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The Taliban’s War On Drugs

Will the re-emergent Taliban ban growing opium poppy like they did in 2000?

The ’90s are back—not only in the United States, with its resurgent fashion trends of combat boots and bomber jackets, but in Afghanistan as well. After the Afghan Security Forces all but rolled out the red carpet for them to enter Kabul after the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban is once again the country’s primary authority. Now that they’ve seized power, could the Taliban be considering a move to stem the opium poppy industry?

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has indicated that the Taliban will indeed institute measures to stamp out opium poppy production.  “We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community, we will not have any narcotics produced,” Mujahid told reporters from Kabul in August. “From now on, nobody’s going to get involved (in the heroin trade), nobody can be involved in drug smuggling.”

I reached out to a number of Taliban spokesmen via Twitter direct messages to see how the Taliban plans to accomplish this goal without reply. In the past, the Taliban had successfully curbed the opium poppy industry. This time, they may find it more difficult to do so. Opium poppy profits helped maintain the Taliban’s decades-long insurgency against the United States, just as profits from the plant funded earlier insurgency efforts in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979. Nonetheless, when the Taliban first came to power after the Afghan Civil War, it issued a ban on the cultivation of opium poppy that caused production to crater. 

Afghanistan’s terrain and climate makes it difficult to grow many cash crops. Thus, for about half a century the country has been the dominant producer of opium poppy—a hearty, drought-resistant plant that can be grown with relative ease. Harvesting the beautiful, fluorescent flower is a sure way to reap a profit because its seed pods can be refined into opiates that carry medicinal and euphoric properties—not to mention the addictive properties of the often-illicit substances it produces.

Opium poppy has been grown in present-day Afghanistan since the 12th century, but its cultivation started to increase in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mid-1950s to supply Iran after it banned growing the flower. Afghanistan’s opium poppy industry continued to grow through the ’60s and ’70s, and supplied opium to Western Europe and North America when drought caused a supply squeeze of opium produced in Southeast Asia.

When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Islamic resistance leaders continued cultivating opium poppy to finance their efforts. Mullah Nasim Akhundzada, a member of the mujahideen who controlled the Helmand Province, legalized the cultivation of opium in 1981, and implemented quotas for opium production that he allegedly enforced with extreme violence. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a CIA-aid recipient in the conflict, established at least six heroin refineries in southwestern Pakistan. The result: from 1982-1983, opium production in Afghanistan doubled to 575 metric tons.

Over the course of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Soviet Union alleged that the CIA was helping resistance groups export opium poppy products—whether to the West, to keep the resistance well financed, or the Soviet Union, to weaken the U.S.S.R. from within.

The opium industry continued to expand in Afghanistan after the Pakistani government, in coordination with the U.S. Agency for International Development and other non-governmental organizations, waged a campaign against opium poppy cultivation in regions on Pakistan’s northwestern border with Afghanistan. The effort was somewhat successful in stamping out cultivation in Pakistan, but much of the opium operations simply relocated within Afghanistan’s borders.

Fast forward to 1996, when the Taliban declared the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan after taking control of most of the country’s territory in the wake of the Afghan Civil War. Opium cultivation continued apace. In 1998, opium was being grown on 41,000 hectares of land predominantly located in the province of Helmand, and in 1999, about 4,500 metric tons of opium were produced in Afghanistan. The now-in-charge Taliban quickly realized they had a major drug problem on their hands.

This led Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar’s to ban the growth of opium poppy in 2000. The year opium was banned, poppy was growing on about 82,000 hectares of land; by 2001, that figure had fallen to just 8,000 hectares, marking a more than 90 percent decrease. Some suggest the decline in Afghanistan’s opium production was even higher—one paper in the International Journal of Drug Policy estimated a 99-percent decrease in the acreage used to produce opium after the institution of the ban.

But in October of 2001, the Bush administration invaded Afghanistan with the ostensible goal of dismantling Al Qaeda’s capabilities to attack the American homeland and punish the Taliban for providing a safe haven for Al Qaeda terrorists. What transpired, however, was a 20-year occupation of the country by the American military, with diplomats and foreign-service officers attempting to remake the country into a liberal democracy.

With the Taliban no longer in power, the opium poppy industry once again surged. In 2003, hardly two years after the U.S. invasion, opium poppy production had rebounded to its 2000 levels, and continued to rise. This was due in part to the Taliban’s re-cultivation of opium poppy to finance insurgency operations against the U.S., as their mujahideen predecessors did to fight the Soviets.

The new Afghan government, with the support of the U.S., attempted to stem opium production by burning or destroying poppy fields or seizing the drugs the poppy was used to create. In doing so, they believed they would cut off some of the Taliban’s funds and reduce their influence. However, the strategy backfired, and many farmers started to adopt a more positive view of the Taliban. After all, the Taliban was not the group destroying crops and burning fields. The Obama administration attempted to change America’s approach in its war on drugs in Afghanistan by directly funding local leaders to disincentivize opium poppy growth. Some of these local leaders took the cash, but continued to turn a blind eye to opium cultivation, which they were also surely vested in.

Opium poppy continued to sprout up all over rural Afghanistan—not only in Taliban or contested regions, but in areas controlled by the U.S.-backed government of Afghanistan as well. The new government also relied on opium profits to sustain itself, and corrupt officials within the Afghan government and military continued to cash in on the illicit cash crop. By 2018, the number of hectares in Afghanistan on which opium poppy was being grown had quadrupled the total from 2000—before the Taliban instituted their opium ban, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. The U.N. estimated that in 2018, between a fifth and a third of Afghanistan’s economic output was tied to the production of opium, and in 2019, the institution claimed that 120,000 jobs in Afghanistan were tied to harvesting opium.

Opium production helped fund the Taliban’s insurgency against the U.S. But the Taliban’s time operating as an insurgency seems to have come to a close for now. With other legal means at their disposal to maintain their reclaimed Emirate, will the Taliban once again outlaw the production of opium poppy? It remains to be seen. The Taliban’s monetary ties to the opium industry may make it hard for them to quit, much like the drugs the poppy yields. Furthermore, the antagonistic approach the United States and the last Afghan government took to decrease opium production backfired, and the Taliban could risk undermining support among rural populations if it employs a similar strategy. Nonetheless, the Taliban has declared it plans to crater the opium industry, just as it did in the waning days of its previous rule. The world would be obligated to thank them for it.

about the author

Bradley Devlin is a Staff Reporter for The American Conservative. Previously, he was an Analysis Reporter for the Daily Caller, and has been published in the Daily Wire and the Daily Signal, among other publications that don't include the word "Daily." He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in Political Economy. You can follow Bradley on Twitter @bradleydevlin.

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