The Taliban, after coming to power, vowed to eradicate the production and cultivation of narcotics on its soil, but with the condition that it receive generous funding from the international community. After a year in power, the production of narcotics has rather increased, and the Taliban has failed to deliver on its promise. The data released by the United Nations in 2020 mentioned that Afghanistan accounted for 85% of the global opium production and generated employment for over half a million people, making it the largest economic sector. Furthermore, it produced 6,800 tonnes of opium in 2021, and the output grew by 8% in the last year. The total income generated from the opiates will amount to between $1.8 billion and $2.7 billion in 2021, which is one of the most profitable businesses in the failed state. The Taliban did engage in publicity stunts after the decree was issued in August, circulating images of destroying poppies, but it made little difference to an Afghan economy that was deeply entrenched in narcoterrorism.
Taliban on banning poppies
The Taliban tried banning poppy cultivation in 2001, but it was found that Mullah Omar had purchased a huge quantity of opium from the market at a low price just before the ban, and after the decree was issued, the prices shot up. This allowed the Taliban leadership to make a handsome sum of money, which sets a bad precedent in analysing the Taliban’s current claim about acting against illicit opiates. Sara Hakimi, a former Afghanistan Foreign Ministry official specialising in counternarcotics, told the authors that “the Taliban’s statement on eradicating narcotics production was mostly for getting international recognition or legitimacy from Islamic countries as growing and profiting from opiates is considered haram in Islam.”
To demonstrate that they were taking action, they imposed a ban on poppy cultivation on small farmers who were cultivating in small quantities. The Taliban’s major funding comes from narco-terrorism and the taxes they collect from the farmers who are growing the opiates. With the financial restrictions imposed by the international community and no robust external funding, they have to keep cultivating it for economic reasons. More than the economic reasons, it is the political reasons that don›t allow the Taliban to put a blanket ban on opiates. The Taliban leaders have their networks for trafficking, and it has been one of their major revenue streams for years. Hence, it will create a division among their groups if a ban has been imposed.
The primary sources of the Taliban’s income still come from the production and trafficking of methamphetamines and heroin. It generates its maximum profits from collecting taxes from poppy plantations, extracting the drugs, and smuggling them through its networks. This money has allowed the members to move up the value chain, fund the war against NATO, and increase their battlefield potency all these years. The other reason for the Taliban’s reluctance to act against poppy cultivation can be traced back to the earlier Taliban’s ban in 2001, which ignited a huge political storm, and as David Manfield, a leading expert on Afghanistan›s drug economy, mentioned, ‹the Taliban doesn’t want to alienate the rural population and create an atmosphere for a violent uprising.› Hence, the drug economy is so deeply embedded in the survival tactics of the Taliban that it wouldn’t require any concrete action.
The blooming meth industry in Afghanistan
Apart from poppy production, the methamphetamine industry is also growing at a rapid speed, and satellite imagery shows that it has only intensified under Taliban rule. Hundreds of meth labs have appeared in the last few years. Methamphetamine (meth or ice), which was grown in Afghanistan, once had to compete with the rest of the world, but after the discovery of the ephedra plant, which is grown locally, the quality and production of meth have boosted drastically. The opium traders are using the same route and infrastructure to smuggle meth to their neighbouring countries. Sara mentioned that ‘the shift from heroin took place when everyone realised that they could produce methamphetamine at a cheaper rate. It began in areas where wild ephedra plants were grown, particularly in the highlands of south and south-east Afghanistan. The drug lords understood that these ephedra plants, which were grown in the wild, were readily available in the market, and the authorities were turning a blind eye. They started buying these plants in bulk quantities and setting up labs, which amplified the production. The precursor chemicals that are used to make meth can be obtained from cough syrups that can also be purchased locally.’
The Taliban initially turned a blind eye, like the predecessor government, but imposed a notice ban on the plant when the prices in the market were down. The ban, which was imposed only in a few provinces, helped the meth producers churn out more revenue as the prices increased, and it didn’t impact the farmers as the harvest season ended before that. It is assumed that the methamphetamine market will be as large as the heroin market in Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Implications for India
India has been falling under the wrath of narcoterrorism for several years, especially with its proximity to the Golden Crescent, which is the world’s largest producer of illicit opium. Illegal drugs from Afghanistan have entered India through all routes, including air, sea, and land borders from the neighbouring countries of Sri Lanka and Pakistan or the Islamic Republic of Iran. Not only are these drugs re-exported to Europe and local African markets, but they are also used for domestic consumption. The UNODC’s World Drug Report 2022 has warned of India’s vulnerability to increased supply as the trafficking of opiates is moving eastward. After the Taliban takeover, Indian security officials have intercepted massive consignments originating from Afghanistan, like the 2.7 billion USD worth of heroin and the 1.5 million USD worth of methamphetamine. Sara Hakimi, speaking to the authors, lastly mentioned that the economy of Afghanistan has collapsed completely and more people are being pushed below the poverty line. Farmers are being encouraged to grow opium, which allows them to earn higher profits than seasoned legal crops. Since the country’s borders and customs are currently under the Taliban, it is easier to produce the crops, make more laboratories, and even export them.
This brought India’s worst fear to life, as these illicit drugs and small arms trade are the major source for funding Pakistan-sponsored terrorism in the country, and India, being the sole licit producer of opium with huge export revenues, has much to lose if this remains unchecked. The international community must look at the possibility of relocating the cultivators to a different form of economy, or else the drug-entrenched economy of Afghanistan will only destabilise the region and have a serious impact on India’s security.
Ratnadeep Chakraborty is the Co-founder of an independent media company that covers the spheres of strategic affairs called The Honest Critique. He is also the host of the podcast series, Line of Truth. Ratnadeep writes on issues related to the developments in West Asia particularly Israel, terrorism and non-state Militant actors.
Ekampreet Kaur has pursued her Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences from Guru Nanak Dev University. She has hosted shows on strategic affairs for The Honest Critique and enjoys writing about global diplomacy, narcoterrorism and international organisations