‘It’s our lifeline’: the Taliban are back but Afghans say opium is here to stay
The Taliban’s announcement that it plans to ban the production of opium in Afghanistan does not faze seasoned dealer Ahmed Khan*.
“They could not fund their war if there were no opium,” says Khan, who operates out of Baramcha, close to the border with Pakistan.
He has traded in the drug for a quarter of a century and is confident that the group cannot really afford for trade to stop.
“There would be a backlash from the poppy farmers, drug lords and the public if the Taliban bans the opium production. The Taliban has benefited the most from opium production over 20 years.”
Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world, accounting for more than 80% of global production between 2015 and 2020, and generating millions of dollars annually.
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), an estimated 6,300 tonnes of opium was harvested in Afghanistan last year, an amount that can produce up to 290 tonnes of pure heroin. The amount of land given over to poppy production rose by more than a third between 2019 and 2020, to 224,000 hectares (553,516 acres).
But in his first press conference after the Taliban swept to power in August, the group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, announced drug production would stop. “From now on, nobody’s going to get involved [in the heroin trade], nobody can be involved in drug smuggling,” he said.
The announcement immediately saw prices of opium almost double, from 55,000 afghani (£445) for 4.5kg to 100,000 afghani (£810), says Khan.
“But now the traders know it won’t be banned, the prices have come down to £510,” says Khan, who predicts “there will be a boom in the opium trade” now the Taliban is back in power.
It’s not just Khan who doesn’t believe the Taliban can or will ban production. With the economy collapsing and a drought pushing millions into hunger, Taliban officials in the south are warning there is no viable alternative for farmers.
“Farmers are faced with a looming threat of drought. Farmlands and orchards are badly affected and that will force many farmers to grow poppies because it remains the only lifeline,” Abdul Ahad, the governor of Helmand province, where the vast majority of opium is grown, told the Guardian.
“If the international community does not accept our demands and the demands of civilians, farmers and the government, the farmers would go back to poppy cultivation because we have no other option.
“The international community should help in making dams, provide seeds and help the farmers to grow other crops.”
Attempts by the US to choke off the trade, spending $8bn over 15 years destroying crops and labs, made little headway. Although the previous leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, officially banned the cultivation and trafficking of opium in 2000, the trade continued.
The past 30 years have seen Baramcha transform from a desolate southern town to the centre of Afghanistan’s opium industry – and in a region that remained under Taliban control throughout the US-led occupation. The Taliban taxed traders and traffickers before allowing them to pass through their checkpoints into Pakistan.
In 2019, the latest year for which UNODC has data, the Taliban and other non-state actors collected up to $113m in opiate taxes. In 2017, which saw a record harvest, up to $350m was collected.
Khan says he sells at least 50 tonnes of opium a year to buyers in Baramcha, who then smuggle the drug into Pakistan’s south-west province of Balochistan. Crossing mountainous and rugged terrain, the smugglers head west into Iran.
Some Afghan farmers are now harvesting up to three poppy crops a year, instead of one, to meet demand.
In Musa Qala, Mohammed Yaqoob stands amid a field of white and pink poppy blossoms that lies beyond a dried up riverbed. The roads in this region of Helmand province are full of potholes, the result of mines and bomb blasts from years of fighting.
Yaqoob has farmed opium in these fields for more than 20 years. He grows other crops, but it is opium that puts food on the table.
“We don’t have any other way to earn any money,” says Yaqoob, who can make about £2,000 in a good season.
“If the Taliban would ban opium farming, it means they would want us to starve, which I don’t think they would do. We will resist it.”
He adds: “I want the foreigners to leave us Afghans alone and only help us by providing us with seeds and other facilities for agriculture, then we may grow something else other than opium. Otherwise, there is no alternative for us.”
Amrullah, who goes by one name, agrees. He has been farming opium in Musa Qala for four decades. He doesn’t own the land, but is responsible for farming and taking care of the crops. In return, he gets a quarter of the earnings, which brings in between £4,000 and £7,000 a year.
“We don’t get anything from wheat and vegetables, which need a lot of water and can’t supplement our income,” Amrullah says.
“I have earned good money [from opium] from 2015 to 2019, but due to the intense war and drought the crop was affected. As the Taliban are back in power, we are hopeful that we will cultivate poppy and work in peace.”