Despite ‘Ban’ on Opium, Afghanistan’s Poppy Crop Is Growing

More drugs and higher prices a year after the Taliban takeover.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Taliban soldiers stand guard as men imprisoned for using drugs sit in a courtyard prior to being released from Kandahar Central Jail.
Taliban soldiers stand guard as men imprisoned for using drugs sit in a courtyard prior to being released from Kandahar Central Jail.
Taliban soldiers stand guard as men imprisoned for using drugs sit in a courtyard prior to being released from Kandahar Central Jail in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Sept. 22. Javed TANVEER/AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban that took over Afghanistan after a 20-year war largely funded by heroin trafficking have, after pretending to ban drugs, instead turbocharged the cultivation and sale of narcotics a year after their takeover. While the United States and other international donors continue to pour money into the country hoping to avoid mass hunger over the winter, the terrorist-led group is raking in huge sums from the illicit traffic that supplies 80 percent of the world’s heroin.

Two new reports show the failure of U.S. diplomacy to cajole the Taliban into making the transition from insurgency to government. A huge expansion of opium poppy production reflects the Taliban’s control of the major southern growing regions that were the hottest battlegrounds as the then-insurgents fought to get their drugs to market. Now business is booming, and a nominal ban on drug production has only pushed prices—and the potential Taliban take from the illicit trade—higher.

The reports by the U.S. Congress-mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) are just the latest evidence of the Taliban’s disconnect from the norms of governance and the impunity they enjoy while flouting international law. Heroin trafficking has long been a hallmark of the Taliban, accounting for an estimated half a billion dollars in annual income in the final years of the group’s war against the U.S.-backed republic government. Fighting seasons throughout the insurgency coincided with the cycle of the poppy crop—planting, cultivation, and trucking of the raw opium to warehouses for conversion to heroin. Organized crime grew on the back of cooperation with the Taliban. Addiction rates in neighbors including Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian states, and Russia were a huge source of friction between these countries and the United States, which was more focused on eradicating South American cocaine. Nevertheless, billions of dollars were spent on failed poppy eradication and substitution programs.

The Taliban that took over Afghanistan after a 20-year war largely funded by heroin trafficking have, after pretending to ban drugs, instead turbocharged the cultivation and sale of narcotics a year after their takeover. While the United States and other international donors continue to pour money into the country hoping to avoid mass hunger over the winter, the terrorist-led group is raking in huge sums from the illicit traffic that supplies 80 percent of the world’s heroin.

Two new reports show the failure of U.S. diplomacy to cajole the Taliban into making the transition from insurgency to government. A huge expansion of opium poppy production reflects the Taliban’s control of the major southern growing regions that were the hottest battlegrounds as the then-insurgents fought to get their drugs to market. Now business is booming, and a nominal ban on drug production has only pushed prices—and the potential Taliban take from the illicit trade—higher.

The reports by the U.S. Congress-mandated Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) are just the latest evidence of the Taliban’s disconnect from the norms of governance and the impunity they enjoy while flouting international law. Heroin trafficking has long been a hallmark of the Taliban, accounting for an estimated half a billion dollars in annual income in the final years of the group’s war against the U.S.-backed republic government. Fighting seasons throughout the insurgency coincided with the cycle of the poppy crop—planting, cultivation, and trucking of the raw opium to warehouses for conversion to heroin. Organized crime grew on the back of cooperation with the Taliban. Addiction rates in neighbors including Pakistan, Iran, Central Asian states, and Russia were a huge source of friction between these countries and the United States, which was more focused on eradicating South American cocaine. Nevertheless, billions of dollars were spent on failed poppy eradication and substitution programs.

Taliban supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada in April announced a ban on growing opium, the raw material for heroin and other highly addictive opiates, but this just pushed prices to record highs for farmers, the latest UNODC report said. The report said opium cultivation soared 32 percent in the year since the Taliban retook control, even if drought and other climate challenges cut the overall yield by 10 percent. The harvest produced an estimated 6,200 tons of raw opium, the report said, enough to produce between 350 and 580 tons of export-quality heroin.

Despite Akhundzada’s vow to punish opium cultivation, there is little evidence so far that the Taliban are interfering in any way with southern farmers as they plant the 2023 crop, SIGAR determined. That suggests that the next crop will be at least as big as this year’s, even as prices remain inflated—the price of dry opium is nearly twice as high as before the Taliban takeover. So good were this season’s opium prices, the UNODC said, that farmers’ income from opium sales “tripled from $425 million in 2021 to $1.4 billion in 2022,” equal to 29 percent of the total value of the 2021 agricultural sector. Since opium is stored in stockpiles, those higher prices can ripple through illicit trafficking networks for years; it can take up to 18 months for a poppy harvest to reach global markets as refined heroin.

“The sum still represents only a fraction of the income made from production and trafficking within the country. Increasingly larger sums are further accrued along the illicit drug supply chain outside the country,” the report noted.

But a former UNODC agent, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the figures in the report are likely to be underestimates. With the return of the Taliban to power, the country has become a legal black hole. Without the cooperation of the de facto authorities, U.N. agencies are no longer able to monitor the size of the poppy crop or opium yield, as they don’t have the access they did under the republic. “They can no longer get samples out to have the purity of the opium properly assessed, so there is no way of accurately knowing how much heroin the crop can produce,” the former UNODC agent said. He described the report as “a shiny brochure based on satellite imaging and guesswork.”

As dire as the picture in opium trade is, the report makes little mention of the lower-cost, higher-return trade in methamphetamine, which the Taliban moved into some years ago; the agency has neither the budget nor mandate to track it. Yet domestic meth seizures both on the street and at the borders were much higher than heroin seizures even under the republic, the former agent said. 

But even the higher prices and incomes for farmers are offset by the economic collapse Afghanistan has seen under Taliban rule. The UNODC report noted that the poor spend about two-thirds of their income on food. But the more lucrative trade in heroin is exacerbating Afghanistan’s dire food situation because poppy cultivation is displacing food crops, especially in southern Afghanistan.

The SIGAR report noted that 90 percent of Afghans don’t get enough to eat, with acute food insecurity present in every single Afghan province. Some 19 million Afghans face “potentially life-threatening levels of hunger,” the report said.

The United States has led the way in aid for Afghanistan, providing more than $1 billion to the country since the Taliban takeover. But much of the assistance is distributed by nongovernmental organizations that must have Taliban approval, said local charity sources, who suspect much is diverted to Taliban supporters. Yet for the first time ever, SIGAR said, it was unable to provide a full accounting of U.S. government spending. It said the U.S. Treasury and U.S. Agency for International Development refused to cooperate with SIGAR in any way, while the State Department has been selective in its disclosures. The Biden administration has been widely condemned for enabling the Taliban with regular injections of cash and aid while failing to ensure that it reaches people in need. SIGAR’s concerns add to the perception that U.S. financial and diplomatic support is enabling the brutal and misogynistic regime.

SIGAR officials declined to comment, but the Hill reported that Inspector General John Sopko had informed Congress of “repeated and continuing refusal to provide information and assistance requested by my office” on a range of issues, including women’s rights, humanitarian aid delivery, and refugee support.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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