This is How Taliban benefits from Afghanistan’s drug trade

This is How Taliban benefits from Afghanistan’s drug trade

An Afghan man works in a poppy field in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. Picture: REUTERS

Economic crisis is likely to leave many destitute Afghans dependent on the narcotics trade for survival

Washington — The US spent more than $8bn over 15 years on efforts to deprive the Taliban of their profits from Afghanistan’s opium and heroin trade, from poppy eradication to air strikes and raids on suspected labs.

That strategy failed.

As the US wraps up its longest war, Afghanistan remains the world’s biggest illicit opiate supplier and looks certain to remain so as the Taliban is on the brink of taking power in Kabul, said current and former US and UN officials and experts.

Widespread destruction during the war, millions uprooted from their homes, foreign aid cuts, and losses of local spending by departed US-led foreign troops are fuelling an economic and humanitarian crisis that is likely to leave many destitute Afghans dependent on the narcotics trade for survival.

That dependence threatens to bring more instability as the Taliban, other armed groups, ethnic warlords, and corrupt public officials vie for drug profits and power.

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Some UN and US officials worry Afghanistan’s slide into chaos is creating conditions for even higher illicit opiate production, a potential boon to the Taliban.

“The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” said Cesar Gudes, the head of the Kabul office of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “More production brings drugs with a cheaper and more attractive price, and therefore a wider accessibility.”

The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income

Cesar Gudes, head of the Kabul office of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime

With the insurgents entering Kabul on Sunday, “these are the best moments in which these illicit groups tend to position themselves” to expand their business, Gudes said.

The Taliban banned poppy growing in 2000 as they sought international legitimacy, but faced a popular backlash and later mostly changed their stance, according to experts.

Despite the threats posed by Afghanistan’s illicit drug business, experts noted, the US and other nations rarely mention in public the need to address the trade — estimated by the UNODC at more than 80% of global opium and heroin supplies.

“We have stood by on the sidelines and, unfortunately, allowed the Taliban to become probably the largest funded non-designated terrorist organisation on the globe,” said a US official with knowledge of Afghanistan’s drug trade.

“The US and international partners have continued to pull out and not addressed poppy cultivation,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “What you’re going to find is that it has exploded.”

Asked for comment, a state department official said the US would continue to support the Afghan people, “including our ongoing counternarcotics efforts”, but declined to say how aid would continue should US assistance stop if the Taliban seize power.

Prices rocket

Afghan farmers weigh myriad factors in deciding how much poppy to plant. These range from annual precipitation and the price of wheat, the main alternative crop to poppy, to world opium and heroin prices.

Yet even during droughts and wheat shortages, when wheat prices rocket, Afghan farmers have grown poppy and extracted opium gum that is refined into morphine and heroin. In recent years, many have installed Chinese-made solar panels to power deep water wells.

Three of the last four years have seen some of Afghanistan’s highest levels of opium production, according to the UNODC. Even as the Covid-19 pandemic raged, poppy cultivation soared 37% last year, it reported in May.

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