In the 1980s, the US encouraged the Mujahedin to use the opium trade to help finance their anti-communist insurgency, even as it launched a War on Drugs crusade at home and across Latin America. When the US later invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it found uprooting opium impossible.
Afghanistan is presently the world’s largest source of opium and drugs derived from opium, such as heroin. While the Taliban* attempted to eradicate the plant in its final years of power, after the US invasion the group encouraged poppy cultivation as a way to finance their insurgency.
However, as the Taliban outlines its new plans for governance after seizing power on Sunday, the issue of the narcotics trade has once again come up.
“We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community, we will not have any narcotics produced,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told reporters in Kabul on Tuesday. “From now on, nobody’s going to get involved (in the heroin trade), nobody can be involved in drug smuggling.”
Mujahid also asked for “international assistance” in combating cultivation of the flowers, which are picked before they bloom in order to harvest the powerful painkiller from their seed pods. The Taliban is seeking to replace them with other crops, as has been implemented with some success in places like Colombia, with respect to the coca plants used to produce cocaine.
According to a 2020 report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), poppies are cultivated in 12 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, where some 224,000 hectares of them were sown that year. That volume of cultivation increased by 37% from 2019, with the most dramatic increases in the southern and western regions.
Between 2002 and 2017, the US spent some $8.62 billion on counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan with little effect, according to a report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). In another report this past July, SIGAR noted that “Drug interdiction and arrests continue to have a minimal impact on the country’s opium-poppy cultivation.”
“The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” Cesar Gudes, head of the UNODC’s Kabul office, told Reuters. “More production brings drugs with a cheaper and more attractive price, and therefore a wider accessibility.”
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.
© AFP 2021 / Bay Ismoyo
US Marines and Gunnary Sergeant Nate Cosby (R), Staff Sergeant Josh Lacey (2nd R) and Navy Hospitalman 2 Daniel Holmberg (L) from Border Adviser Team (BAT) and Explosive Ordance Disposal (EOD) 1st and 2nd Marine Division (Forward) walk through opium poppy field at Maranjan village in Helmand province on April 25, 2011 as they take patrol with their team and Afghanistan National Police.
The US CIA and Pakistani ISI began encouraging Mujaheddin leaders to push poppy cultivation in Afghanistan during their insurgency against the socialist Democratic Republic of Afghanistan and their Soviet allies in the 1980s as a way to supplement their incomes, according to MintPress News. The trade grew to a huge 4,600 tons by 2000, before the Taliban quickly moved to stamp out the trade, declaring the use of heroin and hashish and the cultivation of opium to be against the Prophet Mohammad’s teachings in an attempt to win international legitimacy.
At this they were quite successful, with just 185 tons being harvested the following year, earning them praise in Washington and the pages of the New York Times.
Gretchen Peters, author of the book “Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al-Qaeda,” told Agence France-Presse that the Taliban’s ban was “a ploy” made possible by their incredible profits in the 1990s.
“They are not going to get rid of the drug trade because they are too tied up with it,” she said. “Afghanistan cannot survive without opium. It is simultaneously killing Afghanistan while also keeping a huge number of people alive.”
As Sputnik has reported, a flurry of meetings and discussions have taken place between Afghanistan’s neighbors and other regional powers in the week since the Taliban took Kabul without a fight and then-President Ashraf Ghani fled into exile. Iranian and Chinese diplomats have both met with the Taliban recently to discuss their terms of recognition and trade, which includes renunciation of terrorism, and the US has similarly indicated that it could lower financial sanctions against the Taliban if it complies with its promises of renouncing terrorism and building a diverse government that respects human rights.
With the Taliban seemingly more interested in international legitimacy following its recent conquest of power than during its first time in power, it seems likely they could clamp down once again, even if it’s nothing more than a shrewd political ploy.
*The Taliban is listed as a terrorist organization by the United Nations in UNSCR 1267