Why the Taliban’s opium ban will probably fail

Afghanistan’s opium production may be 90 per cent down this year, but it’s likely to bounce back thanks to soaring prices and global demand, writes Orzala Nemat.

The World Today
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Afghanistan is the largest producer of opium, making up more than 80 per cent of the world’s opium harvest. Opium is mainly used to produce heroin and 95 per cent of the heroin made from Afghan opium reaches European markets.

But drugs originating in the country are not limited to export markets. The number of drug users within Afghanistan has risen to about four million, according to some sources. While the opium poppy has been receiving most attention, cannabis cultivation and hashish use as well as increasing levels of synthetic drug production and consumption are important features of the complex drug economy in Afghanistan.

Drug economy

The international intervention in Afghanistan from 2001-2021 saw a variety of measures to counter the production of narcotics as well as the deployment of alternative development programmes to curb the drug economy, generating alternative rural livelihoods and breaking the link between the drug economy and the Taliban.

These efforts failed dramatically, however, with drug production reaching unprecedented levels under the Islamic Republic. With the return of the Taliban to power, this trend has continued. Last year’s survey from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime indicated a 32 per cent increase in opium production in the country compared with the previous year.

Although the UNODC annual survey for poppy cultivation is not yet released, this year David Mansfield and geographical surveyor Alcis, experts in satellite imagery and ground-level observations, detected a fall of 99 per cent in opium production in Southern Helmand and, more widely, a 90 per cent countrywide reduction is expected.

Opium production both reflects and shapes how Afghanistan is governed. When the Taliban were an insurgent group under the republic government and international military forces were present, poppy cultivation rose to record volumes – particularly in areas dominated by the Taliban.

However, the trade also thrived in government-controlled areas and was in many ways regulated by government officials through the selective application of counter-narcotics measures. Now, with the Taliban in power, the implementation of drug bans are an indicator of the Taliban’s level of authority, which the republic lacked.

The bans will have an important effect on the political coalitions and deals that have been held together by drug revenues. One key question is whether there will be a pushback from those who benefited from the drug economy – including people within the Taliban.

By banning opium poppy cultivation, the Taliban may be trying to demonstrate to the world their authority over Afghanistan

Although it is difficult to interpret the Taliban’s actions, it is clear that they are concerned with international recognition. By banning opium poppy cultivation, they may be trying to demonstrate to the world their power and authority through their ability to enforce such a widespread ban.

This may be working. President Joe Biden recently praised the Taliban for dismantling Al-Qaeda, which helped American interests. However, we all know that neither the United States nor the rest of the UN member states will be ready to embrace this Taliban ambition as long as they continue their restrictive rules against Afghan women and girls’ work and education and their monolithic ruling system that excludes non-Taliban members from decision-making roles.

Recognizing the detrimental effects of drug production on Afghan society may be the Taliban’s way of garnering support from local communities. Addressing the public health crisis caused by addiction could strengthen their ability to maintain control. The use of religious justifications to ban drugs also helps.

Alternative revenue streams

Striving for financial independence, the Taliban might explore alternative revenue streams, including taxation and external support. Shifting away from opium poppy cultivation could be a strategic move to explore new funding sources such as mining.

Four months after the Afghan financial year started, there is no sign of public budgeting. While we are aware of the significant rise in revenue collection and taxation across the country, we have limited knowledge of budgeting procedures or allocations to different government institutions, or whether all revenues reach the treasury.

The opium ban is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term thanks to the global demand for illicit drugs

It is evident the Taliban are following a closed system of governance where mechanisms for public accountability neither exist nor are prioritized. So, we do not know if all incomes reach the national treasury or how they are redistributed through public services.

The Taliban may succeed in expanding the opium ban to most parts of the country but if we look back at the previous experiences, it is unlikely to be sustainable in the long term, most importantly because the global demand for illicit drugs is pervasive.

Supply-side approaches are doomed to failure, something widely recognized by those advocating reforms to the global drug regime. However, this is not a simple matter. Legalization of drug markets, for example, would mean the end of the prohibition premium on illicit drugs, with devastating impacts for illicit drug farmers worldwide.

Addressing this matter in an effective way would result in a drop in the opium price, which went up from $40 to $50 per kilo in 2021 to $170 to $200 in local Afghan markets. The latest estimates are more dramatic, with a price of $360 per kilo in southern markets and $475 in the eastern markets.

The most important aspect of a sustainable opium ban is linked to farmers being able to produce enough sellable agricultural products to pay their debts and survive the current humanitarian crisis where food insecurity is increasing alongside the collapse of the formal banking systems due to sanctions. Longer-term, the Taliban foresee farmers replacing poppy cultivation with wheat and other crops.

Crop substitution

Years of work by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and drug-related studies such as the Drug and (dis)Order project show that any crop substitution for opium may not last long for a number of reasons, including the level of water the alternative crops require. With a significant drought in recent years, the farmers’ lack of access to markets weakens their ability to compete with other countries that export food items such as wheat at lower prices.

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Environmental factors also play a part. The use of solar technology-supported water pumps has significantly reduced groundwater levels in the southern region and Helmand province. Farmers in 2019 reported that groundwater levels were dropping by three metres each year. Any crop substitution policy needs to consider the environmental implications of these new developments.

The effects of an opium poppy ban on livelihoods and the environment may also 
result in large-scale migration as farmers seek alternative jobs within or beyond the country.