The New Geopolitics of the Taliban’s Opium Economy

Afghanistan’s narcotics trade is booming under fresh leadership.

By , a media professional and policy analyst based in Sweden.
Men gather around bags containing heroin and hashish as they negotiate and check quality at a drug market on the outskirts of Kandahar on September 24, 2021.
Men gather around bags containing heroin and hashish as they negotiate and check quality at a drug market on the outskirts of Kandahar on September 24, 2021.
Men gather around bags containing heroin and hashish as they negotiate and check quality at a drug market on the outskirts of Kandahar on September 24, 2021. BULENT KILIC/AFP via Getty Images

Opium has remained a central part of Afghanistan’s economy since the departure of American forces in 2021 and the restoration of Taliban rule. The change of power in Kabul, however, has changed the geopolitics of the country’s narcotics trade. Afghanistan’s opium game, its players, and its rules are vastly different from what they were just a year ago.

That the Taliban have embraced the narcotics economy is no surprise. The Taliban briefly tried to ban poppy cultivation the last time they came to power around the turn of the century, only to face wide popular opposition to the move, including by farmers who relied on it for a living in the absence of a functioning economy. Following their fall from power after the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Taliban, backed up by local Afghan farmers, ratcheted up poppy cultivation to fund their own war effort against the newly installed government in Kabul.

The United States allocated billions of dollars—upwards of $8 billion over 15 years by one account—to eradicate Afghanistan’s poppy agriculture and deprive the Taliban and affiliated insurgent groups of a major source of funding. The ambitious plan featured airstrikes and lab raids, among other measures. But the effort ultimately failed. Accounting for over 80 percent of global opium and heroin output, Afghanistan’s drug production recorded an all-time high in 2017, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimating the overall size of its opiate business to be as much as $6.6 billion or around 30 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP.

Opium has remained a central part of Afghanistan’s economy since the departure of American forces in 2021 and the restoration of Taliban rule. The change of power in Kabul, however, has changed the geopolitics of the country’s narcotics trade. Afghanistan’s opium game, its players, and its rules are vastly different from what they were just a year ago.

That the Taliban have embraced the narcotics economy is no surprise. The Taliban briefly tried to ban poppy cultivation the last time they came to power around the turn of the century, only to face wide popular opposition to the move, including by farmers who relied on it for a living in the absence of a functioning economy. Following their fall from power after the U.S. invasion in 2001, the Taliban, backed up by local Afghan farmers, ratcheted up poppy cultivation to fund their own war effort against the newly installed government in Kabul.

The United States allocated billions of dollars—upwards of $8 billion over 15 years by one account—to eradicate Afghanistan’s poppy agriculture and deprive the Taliban and affiliated insurgent groups of a major source of funding. The ambitious plan featured airstrikes and lab raids, among other measures. But the effort ultimately failed. Accounting for over 80 percent of global opium and heroin output, Afghanistan’s drug production recorded an all-time high in 2017, with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimating the overall size of its opiate business to be as much as $6.6 billion or around 30 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP.

As an insurgent group, the Taliban had little choice but to work with local distributors and regional smugglers concentrating on the heavily patrolled Iranian border as the most viable route to get tons of opium, heroin, and meth to lucrative markets across Europe and Canada. Under mounting security and law enforcement pressure within Afghanistan and along the border with Iran, the Taliban-backed traffickers occasionally went as far as to rely on equipment that catapulted drug consignments across the Iranian border or on heavily drugged unmanned cattle trudging unsuspiciously into Iran.

It is not surprising that the Taliban government today has started to take draconian measures to crack down on opiate addiction in society and regulate demand and supply domestically. This does not, however, mean the new rulers of Afghanistan have taken their eyes off European markets. On the contrary, the long-term objective seems to be moving toward centralization of the narcotics industry in government hands and ultimately the maximization of revenues from that industry in state coffers.

According to a UNODC research brief, the overall revenue generated from illicit opiate business only inside the country stood between $1.8 billion and $2.7 billion in 2021, with the largest share of the profit going to actors who controlled the international supply chains. These actors are now the Taliban themselves and their foreign allies. “The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” César Guedes, head of UNODC’s Kabul office, told Reuters last year. Nor are Taliban officials any longer hindered by the political considerations that motivated U.S.-led counternarcotics policies. These policies were to a large degree pursued to shield allied European nations from relentless flows of narcotics and the consequent organized crime. The Taliban now pledge to patrol and protect their borders to prevent the drug trade, but in reality they intentionally overlook to smuggling activities.

The emerging status quo has serious implications for Iran, which has traditionally served as a chief transit route for Afghanistan-sourced international drug trade. Tehran has generally refrained from using narcotics as a state instrument of revenue generation or a strategic source of leverage against the West.

The Trump administration’s so-called maximum pressure campaign against Iran threatened to change this policy. In July 2018, shortly after then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and reinstituted wide-ranging sanctions against Tehran, Iranian Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli cited the rise in drug production in Afghanistan to over 9,000 tons a year and warned that if Tehran looked the other way, “over 5,000 tons of narcotics would leave Iran’s borders for the West.” Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in this period did in fact make some efforts to capitalize on the illicit opiate economy next door. Iran did not end up making a major policy shift for a variety of political and practical reasons, including the Iranian government’s keen interest in preserving the reputational advantages of a well-functioning relationship with the U.N. on counternarcotics.

While Iran is now facing increased pressure on its borders, however, it is no longer the most important regional gatekeeper for Afghanistan’s narcotics trade. That role has now fallen to Turkey. Ankara’s interest in narcotics grew significantly in the course of the Syrian civil war, where opiates were known to be heavily used by front-line fighters engaging in close combat. During the war, Turkey supported an unconventional constellation of militants and paramilitary outfits in Syria, which over time needed to develop a local economy of their own to fund their war effort. These groups resorted at least in part, with Turkey’s encouragement and support, to illicit business in fuel and narcotics.

Since taking control of Afghanistan’s Kabul airport earlier this year, Turkey has taken a long-term stake, with the Taliban’s blessing, in Afghanistan’s domestic markets and its international trade, including its multibillion-dollar narcotics business. This would bear a resemblance to how Turkey’s government helped flood the post-conflict Iraqi and Syrian markets with Turkish products. Turkey’s close control over Afghanistan’s outbound opiate supply lines also give it an added benefit: It gives Ankara a strategic lever of pressure it can bring to bear on European rivals in times of high tension and crisis, as has been the case with Ankara’s approach to Syrian war refugees and migration flows. “We believe that some [Afghan methamphetamine] has gone to Turkey,” said Laurent Laniel, an analyst with the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction. “And if it reaches Turkey, then we assume that some will get to Europe.”

The Russian invasion and continued occupation of Ukraine is bound to make these new geopolitics more complicated, not only by deflecting scarce resources and policy attention from international counternarcotics campaigns but also by creating a massive demand that transnational organized crime and its state backers will not hesitate to fulfill. For one, Moscow’s mass deployment of battle-hardened foreign fighters from Syria to Ukraine is likely to facilitate narcotics-related criminal connections between the two conflict zones. And among those who profit from all this illegal activity will almost certainly be the Taliban.

Maysam Behravesh is a media professional and policy analyst based in Sweden.
 Twitter: @MaysamBehravesh

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