug trade, says Brookings expert Dr. Felbab-Brown. In the mid-1990s, the group pledged to ban opium poppy cultivation, and for a time, it did in fact crack down on the production and consumption of drugs. However, such a hardline on narcotics did not last long. The Taliban allowed production to run again already in 1996 and began to tax farmers and traffickers, offering protection for their operations. The taxes ended up being worth between $45 million to $200 million a year in the late 1990s.

At the turn of the millennium, however, the Taliban issued yet another ban on opium poppy that resulted in a 75% fall in the world’s supply of heroin. The ban severely affected Afghanistan’s rural population, whose support for the Taliban was then lost, but barely touched the traffickers. It is likely that the Taliban were trying to win international legitimacy by banning the cultivation, yet it was not interested in interfering with the trafficking.

Figure 1: UNODC Drug Markets Trends Data

The ban may have also been strategic. France24 reports this crackdown was a move to ramp up the price of heroin, as it declined after the 1990s production boom. According to the newspaper, Taliban groups had stored large amounts of opium, which was then sold for ten times the price amid their own ban. Since the Taliban’s spokesman Mujahid announced that Afghanistan will not ‘turn into a narco-state,’ opium prices tripled briefly.

After the Taliban regime collapsed in 2001, the UNODC observed a divide in poppy production in the country, in which the provinces controlled by the Taliban were also the provinces where poppy cultivation was increasing, meaning that the group was no longer opposed to the illicit trade. Additionally, a DEA operation presented in 2013 shed light on the reach of the Taliban’s involvement in the opium trade. After 2001, the ties between the Taliban and the drug traffickers were consolidated, Politico reports, and the group methodically assumed more control over the process, leading the DEA investigation right at the top of Taliban leadership. Individuals of such alleged leadership are now part of the Taliban’s government announced in August 2021.

Figure 2: UNODC Drug Markets Trends Data

According to the UNODC, Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium in the world, accounting for 83% of global production (2015-2020). In 2020, opium poppy was cultivated on 224,000 hectares in Afghanistan, a 37% increase from the year prior. Additionally, drug production in Afghanistan is not limited to heroin but includes hashish and Ephedra, a plant used for the extraction of ephedrine, a key component of methamphetamine. Its market could become as large as heroin’s, according to a 2020 EMCDDA report.

However, the Taliban’s spokesman reassured that opium production will be zero under their rule, as it had been in 2000-2001. This promise comes with conditions, as the Taliban requested international assistance in order to be able to contain the drug trade and implement alternative crops substitution plans.

The Taliban's Dilemma

As opium and other drugs represent a lucrative market for Afghanistan, it will be hard for the Taliban to suppress their production without impoverishing an entire nation. Like in any other country where plants essential for drug production grow (see Colombia, Peru, Bolivia with coca plants), cultivating the crop is a profitable business and farming becomes a stable source of income for marginalized communities. Especially in areas with scarce access to education and employment opportunities, and where the State is not present, the cultivation of illegal crops often becomes the only way locals can support their families. In fact, in 2000, the ban on poppy cultivation brought problems to the Taliban themselves, as it removed the livelihoods of many farmers throughout the country.

The current economic conditions of the country do not favor a harsh crackdown on illicit crops. With the mass emigration witnessed in mid-August, the internal displacement soaring by 73%, the severe cash shortages that occurred before the fall of Kabul, and the overall dire situation left by the COVID-19 pandemic and the end of a twenty years old war, Afghanistan is on the brink of collapse. The previous government relied heavily on foreign assistance (around 75% of its budget), but the Taliban administration has been restricted access to the Afghan central bank’s assets and denied funding by the IMF and the World Bank. In addition, the various groups that compose the Taliban vary in ideological and governance orientation, and some may need material incentives to remain loyal to the leaders in Kabul.

Taking these challenges into account, it might be close to impossible for the Taliban to completely eradicate poppy and other illicit cultivations, nor would it be politically desirable to do so. That is not to say that the drug trade is the only source of income of the Taliban (it is estimated it represents 9%) as they tax a wide array of licit and illicit activities, but it is a significant one, nevertheless. The group’s spokesman mentioned the need for a crop substitution plan which would require international assistance. Similar plans could curb illicit production while still providing a livelihood to local farmers who relied on the opium trade; however, the implementation of substitution plans will be impossible unless the Taliban regime is recognized as legitimate. It is thus likely that the Taliban’s promise to curb drug production will only be used to leverage international aid and political recognition of their government, but little indicates that it will lead to effective change.

Policy Implications

The rapidly changing situation in Afghanistan makes many policy research documents already obsolete. In June 2021, the UNODC suggested strengthening international cooperation with Afghanistan while supporting the country to provide sustainable alternative crops and build better governance and security. Now that the Taliban are governing, cooperation, aid, and assistance will hardly be options. For Europe, this means that the drug flow of opium and methamphetamines from Afghanistan will continue. Without trustworthy cooperation with the Taliban, efforts should be focused at the regional level rather than at the national. The UNODC suggests that countries in the region need advanced investigative support to track financial crimes and scale-up interdiction of drugs and precursor chemicals. Other research also points at interdiction as being a viable solution that does not directly affect local livelihoods.

2021-10-07 - Final - Afghanistan Opium - Alessia
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About the Author: Alessia Cappelletti

Alessia is Global Security Analyst and Project Manager of DEWIS. She has field experience in South America, Colombia especially, and has experience in researching organized crime and illicit flows. Her academic background includes conflict analysis, international humanitarian law, human rights protection, and criminology.

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