How the Taliban's incompetence is fuelling the Middle East's drug trade

The group has banned opium cultivation - but since it seized power, production and profits have gone way up

Opium cultivation in Afghanistan has risen by a third in 2022. AP
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The opium traders of Kandahar may not sit in swanky boardrooms or have corporate bonuses on the line, but they track price movements in what they trade just as keenly as any commodities dealer in Chicago or London. In the days after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, in August of last year, they watched the price of Afghan opium triple.

That price hike was caused by a statement from the Taliban at the time saying the new administration did not want to see “any narcotics produced” in Afghanistan, ostensibly because of the group’s religious beliefs, despite the country being the largest opium producer in the world. In the months since, more such announcements have raised expectations of a future supply shortage and kept prices growing. More recently, on April 3, the government’s supreme leader declared an immediate and unequivocal ban on poppy cultivation.

The open secret in Afghanistan, however, is that the Taliban’s ban has been neither immediate nor unequivocal. The new government lacks both the will to destroy the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people (many of whom are from Taliban heartlands) and the law-enforcement capability required to do so. In many areas, most farmers believe they can continue to grow and sell this autumn’s crop, which is being planted this week. Without any real deterrence, the cost of production has not changed.

But the pronouncements, nonetheless, have today brought prices to a level many times higher than the pre-Taliban days, with the market valuing each crop yield as though it could be the last. Somewhat paradoxically, however, the price inflation has encouraged existing farmers to expand their acreage and new ones to get in on the trade. On Tuesday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its finding that Afghan opium cultivation has increased by a third since the new government took power.

The open secret in Afghanistan is that the Taliban’s ban has been neither immediate nor unequivocal

The Taliban’s abysmal economic stewardship of Afghanistan has only made matters worse. With sanctions shutting the banking sector out of the global economy, poverty is at an all-time high. And the country is buckling under high inflation, as most goods are imported. The most valuable legal exports, like almonds, gemstones and carpets, are luxury goods in the global marketplace – inflation-weary consumers abroad can do without them. The global demand for narcotics, on the other hand, tends to rise in line with economic woes. With few legitimate sources of income available, drugs are Afghanistan’s main recession-proof export.

And now new ones are coming to market. The past year has seen an uptick in the production of crystal meth, the Afghan form of which is derived from the ephedra plant, which grows in abundance. Whereas meth producers in other countries rely on synthetic ephedrine, Afghan drug labs’ ability to use the natural variety makes their costs much cheaper. One district 200km from the Iranian border is known to host more than 300 labs.

This is bad news for the entire region. Afghan poppies were already a scourge in Iran, which has the world’s highest opium-addiction rates. But meth producers’ success is starting to hit countries further afield. Crystal meth, much of it from Afghan labs and brought in through old opium routes, is now the most widespread drug in Iraq, and in neighbouring Jordan the quantity seized by police so far in 2022 is 20 times higher than the previous year.

Without serious reforms in the government and help from abroad, tackling Afghanistan’s drug crisis will be a futile effort. The Taliban, when it was an insurgent group, was one of the greatest enablers of Afghanistan’s drug trade. Back then, many Taliban commanders encouraged opium cultivation, and took a share in the profit to fund their military operations. But while they may have suddenly remembered their sense of piety, impoverished farmers and Kandahari opium traders are only thinking about the bottom line.

Published: November 03, 2022, 3:00 AM