Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field in the Gereshk district of Helmand province Photograph:( AFP )
Afghanistan has a near-monopoly on opium and heroin, accounting for 80 to 90 percent of global output, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC)
The vast majority of the world's opium and heroin comes from Afghanistan, with production and exports centred in areas controlled by the Taliban, who have taxed the drugs heavily during their 20-year insurgency.
Speaking at a first press conference since taking power, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid promised that the new government would not turn the world's leading producer of opium into a fully-fledged narco-state.
"We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community that we will not have any narcotics produced," Mujahid told reporters in Kabul.
"From now on, nobody's going to get involved (in the heroin trade), nobody can be involved in drug smuggling."
But the anti-heroin rhetoric, like similar pledges to respect human rights and media freedom, is seen by analysts as part of efforts by the new Taliban leaders to show a more moderate face in order to secure international backing.
In picture: Afghanistan's opium economy
In his premier press conference, Mujahid pleaded for "international assistance" to provide farmers with alternative crops to poppies, the source of sap that is refined into morphine and heroin.
The appeal for international aid might prompt hollow laughs from people who worked in the coalition of NATO forces, NGOs, and UN workers over the last 10 years that tried in vain to break Afghanistan's reliance on poppy farming.
The United States spent around $8.6 billion (7.4 billion euros) from 2002 to 2017 in its doomed effort to combat the drugs trade, according to a 2018 report from the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR).
Those efforts included paying farmers to grow wheat or saffron, investing in transport links, as well as spraying defoliants on crops and bombing refining facilities.
At each step, they found themselves thwarted by Taliban fighters who controlled the main poppy-growing regions and derived hundreds of millions of dollars from the industry, according to US and Afghan government estimates.
Farmers in Taliban-controlled areas would often come under pressure to plant poppies from local warlords and fighters, investigations have found.
As a result, the country has a near-monopoly on opium and heroin, accounting for 80 to 90 percent of global output, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
The amount of land planted with poppies hit a record high in 2017 and has averaged around 250,000 hectares in the last four years, roughly four times the level of the mid-1990s, UN figures show.
In picture: The opium seized and its farm-gate value in Afghanistan
Narcotics trade for survival
Widespread destruction during the war, millions uprooted from their homes, foreign aid cuts, and losses of local spending by departed US-led foreign troops are fueling an economic and humanitarian crisis that is likely to leave many destitute Afghans dependent on the narcotics trade for survival.
That dependence threatens to bring more instability as the Taliban, other armed groups, ethnic warlords, and corrupt public officials vie for drug profits and power.
Heroin production has boomed in Afghanistan in recent years, helping fund the Taliban, and experts say they will struggle to wean themselves off the profitable trade despite their promise to do so.
Some UN and US officials worry Afghanistan's slide into chaos is creating conditions for even higher illicit opiate production, a potential boon to the Taliban.
"The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income," said Cesar Gudes, the head of the Kabul office of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). "More production brings drugs with a cheaper and more attractive price, and therefore a wider accessibility."
With the insurgents entering Kabul on Sunday, "these are the best moments in which these illicit groups tend to position themselves" to expand their business, Gudes said.
The Taliban banned poppy growing in 2000 as they sought international legitimacy, but faced a popular backlash and later mostly changed their stance, according to experts.
Despite the threats posed by Afghanistan's illicit drug business, experts noted, the United States and other nations rarely mention in public the need to address the trade - estimated by the UNODC at more than 80 per cent of global opium and heroin supplies.
Poppy cultivation soars
Afghan farmers weigh myriad factors in deciding how much poppy to plant. These range from annual precipitation and the price of wheat, the main alternative crop to poppy, to world opium and heroin prices.
Yet even during droughts and wheat shortages, when wheat prices rocket, Afghan farmers have grown poppy and extracted opium gum that is refined into morphine and heroin. In recent years, many have installed Chinese-made solar panels to power deep water wells.
Three of the last four years have seen some of Afghanistan's highest levels of opium production, according to the UNODC. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, poppy cultivation soared 37 per cent last year, it reported in May.
Illicit narcotics are "the country's largest industry except for war," said Barnett Rubin, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan.
The estimated all-time high for opium production was set in 2017 at 9,900 tons worth some $1.4 billion in sales by farmers or roughly 7 per cent of Afghanistan's GDP, the UNODC reported.
When the value of drugs for export and local consumption are taken into account, along with imported precursor chemicals, the UNODC estimated the country’s overall illicit opiate economy that year at as much as $6.6 billion.
The Taliban and public officials have long been involved in the narcotics trade, experts said, although some dispute the extent of the insurgents' role and profits.
Narco-Terrorism in Afghanistan
The United Nations and Washington contend the Taliban are involved in all facets, from poppy planting, opium extraction, and trafficking to exacting "taxes" from cultivators and drug labs to charging smugglers fees for shipments bound for Africa, Europe, Canada, Russia, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia.
Some of those shipments are hurled across the heavily patrolled border to traffickers in Iran with rudimentary catapults, reported David Mansfield, a leading researcher into Afghanistan's illicit drug trade.
UN officials reported that the Taliban likely earned more than $400 million between 2018 and 2019 from the drug trade. A May 2021 US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) report quoted a US official as estimating they derive up to 60 per cent of their annual revenue from illicit narcotics.
Some experts dispute that data.
Mansfield says his field studies show the most the Taliban can earn from illicit opiates is about $40 million annually, predominantly from levies on opium production, heroin labs, and drug shipments.
The insurgents, he said, make more money exacting fees on legal imports and exports at roadside checkpoints.
Washington spent an estimated $8.6 billion between 2002 and 2017 to throttle Afghanistan's drug trade in order to deny the Taliban funds, according to a 2018 SIGAR report. Apart from poppy eradication, the United States and allies backed interdiction raids and alternative crop programs, airstrikes on suspected heroin labs, and other measures.
Those efforts "didn't really have much success," said retired US Army General Joseph Votel, who commanded Central Command from 2016-2019.
Instead, experts said, they stoked anger against the government in Kabul and its foreign backers – and sympathy for the Taliban - among farmers and laborers who depend on opium production to feed their families.
The Taliban learned that lesson from their ban on poppy growing in 2000, said Brookings Institution scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown.
Despite a steep decline in production, the ban ignited "a huge political storm against the Taliban and it was one reason why there were such dramatic defections after the US invasion," she said.
Therefore, experts said, it is unlikely the Taliban will prohibit poppy cultivation should they gain power.
"A future government," said Mansfield, "will need to tread carefully to avoid alienating its rural constituency and provoking resistance and violent rebellion."
'Too tied up'
The narcotics policy of the new government will affect global heroin prices, with repercussions for Western countries and their addicts, as well as Russia, Iran, Pakistan and China, all major smuggling routes but also huge markets for Afghan drugs.
In recent years, traffickers have also discovered that a plant commonly found in Afghanistan called ephedra can be used to create a key component of methamphetamine, better known as "crystal meth".
Still, spokesman Mujahid vowed Afghanistan would be a "narcotics-free country" moving forward.
It's not the first time the fundamentalist group has vowed to outlaw the trade. Production was banned in 2000, just before the group was overthrown by US-led forces.
Gretchen Peters, the American author of the book "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al-Qaeda", said the Taliban's previous ban on poppy cultivation was tactical.
"They were under immense international pressure," she said. "It was a ploy because they had so much stored up. They made a huge amount of money once the price shot up by 10 times."
"They are not going to get rid of the drug trade because they are too tied up with it."
"Afghanistan cannot survive without opium. It is simultaneously killing Afghanistan while also keeping a huge number of people alive," she said, referring to the income the industry provides to poor farmers.
Being in control of the country will offer the Taliban access to airlines, the state bureaucracy, and banks which could be used to facilitate drug smuggling and money laundering, she explained.
"I have no doubt they will exploit it."
(With inputs from agencies)