By Mursaleen Arsala and Abubakar Siddique
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
October 18, 2022
In the spring, the Taliban announced a ban on the cultivation, trafficking, and use of illicit narcotics in Afghanistan, the world’s biggest producer of opium.
But as the fall planting season for opium crops begins, the militant group appears to be turning a blind eye to the lucrative drugs trade.
Farmers in the southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan — where most of the country’s opium is produced — say they are growing their crops freely.
Experts say the cash-strapped Taliban government is unwilling to enforce its ban because the illicit opium trade remains a major source of revenue. The militants are also unable to provide alternative livelihoods for the tens of thousands of farmers who are dependent on the drug trade for survival.
Many Afghans are already struggling to make ends meet. The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021 triggered an economic collapse and worsened a major humanitarian crisis. Western donors abruptly cut off assistance, and the new government was hit by international sanctions.
The militant group is also keen to avoid creating widespread resentment in southern Afghanistan, a region that provided fighters for its 20-year insurgency, experts say.
“An effective ban on drugs production in the midst of a failing economy is a recipe for disaster,” says David Mansfield, an independent researcher who tracks Afghanistan’s illicit drug industry.
‘I Will Get Nothing’
Some Afghan farmers say they are willing to stop cultivating opium if the authorities can provide them with alternative livelihoods and crops. But they say that the Taliban has offered few economic incentives to farmers, who can earn much more by growing opium compared to other crops, such as wheat.
“I support the ban on poppy cultivation if we get some aid to enable us to buy food and medicines for our families,” Abdul Qayyum, a farmer in Kandahar’s Maiwand district, told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi.
The United Nations has distributed tools, seeds, and fertilizer in some parts of southern Afghanistan in a bid to deter farmers from planting opium crops. But the farmers say finding jobs or markets for alternative agricultural products in a contracting economy is a complex challenge.
“If I don’t plant poppies, I will get nothing,” Naqibullah, a farmer in Uruzgan, told Radio Azadi. “A wheat crop cannot even pay for the fertilizers and tractors it needs.”
After the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, Washington spent some $8 billion in a bid to eradicate the opium trade in Afghanistan. The United States destroyed poppy fields, offered alternative crops to farmers, conducted air strikes, and raided suspected labs. But the strategy largely failed.
For years, the Taliban has been taxing poppy farmers and is involved in the trafficking of narcotics to neighboring countries, from where they end up in Europe and North America, experts say.
The UN estimated that the Afghan opium trade generated some $2.7 billion of income in 2021. A 2020 report commissioned by NATO said that the Taliban earned more than $400 million from the drug industry, although some experts believe such estimates are exaggerated.
The Taliban has pledged to enforce its ban. Haseebullah Ahmadzai, the head of the narcotics department in the Taliban’s Interior Ministry, says the group has laid the groundwork for implementing the ban.
“We have held meetings with community elders, farmers, and citizens across our country to brief them on our ban on narcotics,” he told Radio Azadi.
In 2000, during its first stint in power, the Taliban implemented a similar ban. The move pushed rural farmers to seek livelihoods in neighboring Pakistan and Iran. But this time, Islamabad and Tehran have closed their borders to Afghans.
“Many farmers will be left destitute if a ban were to be imposed,” says Mansfield.