25 Aug 2021
Can the Taliban detox from Afghanistan's opium economy?
By John Coyne
As the world continues to watch heartbreaking scenes from Kabul, many are bracing for the far-reaching ramifications of its fall.
The impact of the Taliban takeover on the global heroin trade is one such concern.
Resin from Afghanistan's opium fields is used to produce the majority of the world's heroin. Some analysts are already predicting that the Taliban will increase its control of Afghanistan's opium trade.
It may seem unlikely, however this could well be one of the few positive results arising from the Taliban's return to power.
For centuries, the opium poppy has been grown in Afghanistan for local consumption. It would have stayed that way, too, if not for US foreign policy.
In 1953 a US-sponsored coup handed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi control of Iran. As Shah, he soon after banned opium cultivation. Afghans moved quickly to fill the void and eventually expanded production to meet demand from European markets.
The opium poppy offered reliable income
The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 — and the US support for the Afghan fighters, the mujahedin, who battled against the Soviet forces — was the catalyst for further increases in production.
The mujahedin used opium poppy cultivation to fund their insurgency.
When the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, and US funding for the mujahedin ceased, the power vacuum that was left resulted in five years of factional fighting.
With no financial support from the US, warlords looked to the opium trade to fund their fight.
By the early 1990s Afghanistan was entering into its second decade of war, and now there were multiple tribal warlords vying for power. In the process much of the country was reduced to rubble. The Taliban grew from the fractured elements of the mujahedin, and offered a promise to restore security.
Within three years of the Taliban seizing power in 1996, Afghanistan had produced a record quantity of opium. By taxing the production of opium, the Taliban was able to fund its military and the newly formed government.
Opium posed a religious dilemma
Then in 2000, Taliban leader Mullah Hammad declared that growing opium poppy was against sharia law. Within a year, production across Taliban controlled districts rapidly declined.
Whether done for altruistic or idealistic reasons, or to simply prevent any of Afghanistan's powerful warlords from raising the funds to resist the Taliban's rule, this move resulted in a global heroin shortage.
The US government, and political analysts, argued that the Taliban crackdown on production was an effort to manipulate prices in the global market. The theory was that in time the Taliban would use large stockpiles of heroin to make big profits when the price eventually rose.
However, such views seem fanciful and conveniently align with the broader US narrative on the Taliban.
When the US returned, so did the heroin
In 2001, the US war in Afghanistan reset opium production to new highs.
Ironically, while in power the Taliban had erased the one global problem in Afghanistan: the production of opium for heroin.
But when they were removed from government in 2001 the Taliban returned to the cultivation of opium and the production of heroin to fund their war against the US.
The Taliban raised funds by encouraging poppy cultivation and then applying taxes to production and smuggling of heroin.
They weren't the only ones, though: it was a national pastime.
During the war in Afghanistan coalition governments spent more than $US8 billion to reduce poppy cultivation. They failed miserably.
Despite coalition efforts Afghanistan remained the world's number one opium grower and heroin producer for almost two decades.
Opium production a political problem for the Taliban
Within days of taking power in Afghanistan last week, the Taliban declared it would once again ban opium cultivation.
Doing so is very much in their self-interest.
The Taliban leadership knows that any Afghan warlord or opposition party that seeks to challenge its control will require money to buy weapons and pay fighters. It seems unlikely that the US government, at least in the short term, will have any appetite for funding such groups.
From first-hand experience over the past two decades, the Taliban understands that if left unchecked, the opium trade will be a ready source of funding for any opposition. So, banning opium production makes sense.
There are, of course, question marks over where the Taliban will get the money to keep themselves in power.
The answer here is complex, but will no doubt include investments from China, Pakistan, and Russia.
It seems that the globe is set to experience another heroin shortage within the next two years.
To some, this sounds like a positive outcome.
Yet it's not without problems.
Many addicts will not simply give up their habits.
Some will seek out synthetic opioids, which are far more prone to overdose because of their strength.
Others will choose to use alternatives like methamphetamine.
Troubling times ahead.