One of the first announcements the Taliban made as it seized power in Afghanistan last month was that they were going to end illicit drug production. But, as with other promises of change from the Taliban -- like women's rights or press freedoms -- there is a whole lot of skepticism about the claim.
But in addition to the general skepticism about the Taliban's plans for the country, the notion of them imposing a ban on opium production runs afoul of economic and political realities on the ground. The challenge is that the opium crop is a key component of the Afghan economy, accounting for somewhere between seven and 11 percent the country's Gross Domestic Product, and bringing in as much as $2 billion in 2019, more than Afghanistan's entire licit agricultural sector.
It is also a job creator in a country where opportunities are scarce. The opium harvest employs the equivalent of 119,000 full-time jobs, not counting the farmers themselves and their family members. The broader opium economy also supports untold thousands in the domestic trade (opium traders, heroin producers, domestic dealers) and as service providers for that trade (packers, transporters), as well as internationally connected individuals working in the international trade. The opium economy is especially strong in areas of key Taliban support, such as Helmand and Kandahar provinces in the south.
Afghanistan has accounted for between 80 percent and 90 percent of global opium production throughout this century, a pattern that began, ironically enough, in the 1980s, when the CIA waged a secret war against the Soviet occupation of the country and enlisted both Islamic radicals and the opium trade in the battle. Opium "is an ideal crop in a war-torn country since it requires little capital investment, is fast growing and is easily transported and traded,"the State Department reported in 1986.
As noted by global drug historian Alfred W. McCoy, author of the groundbreaking "The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade,"in a 2018 article:
"As relentless warfare between CIA and Soviet surrogates took its toll, Afghan farmers began to turn to opium 'in desperation', since it produced 'high profits' that could cover rising food prices. At the same time, the state department reported that resistance elements took up opium production and trafficking 'to provide staples for [the] population under their control and to fund weapons purchases'."
"As the mujahideen guerrillas gained ground against the Soviet occupation and began to create liberated zones inside Afghanistan in the early 1980s, the resistance helped fund its operations by collecting taxes from peasants who grew the lucrative opium poppies, particularly in the fertile Helmand valley. Caravans carrying CIA arms into that region for the resistance often returned to Pakistan loaded down with opium -- sometimes, reported the New York Times, 'with the assent of Pakistani or American intelligence officers who supported the resistance.'"
And nearly four decades later, Afghanistan remains the world's number one supplier of opium and its derivative, heroin, with the latter going into the veins of habitues from Lahore to London. And now, with the withdrawal of the West and all its billions of dollars of economic assistance and with the key role opium plays in the economy, the Taliban is going to ban it?
It would be a risky move for the Taliban, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.
"The Taliban can risk a ban, but it would be politically costly in ways that are more complex than in 2000 [when they also banned it] and it could lead to tremendous destabilization,"she told the Chronicle in a phone interview. "This is a country where 90 percent of the population lives in poverty. It's also a situation where many mid-level Taliban commanders are dependent on opium for their income and livelihoods for their fighters. To impose a ban would require the Taliban to maintain a high level of aggression, which would create political fissures and fractures and would play into the hands of other actors. One reason local warlords didn't fight the Taliban this summer was that the Taliban was promising them access to the local economy, and in many places, that means opium."
Even in the best of circumstances, replacing a lucrative illicit economy with legal alternatives is a long-term project, and these are not the best of circumstances, to say the least.
"The Afghan economy is more or less tanking,"Felbab-Brown said. "A massive influx of foreign aid has been an inescapable component of the economic life of the country, and now, the Taliban does not have any way of dealing with stopping opium by delivering alternative livelihoods. Even if they had a well-designed program, you are looking at decades to suppress it,"she said.
Still, the Taliban has done it before.
"When it comes to banning opium, we are looking at a possible replay of the 1990s,"said Felbab-Brown. "What the Taliban want is international recognition. In the 1990s, they kept promising they would ban poppies in return for international recognition, but then said they could not do it because they could not starve their people, until in 2000, they did it. Will they risk that again? My expectation is that we are going to see the same bargaining with the international community, but as I said, if the Taliban does try to do a ban, they will struggle to enforce it."
The Taliban also face a possible loss of the opioid market share if they enact a ban and then change their mind because of adverse circumstances, Felbab-Brown said.
"The difference now is the synthetic opioids,"she said, alluding to the production of fentanyl and its derivatives coming from Chinese and Indian chemical factories. "If the Taliban move to ban and then decide it is too difficult to sustain politically or financially, it might not find it easy to just return to the same markets; the European markets, for instance, could be snatched away by synthetic opioids."
As for how the much vaunted "international community"should approach Afghan opium production, that's a complicated question.
"There is no unity in the international community on how to deal with Afghanistan,"Felbab-Brown said. "The Chinese and Iranians are warming up to the Taliban, and the Russians will be urging the Taliban to go for a ban. I suspect the ban talk is mainly to satisfy the Russians. But we should not be pushing the ban; that would be catastrophic in terms of humanitarian consequences."
Afghan government and Western efforts to suppress the opium trade proved futile throughout the Western occupation, and now the likelihood of any sort of robust international campaign to suppress Afghan poppies appears next to nil. Outside of legalization of the trade, which does not appear even remotely likely, the only alternative for suppressing opium production is to cajole farmers to grow other crops in a bid to wean them off the poppy, but even those sorts of programs are now in question.
"Should the international community be working with the Taliban to try to implement alternatives livelihoods?"asked Felbab-Brown. "It's a difficult question and can't be considered in isolation. It will be part of the bargaining over a whole set of policies, including women's rights and human rights."
Uncertainty abounds over what the Taliban's opium policy will actually look like. In the meantime, the farmers are planting the seeds for next year's crop right now.