August 2023

Opium odds

Sudha Ramachandran charts the recent ban on poppy cultivation under the ruling Taliban, gauging its chances of success and implications for the people of Afghanistan 

Afghanistan’s Taliban regime seems to have achieved some success on one front, at least – the battle against poppy cultivation, which it is said to have ‘significantly’ reduced in the country.

According to United Nations estimates, until last year Afghanistan accounted for 85 per cent of the world’s total opium production. The sharp fall in the country’s cultivation of the poppy this year – particularly the breadseed or ‘opium’ poppy – will therefore severely dent global production and hence the supply of opium and heroin, which are derived from the flowering plant.

Drawing on high-resolution satellite images, the UK-based geospatial firm Alcis found that the ‘Taliban have successfully reduced poppy cultivation by more than 99 per cent in Helmand Province, which previously produced more than 50 per cent of the country’s opium’. The Alcis imagery reveals that the area under poppy cultivation in Helmand Province, which was 129,000 hectares in 2022, has fallen to 740 hectares as of April 2023, according to David Mansfield, an expert on Afghanistan’s opium trade.

Others have confirmed the findings. The chief of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan told a UN Security Council meeting recently that there was ‘growing evidence’ the Taliban’s opium poppy ban had been ‘effectively enforced’, decreasing the cultivation ‘significantly’ in many parts of the country.

‘Reports that the Taliban have implemented policies to significantly decrease opium poppy production this year are credible and important. Every country in the region and beyond has a shared interest in an Afghanistan free of drugs,’ Thomas West, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan, tweeted on June 7.

The fall in poppy cultivation follows a decree issued by Taliban emir Hibaitullah Akhundzada in April 2022, which prohibited the cultivation, production, usage, transportation, trade, export and import of all illicit drugs in Afghanistan. Under the decree, Taliban’s anti-narcotics units were empowered to destroy the poppy crops.

Afghan farmers collect raw opium as they work in a poppy field
The decrease in Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation will severely dent the supply of opium and heroin

‘As a result of continued efforts of the Islamic Emirate, the cultivation of poppy has been eradicated in the country,’ Akhundzada announced on June 24.

Interestingly, in the months after the Taliban seized power in Kabul in August 2021, poppy cultivation surged. The prevailing uncertainty over the likelihood of a Taliban crackdown on narcotics led to a sharp spike in opium prices, prompting poppy cultivators to cash in on the windfall gains. Poppy cultivation grew by 32 per cent in 2022, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

So why, we must ask, did cultivation of the plant not fall in the months immediately after Akhundzada announced the ban on all stages of the opium trade?

The Taliban’s successful reduction of poppy output this year is no small achievement

It appears that the Taliban’s enforcement of the decree was gradual. Although the group issued the decree in April 2022, it did not crack down on cultivation or trade within the country in the months that followed. Poppy plants grown before the ban continued to be sold. Pictures and videos of Taliban officials burning crops last year were aimed more at discouraging farmers from growing opium in the next planting season, rather than slashing production and trade in one fell swoop.

The Taliban’s successful reduction of poppy output this year is no small achievement. Governments with far more resources at their command have failed to crack down effectively on narcotics. During the 20-year occupation of Afghanistan by US forces, successive American administrations spent billions of dollars in their effort to halt opium production. Poppy crops were destroyed and farmers were provided with support to shift to alternatives. Yet the US failed.

Among the reasons for this failure is that several warlords were cultivating poppy, many of whom held powerful positions in the Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani governments. The US needed their support in its fight against the Taliban, and therefore avoided antagonising them.

It will surely only be a matter of time before farmers return to growing the crop

Additionally, although the Taliban opposes the consumption of opium and other narcotics as un-Islamic, it benefited substantially from the trade during the insurgency, collecting ‘taxes’ from poppy farmers and traders in the country. Consequently, Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation and opium manufacture touched new highs between 2001 and 2021.

While poppy cultivation may have fallen this year, whether the Taliban regime will remain committed to implementing the ban in the coming years remains to be seen.

The Afghan economy is in a critical state and the poppy ban has plunged thousands of farmers into penury. Given how lucrative poppy cultivation is, it will surely only be a matter of time before farmers return to growing the crop. Unless the Taliban regime is able to provide these farmers with suitable alternatives, more surging poverty amid an already severe economic crisis will trigger angry resistance from the masses.

Taliban emir Hibaitullah Akhundzada

Narcotics experts say that while the fall in poppy production is welcome, the consequent fall in heroin supply could increase the demand for synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. The risks involved in consuming synthetic drugs instead of heroin are far higher. Fentanyl, for instance, is 50 times stronger than heroin, which means the chances of overdosing and dying are higher.

Taliban officials claim that the poppy decree is motivated by the group’s religious and ideological opposition to narcotics, and religious zeal on the part of Akhundzada and the clerics in Kandahar could indeed have prompted the decision.

However, the Taliban’s quest for recognition from the international community would have been an important factor too. The possibility that the Taliban is keen to get the international community to end its isolation and revive aid and other support to Afghanistan, in return for its action against poppy production, cannot be ruled out.

But, given the enormous negative fallout from the Taliban’s opium ban, it is unlikely that the international community will be impressed by its ‘success’ in the battle against opium. Moreover, the dubious gains from the ban cannot cancel out the immense suffering that the Taliban has heaped on women and girls with its repressive policies.

Chances are slim, therefore, that the Taliban poppy decree will prompt a change in policy towards the Taliban from the international community.

Dr Sudha Ramachandran is a Bengaluru-based independent analyst who writes on South Asian political and security issues. She can be contacted at Sudha.ramachandran@live.in