The Taliban has claimed to stamp out opium production in the past, but that's easier said than done given the massive revenue it commands.
With the United States exiting Afghanistan, the Taliban are keenly aware of the industry that brings in not just a common livelihood to fellow Afghans, but also a giant share in their GDP.
The United States have their Apple, Microsoft, and Tesla; the Saudis cradle ARAMCO in their arms, Afghanistan however, has its opium industry. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that in 2017 the opium production was laid at 9,900 tons worth some $1.4 billion in sales by farmers, or roughly 7 percent of Afghanistan's GDP, which increased to 11.5 percent in 2019.
In the same year, the overall income generated by domestic consumption, production, and exports of opiates in Afghanistan was estimated to be between $1.2 and $2.1 Billion. Accounting for export, local consumption, and the imported precursor chemicals, UNODC estimated that the opiate economy was worth as much as $6.6 billion as of 2019.
In an earlier interview in August with Reuters, Cesar Gudes, the head of the Kabul UNODC office was reported stating, "The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income."
According to US commander General John Nicholson, in 2018, illicit opium trade accounted for more than 60 percent of Taliban's revenue. Other than charging a 10 percent cultivation tax from opium farmers, several taxes were collected from the specialised facilities designed for converting opium into heroin.
Illicit narcotics are "the country's largest industry except for war," said Barnett Rubin, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan.
The per gram value of opiates produced in Afghanistan increases after each border crossing and is estimated to be 10-fold when it reaches the European markets. With an increasing trend in hectare coverage from 2019 to 2020, and subsequently the Taliban’s control over government departments, it can be expected that the current trend will continue, primarily because of the country’s high dependency on the opium trade.
According to the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2020, the total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was approximately 224,000 hectares in 2020, which is an increase of 37 percent or 61,000 hectares when compared to 2019.
For comparison, in 2020, areas under poppy cultivation became equivalent to approximately three times the size of New York City, which is over 78,000 hectares.
UNODC attributed the meteoric annual rise in opium production to multiple factors including political instability, absence of alternative employment opportunities and lack of connectivity restricting access to urban markets.
Despite promises coming from the Taliban proclaiming that it “will bring opium cultivation to zero again”, the dependence on this centuries-old tradition of poppy-trade, is extremely difficult, if not impossible to break.
Historically speaking, after coming to power, the Taliban did ban opium in July 2000 and it did result in a reduction in the global supply, however, it bounced back soon after in 2002 and has been on an increasing trend ever since. In the subsequent years, most of the poppy was grown in Taliban held province of Helmand, in which opium continues to thrive to this day.
As of 2020, Helmand contributes 62 percent of hectare coverage for opiate production.
The poppy sector is a highly lucrative business and is expected to grow even further in value in upcoming years, primarily since there remains little or no industry capable of providing livelihoods and contributing to the country’s GDP at such a grand scale.
The primary rationale behind the expected growth of poppy-farming is the country’s vast population, especially in the rural areas, which is highly dependent, both directly and indirectly on opium. In rural areas, about 35 percent of all village headmen reported that at least some villagers cultivated opium poppy in 2019.
Some of the alternate sources of economic growth, such as donor funding and foreign aid are not sustainable, whereas other economic sectors with the potential to match opium’s industry’s value-addition have not been developed yet. One such sector is the mining industry of Afghanistan.
Unlike the resource rich regional countries like Iran, having 9.5 percent of the world's total proven oil reserves, and Turkmenistan having about 5 percent of the global natural gas reserves, Afghanistan lacks in hydrocarbons but possesses one of the largest reserves of valuable minerals in the world.
Yet, it has not been able to take advantage of its natural resources. Scattered all around the country, the area is filled with Industrial minerals, rare earth oxides and rare earth metals.
Recently, geologists have made notable discoveries such as lapis lazuli in Northern Badakhshan, gold, lead and zinc in Helmand, talc, and marble in Southern Nangarhar, providing an alternative lens into Afghanistan’s untapped mineral wealth.
However, owing to the state of being in conflict for almost 40 years, successive governments have failed to make significant investments to monetise the minerals industry. Some estimates suggest that the total worth of the country’s mineral wealth to be around $1 trillion.
Mountainous, rugged, and landlocked, Afghanistan is after all, a prisoner of its own geography. The terrain of the country makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible to connect the country’s urban market centers. Hence, the populace turns to their oldest tradition which they are accustomed to from centuries.
The length and breadth of the opium trade in Afghanistan spills over to regional markets such as Pakistan, Iran, Tajikistan, India, Turkey, and Uzbekistan, thus forming the “Golden Crescent”.
Taliban or no Taliban, the dependency of common Afghan citizens upon opium cultivation cannot be underestimated. Unless, the next best alternative to opium in terms of capacity to accommodate Afghans is invested upon and developed by regional countries and international organisations.
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