How could this happen? This is what many people ask themselves in view of the terrible images of the Taliban’s invasion of the Afghan capital, Kabul. At least as far as the Taliban’s financial resources are concerned, there is an answer: drugs
The Taliban’s military success in Afghanistan would probably not have been possible without an important source of income: drug trafficking. The sale of opium and heroin washes millions of dollars into the coffers of the Islamists , who surprisingly quickly regained power after the withdrawal of Western troops.
Drugs are “the largest industry in the country other than war,” says Barnett Rubin, a former State Department advisor on Afghanistan. The United Nations estimates that the Taliban made more than $ 400 million in drug trafficking between 2018 and 2019. In a report by the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (Sigar) last May, a US official is quoted as saying that the Taliban derives up to 60 percent of its annual income from growing and trafficking drugs.
The fight against drug trafficking is unsuccessful
As a result, the United States has also tried to drain this source of income. According to a Sigar report, they spent more than eight billion dollars between 2002 and 2017 to deprive the Taliban of their profits from the opium and heroin trade. Air strikes and raids on suspected laboratories were among them. This strategy failed. Afghanistan is likely to remain the world’s largest illicit supplier of opiates under the Taliban, current and former US officials and experts say.
The Taliban, in turn, have learned their lesson, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scientist at the Brookings Institute. They banned the cultivation of poppies for opium production in 2000. At that time they were already in power and with this step they were looking for international recognition.
However, the ban backfired because it cost them a lot of sympathy among local farmers. “That sparked a huge political storm against the Taliban and was one of the reasons why there were so many deserters after the US invasion,” said Felbab-Brown.
It is therefore unlikely that the Taliban will ban poppy cultivation again, experts say. “Any future government must act cautiously to avoid alienating its rural followers and provoking resistance and violent rebellion,” said David Mansfield, a leading researcher on drug trafficking in Afghanistan.
Poppy cultivation for opium production is increasing
Even when wheat prices soared, Afghan farmers preferred to grow poppy seeds and extract opium gum, which is made into morphine and heroin. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Afghanistan’s highest opium production to date has been recorded in three of the past four years. Even when the corona pandemic raged, poppy cultivation rose by 37 percent in the past year, it is said.
The estimated record high of opium production was achieved in 2017 with 9,900 tons. That brought about 1.4 billion dollars in sales into the coffers of the farmers, reports the UNODC. That corresponds to about seven percent of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). If export and imported chemicals are added, the total illegal opiate economy is likely to be up to $ 6.6 billion this year. The Taliban and officials have long been involved in drug trafficking, experts say.
Expert: Checkpoints on roads are a source of income
However, some aficionados of Afghanistan consider such assessments to be exaggerated. Drugs expert Mansfield, for example, estimates that the Taliban could earn a maximum of $ 40 million a year from illegal opiates – mainly through taxes on opium production, heroin laboratories and drug deliveries. The extremists would make more money, however, by collecting tolls for legal imports and exports at roadside checkpoints.
The United Nations and Washington, however, assume that the Taliban are involved in all facets of the drug trade – from poppy cultivation, opium production and trade, to levying ” taxes ” on growers and drug laboratories, to levying smugglers’ fees for deliveries to Africa , Europe, Canada, Russia, the Middle East and other parts of Asia.
The situation is threatened with aggravation
Now a new economic and humanitarian crisis looms due to the destruction caused by the war, the millions of internally displaced persons, cuts in development aid and the loss of local spending due to withdrawn foreign troops. This is likely to drive many impoverished Afghans into drug trafficking, without which they cannot survive. This dependency, in turn, threatens to exacerbate instability in the country as the Taliban, other armed groups, warlords and corrupt officials vie for drug profits and power.
Some UN and US officials fear that Afghanistan’s slide into chaos will create conditions for even higher levels of illegal opiate production. “More production brings drugs at a cheaper and more attractive price and thus wider accessibility,” fears Cesar Gudes, who heads the UNODC office in Kabul.
Even now, he estimates, more than 80 percent of the world’s opium and heroin deliveries are likely to come from the country in the Hindu Kush. “We stood on the sidelines and, unfortunately, allowed the Taliban to become probably the largest drug-financed terrorist organization in the world,” said a US official.