While the Taliban insisted they would ban narcotic production, major seizures in the region indicate the trade hasn’t missed a beat.
After seizing power in Afghanistan in mid-August, the Taliban insisted they would ban the production, trafficking and use of illicit drugs. “We will not have any narcotics produced,” said spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid at his first press conference in Kabul.
But opium cultivation has continued and major drug seizures in regional countries suggest the trade is alive and well. It’s “business as usual" said David Mansfield, an independent researcher on illicit economies.
Afghanistan is the world’s largest opium producer, accounting for 85 percent of the global total in 2020. It also produces significant amounts of cannabis and increasingly manufactures methamphetamine using the local ephedra plant.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last week that opium production in Afghanistan had increased by 8 percent in 2021, although the area under poppy cultivation shrank.
The report also warned that the drugs trade could get a further boost from the collapse of Afghanistan’s economy: “The current contraction of licit economic opportunities makes households even more vulnerable to engaging in illicit activities.”
The withdrawal of foreign aid combined with drought, sanctions and Covid-19 have greatly exacerbated the country’s humanitarian crisis, with more than half of the population facing acute food insecurity this winter, according to the World Food Programme.
In these desperate circumstances, farmers have little choice but to grow opium, which requires less water than legal crops and can still be trafficked out of the country even if borders are closed.
Production is reportedly ongoing in the major poppy-growing provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, with traders operating openly. Prices are back to normal after a brief spike following the Taliban takeover in August, Mansfield told TRT World.
Despite vowing to ban drugs, spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently announced that the Taliban had no plan to eradicate poppy cultivation. “Our people are going through economic crisis, and stopping people from their only means of income is not a good idea,” he said.
Trafficking continues along various long-established smuggling routes: the ‘Balkan Route’, through Iran and Turkey; the ‘Northern Route’, through Central Asia and Russia; and the ‘Southern Route’, through Pakistan and the Indian Ocean to Africa
In Tajikistan about 500 kg of narcotics were intercepted in October, one of the biggest amounts of recent years. The Russian foreign ministry said that the “drug threats” were “still a pressing problem for us” claiming “the situation has not changed”.
The Taliban has reportedly set up an anti-trafficking force in Badakhshan province near the Tajik border. This is likely an attempt to “appease Russia and China,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown, director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors at the Brookings Institution.
The Taliban is keen to forge closer ties to Moscow and Beijing, which have both expressed concern about drug-trafficking from Afghanistan, although China receives more of its supply from the Golden Triangle.
Elsewhere, along the ‘Balkan Route’, drug seizures are through the roof. Iran reported on 17 November that it had intercepted more than 3 tons of opium, meth and hashish in the southeastern town of Zahedan.
The route through Pakistan and southeast Iran is one of the major highways for narcotics leaving Afghanistan, according to Mansfield. Iranian intelligence recently announced that it had nabbed over 25 tons of drugs in Zahedan since March.
In Turkey, police recently seized more than 700 tons of narcotics in the east and southeast, followed by almost half a ton of heroin near the Iranian border earlier this month. Azerbaijan intercepted a similar amount coming from Iran.
In September, Indian authorities in Gujarat discovered almost 3 tons of heroin that had been smuggled from Afghanistan and routed through the Iranian port of Bandar Abbas. Subsequent heroin shipments have come from Chabahar, in Iran, and Pakistan.
In the autumn, international maritime forces intercepted two large consignments of drugs in the Indian Ocean. Recent years have seen joint shipments of Afghan heroin and meth travel through Pakistan or Iran and by sea to Africa.
An immovable object?
Pakistan is one of the major transit routes and consumer markets for Afghan narcotics – the trade appears to be running smoothly. In late October, police in Peshawar seized 80 kg of meth, supposedly the single biggest haul in the province’s history.
Azlan Aslam, an official at the Excise, Taxation and Narcotics Control Department in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, told TRT World that trafficking was unchanged since the Taliban came to power. “I think the situation is [the] same,” he said.
Heroin, meth and hashish enter the country from Afghanistan, although new border infrastructure makes smuggling harder, according to Azlan. Pakistan has reportedly almost completed a fence along the frontier.
But a “huge quantity of drugs is reaching the coastal belt of Balochistan and Karachi,” he added, saying that law-enforcement capabilities in Balochistan province were weaker than in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Azlan doubts that the Taliban will be able to control the drug trade. “They can’t stop it,” he told TRT World. Many Afghans depend on drugs for their livelihood and lack economic alternatives.
Bilal Karimi, deputy spokesperson of the Taliban, did not respond to TRT World’s request for comment.
It is possible that some of the drugs seized in recent months were trafficked out of Afghanistan before the Taliban seized power. According to Vanda Felbab-Brown, “time-lags in the trade can be significant”.
But drug control does not seem to be a priority for the new regime. Regional countries often highlight narcotics in their statements about Afghanistan, but the Taliban generally avoids public mention of the issue during foreign visits.
However, while smuggling continues, the Taliban have cracked down on domestic drug use. Addicts have been rounded up, beaten or doused with water and forced into treatment centres.
This is a repeat of the 1990s, when the Taliban “tolerated production and trafficking” but “could be very harsh toward users,” said Vanda Felbab-Brown. Taliban-linked scholars defended opium cultivation because the drugs were mainly used by non-Muslims.
“In the 90s Taliban did ban hashish cultivation but allowed opium arguing that the former was mostly consumed by the Afghan/Muslims and the latter by foreigners/infidels,” said Haroun Rahimi, assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan.
“From the perspective of fiqh such ad hoc distinctions are not justifiable,” Rahimi told TRT World. The Taliban is “driven by practical considerations (before and now) in accommodating opium trade and cultivation,” he said.
The Taliban did eventually ban opium in 2000-1 after multiple failed attempts. But the ban angered Afghan farmers and was already unravelling by the time the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001.
In 2020 the Taliban prohibited cannabis cultivation in territory under their control, although the ban was not enforced in major cannabis-growing parts of Kandahar and other provinces, according to a recent report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
SIGAR, in its latest quarterly report, raised doubts about the Taliban’s ability to ban drugs, stating that “any Taliban attempt to curb Afghanistan’s drug business could undermine public support for its regime.”
While the Taliban is sometimes portrayed as a drugs cartel, the movement earns far less from narcotics than it does from the trade in legal goods, according to a new research study by David Mansfield.
Banning drugs would therefore not cripple the Taliban financially, but it could alienate large numbers of poor Afghan farmers and incite resistance against the fledgling regime.