Earlier this month, the Taliban ordered a halt to poppy production, and the production, use, and transit of other narcotics. Given the dire state of the Afghan economy, the move will likely ruin the small farmers who grow and harvest much of the crop, and see the loss of the income from opiates, between $1.8 billion and $2.7 billion according to the United Nations, which also noted that “much larger sums are accrued along illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan.” The U.N. also reported, “The 2021 opium harvest, completed in July, marked the fifth year in a row with production at historic highs of more than 6,000 tons, potentially yielding up to 320 tons of pure heroin to be trafficked to markets around the world.”
The Taliban were major players in the poppy business, and have “counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” according to the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime. So, why give up all that money (poppy accounts for an estimated 7 to 11 percent of GDP)? And why now?
The Taliban may have felt that narcotics trafficking was okay when the group was fighting foreign occupiers and what it called the puppet government in Kabul, as dictated by practical military necessity. But the Taliban may now feel narcotics trafficking should not be the business of an established Islamic government, especially one seeking international recognition.
Although the Taliban signaled in the fall of 2021 that it would take on the country’s drugs addiction problem and the trafficking networks, recent multilateral meetings hosted by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi may have motivated the group to make the public announcement. Wang noted “diplomatic recognition of the Afghan government will come when conditions are ripe” and encouraged Kabul to “take solid steps and make concrete efforts in this right direction.”
The Taliban may hope that the announcement will serve as a goodwill “placeholder” until they reopen schools for older girls, a move many disappointed observers expected would happen in late March but which the Taliban delayed at the last minute. In a sign the Taliban are not immune to public sentiment, the Afghan interim minister of education admitted that the delay in opening schools has caused criticism of the government and that he is hoping to re-open the schools soon.
In the meantime, cutting poppy production may appeal to neighboring countries whose territory is used to transport narcotics, and which feel threatened by local criminal trafficking networks and the corruption they encourage. This is important to Uzbekistan as it hosts two major transport nodes, at Termez and Navoi, close to the Afghan border, that it wants to keep free of narcotics shipments. Crimping narcotics traffic will also bolster the anti-corruption efforts of Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev, who has called corruption “a major threat to social stability.”
The Uzbeks have cause for concern: In February, its customs officials discovered a 230 kg shipment of heroin in a single truck from Tajikistan en route Russia. Tashkent hailed the Taliban decision to ban poppy production as “not only clear confirmation of [the Taliban’s] conscientious and responsible behavior but also of the real aspiration to make their country a full-fledged and responsible member of the international community.”
As for Tajikistan, this may be a good news/bad news story as 30 percent of the Tajik economy is reportedly dependent on the Afghan drugs trade. A sudden cut-off may drive Dushanbe closer to Russia and Iran, with which it has a military cooperation agreement, or China, which has two military facilities on Tajik soil.
Ending poppy production may also improve relations with Iran, a major trafficking corridor for Afghan poppy with a major domestic addiction problem. Iran welcomed the Taliban move, and Eskandar Momeni, secretary general of the Drug Control Headquarters of the Islamic Republic of Iran, noted, “with the presence of the US and NATO countries and their support, the production of narcotics surged 50-fold to more than 9,000 tons in less than two decades.” Iran’s government also pledged to help Afghanistan replace poppy cultivation with other crops.
Those other crops are sorely needed as sanctions and the seizure of Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves have had a dire impact on an economy already reeling from the loss of Western aid that funded most of the central government.
U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Ramiz Alakbarov recently reported that 95 percent of Afghans are not getting enough to eat and that “the fate of an entire generation of Afghans is at stake.”
The Taliban may have decided that, in light of continuing sanctions, self-help is the best policy, instead of relying aid from the West that will arrive with political conditions. The Taliban may increase their internal legitimacy if their own “resistance economy” can produce enough food to avert starvation, despite what they will depict as the best efforts of a humiliated West, spiteful after its defeat in 2021.
On the other hand, the policy change may be misdirection as the Taliban may, in fact, stop poppy production but continue the production of methamphetamine (“crystal meth”), fed by abundant growths of the ephedra plant in the country’s mountainous central highlands. Meth is easier to produce than opium as it requires less land, labor, and capital.
But if farmers can grow food crops instead of poppy, the Taliban will be relieved of the burden of administering a system that loaned farmers money ahead of the poppy growing season, collected on the loans, secured the poppy, processed it, then transported it to international networks. And while meth production requires dedicated facilities (largely for security, as anything with a roof will do) that have unique signatures, they are less visible than all those poppy fields.
The U.N. reports that meth production spiked in the years before the Taliban victory, and it remains to be seen if the Taliban will leave that money on the table while they pursue international recognition. And all this assumes the Taliban can make the poppy ban stick this time. When it was tried in 2000, a similar effort was met with a severe backlash.
The U.S. spent over $8 billion in a failed effort to stop the Afghan drug trade. Will the Taliban’s DIY effort carry the day?