The Taliban (an organization banned in Russia), which seized power in Afghanistan a year ago, have pledged a tough fight against drugs, saying the cultivation, transportation and distribution of opium poppies are punishable by death. However, many experts had already raised doubts as to whether the Islamists would succeed in tackling the international drug business, or whether they themselves would become part of it.
This structure had already ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, with very conflicting memories during that period. The Taliban had already made anti-narcotics statements: while in power, in July 2000 the Taliban declared that opium was contrary to Islam, introduced the death penalty for growing and distributing drugs and ordered the eradication of opium poppy crops. As a result, cultivation dropped from 82,100 hectares to 7,600 in one year, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). However, with the start of the US military intervention in the country in 2001, poppy cultivation fell back to 74,000 hectares and has been rising ever since.
According to reports, since the start of hostilities with the US and the intensification on all fronts, the Taliban themselves have been involved in the drug business, because they needed money to buy weapons and military equipment and pay for their mercenaries. And the opium poppy tax was an important source of revenue for the Taliban, although they deny it. It should not be forgotten, however, that the withdrawal of international aid after the arrival of the Taliban brought down the Afghan economy and was an additional reason for the population’s return to the drug trade.
In addition, the long-term involvement of Afghans in drug production has become the only form of livelihood for many Afghan peasants, and the Taliban, who have been unable to provide them an alternative to this criminal activity, have had to accommodate the demands of the population and continue this criminal business. This is despite the fact that Afghanistan’s climate allows almost any crop to be grown there. All the more so because the country has a wealth of experience in the cultivation of cereal crops and fruits, with very tasty rice, wheat and, in the south, citrus fruits.
However, in order to grow a proper crop, a market had to be established. But such bordering countries as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan do not eagerly allow Afghan agricultural products to enter, as they grow them themselves. Some of these countries did buy food from Afghans at low prices and then sell it to other countries as their own. In addition, the sale of agricultural products was complicated by Afghanistan’s difficult relations with neighboring countries, including Muslim ones. For example, Pakistan used to be an importer of Afghan food, but a large proportion of Afghans do not like Pakistanis. Trade with Iran has been held back because it is a Shiite state.
All these problems are still present in Afghanistan today, and as a result, since the Taliban came to power in 2021, there has been an increase in drug smuggling attempts across the Afghan-Tajik border, and Tajikistan itself, due to its geopolitical position, has become a transit route for Afghan drugs to the CIS and Europe. This was reported in particular by the Drug Control Agency (DCA) under the President of Tajikistan. Thus, according to information published by the DCA, between August 2021 and June 2022, over three tonnes of drugs were seized only in the areas of Tajikistan adjacent to Afghanistan. By comparison, only 1,185 kg of drugs had been seized in the same border areas during 2020.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), with the Taliban in power in Afghanistan there was an 8% increase in opium production as early as November last year. Meanwhile, some 320 tonnes of pure heroin found their way onto the world’s drug markets. As noted by the UNODC, income in Afghanistan from opiates in 2021 was between $1.8 and $2.7 billion. Meanwhile, the political situation in Afghanistan since August 2021 has encouraged opium prices to almost double, providing a clear incentive for opium farmers to plant opium poppy.
The Taliban-formed government has previously said it was seeking alternatives for farmers. At the same time, however, the Taliban point out that they cannot objectively change the situation without offering farmers something specific in return. It is now recognized by many experts that drugs are not just an Afghan problem, but a general challenge. And the Taliban are a kind of specific tool likely to resolve it. Along with the fight against drug trafficking, the Taliban’s main concern now is the integration into civilian life of shahids and suicide bombers, who have been trained since childhood to die in combat.
However, only international investment can transform Afghanistan from a major drug producer into a flourishing agricultural power, as it is clear that the Taliban alone will not be up to the task. And one possible area of such global cooperation could be the interest of external players in Afghanistan’s minerals – lithium, gems, gas, and oil. It is in this direction that the Taliban are now negotiating cooperation with African Muslim countries, particularly Uganda.
However, Afghanistan needs specialists, engineers and expensive equipment to exploit minerals. Everything is tied up in money, but the big question is whether they will be given credit, whether anyone will be involved in the development, even in terms of security. Therefore, a very important issue for the current Afghan authorities today is to get investment, a certain level of loyalty from the international community. In addition, not only the problem of opium poppy per se, but also the borders need to be addressed, as the Tajik and Turkmen borders have been a public thoroughfare lately.
As for changing the structure of agricultural crops, this is no guarantee of improving the well-being of the country’s inhabitants, as it largely depends on the Taliban’s ability to sell their crops and find a market for them. Again, much will depend on whether the international community is prepared to accept the Taliban as representatives of the official legitimate authority in Afghanistan, especially in the context of the already established and not always loyal attitude towards that country, towards the Taliban. And if this situation is not reversed, then, accordingly, the attitude towards Afghanistan as a whole will affect its foreign trade and profit from legal, rather than criminal, activities. And that is what directly determines whether farmers will have something to do, whether they will have something to gain an income from, whether the hotbed of drug trafficking in Afghanistan will cease to exist.
Vladimir Platov, expert on the Middle East, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.