Whither The Drug Economy Of Afghanistan? – Analysis


Opium poppy cultivation has been banned by the defacto regime of Afghanistan in April 2022 for twin reasons: to gain legitimacy and recognition from the international community for the regime and also to contain production and trafficking of something which is considered unlslamic or haram.

It needs to be underlined that opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan was not only crucial to its local economy supplying the basic necessities to many poor farmers, it has been critical to the political fates of the Taliban’s rule as well as the American counterinsurgency efforts.

Ban Goes Against the Kernels of Taliban’s Own Experiences and Ground Realities

The drug economy in Afghanistan has been sustained and propelled by decades of instabilities and chaos with weak or failed state institutions unsuccessful towards curbing it by providing viable alternative sources of employment at the local level. On the other side, insurgents and landlords saw the opiate economy running through illicit channels as sources of their income. They could raise money at different levels from farmers to traders who were involved in such illicit trafficking onto the border posts where the drugs were entering into the international market.

The Taliban before coming to power also looked at this illicit economy as a major source of their funding. However, whenever they ran the government, they banned the production and trade of opium as they did it in July 2000 and this time in 2022. As per the reports by UN officials the Taliban likely earned more than $400m between 2018 and 2019 from the drug trade. The defacto regime apparently understood the vitality of drug economy to Afghanistan’s overall economy while obstinately contradicting itself in a bid to seek international legitimacy. The Taliban regime also obdurately denied to acknowledge the impacts of the previous ban in July 2000 while passing this decree which boastfully ignored the ground realities.

In that context, Brookings Institution scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown argued that the ban ignited “a huge political storm against the Taliban and it was one reason why there were such dramatic defections after the US invasion”. A smug denial of the facts was also reflected in the regime’s ban as it had already witnessed how the US and its allies spent a whopping sum between 2002 and 2017 amounting to $8.6bn to trammel production and trade of opium in Afghanistan in a bid to squeeze the funds of the Taliban which in turn created a support-base for the Taliban among farmers and others who relied on the drug economy without sustainable and viable alternative economic models at the local level.

On the other side, these counter-narcotic efforts caused disaffection with the US and NATO forces and with the Afghan government backed by them. It was clear then that the Taliban went against the grain of their own experiences and ground realities while imposing the ban. The first ban continued for too a short time to gauge the wholistic impacts of it at the national and international level as the US-led War against Terrorism toppled the Taliban regime in 2001 just a few months more than one year after the ban.

As per the report of UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released in November 2023- following the sweeping ban “Opium cultivation fell across all parts of the country, from 233,000 hectares to just 10,800 hectares in 2023. The decrease has led to a corresponding 95 per cent drop in the supply of opium, from 6,200 tons in 2022 to just 333 tons in 2023”. The report also noted “Until 2023, the value of Afghanistan’s opiate exports alone has frequently exceeded the value of the country’s legally exported goods and services”.

However, this sweeping ban throughout the country has not been accompanied by any such measures which could have provided alternative sources of income and employment to rural and poor people who are largely dependent on agriculture. 

The Impending Consequences

The latest ban was not implemented with a retrospective effect – the areas of land undergoing cultivation and harvesting during and after the ban were allowed to continue with that for that season and the farmers were to refrain from cultivation from the next season which partly explains why the local people may not have strongly reacted to such a decree.The ban was relatively successful for the short-term because in 2022 the farmers had some time and opiate resources with them.

However, with the gradual depletion of financial resources, the poor farmers have begun to experience the impacts of the ban. They are switching to cultivation of wheat which cannot earn them livelihood because of its low selling price and lack of diversification of agricultural production. Big farmers and landowners reserved the harvested crop in their inventories preventing any immediate impact of the ban on them. They will soon be badly affected by the ban. In the absence of any other employment and sources of income available for the farmers and labours, their economic conditions would further deteriorate. To offset the economic losses and sustain the human lives, humanitarian aid and development assistance need to voluminously flow into the war-battered country.

While the UN sponsored humanitarian assistance is flowing into Afghanistan, other sources of assistance and donations have significantly reduced in the wake the Taliban rule including development assistance from the US. This aid needs to be channelized to create rural economic infrastructure which has not been materialised. Water crisis, irregular displacements of people, droughts and war-ravaged socio-economic conditions militate against any sustainable income source among Afghans about 80 percent of whom are dependent on agriculture. Following the Taliban take over, jobs in cities and opportunities in non-farm sectors have greatly shrunk. External and major powers which could have created job opportunities through exploring minerals and other natural resources by working with the Taliban regime have not come forward except singing onto a few projects. The worsening economic conditions would create a base for resistance and backlash among the farmers, labours and traders including the landowning class. The possibilities of migration to other countries would also receive a fillip.

Danger of Synthetic Drug Production and Trade Looms Large

Although some observers see in the Taliban’s drive quick success in the overall counter-narcotic efforts which years of US-led counterinsurgency efforts could not achieve, their observations are based on short-term statistics gathered from satellite images of farming lands which demonstrate a remarkable success of the ban around 95 percent slash in the production of opium poppy in one year.

However, the consequences are not going to be as positive as they are now with the passage of time.The ground realities would soon be different. Farmers, labours and traders would react to the situation differently some would lobby with the regime to continue cultivation such as the landowning class, some would dissent and refuse to accept the ban and some would migrate to avoid the deteriorating economic conditions. 

The worst among all these reactions would be to produce synthetic drugs with the synthesis of much less of raw materials such as opium with more of chemicals. It has been evidenced in the aftermath of the Taliban’s first ban in 2000 that a decline in the availability of heroin which is produced from opium spurred manufacturing of synthetic opioids or stimulants such as fentanyl, methamphetamine and cathinones which cast adverse effects on people’s health.

The drug economy of Afghanistan may be sliding in that direction as a report of the UNODC in September 2023 revealed a grim fact that “Afghanistan is the world’s fastest-growing maker of methamphetamine, with seizures of the synthetic drug increasing as poppy cultivation shrinks”. The defacto regime may also get indirectly involved in the process to generate revenues from it without other substantive avenues of resources while clinging to its ban to earn legitimacy. These synthetic drugs are not only more dangerous to human health, the industry-based manufacturing of chemical drugs would further damage the agricultural economy of Afghanistan which is already shattered and the farmers and labours would further be marginalised.

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra

Dr. Manoj Kumar Mishra has a PhD in International Relations from the Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad. He is currently working as a Lecturer in Political Science, S.V.M. Autonomous College, Odisha, India. Previously, he worked as the Programme Coordinator, School of International Studies, Ravenshaw University, Odisha, India. He taught Theories of International Relations and India’s Foreign Policy to MA and M.Phil. students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *