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Despite the Taliban’s pledge to eradicate opium, the poppy trade still flourishes in Afghanistan

The Taliban have always had a complicated relationship with the opium trade. As a narcotic, opium is haram, or forbidden under Islamic law. But at the same time opium production has tended to increase in areas they have controlled, where local leaders reportedly raise money to fund their operations by imposing “taxes” on poppy farmers and others involved in the trade.

When it retook power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the Taliban leadership said it would prohibit the production of opium and duly announced the ban in April 2022. Islamic law notwithstanding, this was widely interpreted as part of the regime’s push for international recognition and the unfreezing of Afghanistan’s foreign assets – which remain subject to international sanctions.

But recent figures released by the United Nation’s Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) suggest that – thus far – the ban has been ineffective. By 2022, the area of land under opium cultivation had increased by 32%, or 56,000 hectares, compared to the previous year. The 2022 crop was the third-largest area under cultivation since UNODC began monitoring in 1994, as the graph below shows.

Previous efforts to control cultivation have had limited success in persuading farmers to stop growing poppies. The failure of the US-led eradication effort that took place from 2003 to 2009 highlighted the difficulty of physically destroying crops before harvest as a means of reducing cultivation. The total campaign cost almost US$300 million (£245 million), representing more than $31,000 per hectare of eradication.

This effort had little impact, in part because of the scale of cultivation across Afghanistan (UNODC estimates 20% of arable land in Helmand is used to cultivate poppies) and a lack of viable alternatives for farmers. It was also difficult for the eradication teams to operate in hostile areas.

Total area of opium cultivation for Afghanistan between 1994 and 2022 from the UNODC’s annual opium surveys. Taliban bans opium in July 2000 and April 2022.

Programmes to promote alternatives to the poppy crop have also had a limited overall effect in areas where opium growing is concentrated. Afghanistan’s southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar are the source of the majority of the world’s opium and its production dominates the agricultural system.

Cash crop

My colleagues and I research technological ways of monitoring illicit crops. Security issues make doing this from the ground difficult in Afghanistan so, in 2005, we started work that aimed to address gaps in generic knowledge of how to measure poppy, poppy yield and poppy eradication from satellite imagery. This resulted in an integrated application of high, medium and coarse spatial resolution satellite data to provide critical information on cereal and poppy cultivation in Afghanistan.

Our research between 2005 and 2010 identified areas in Helmand where up to 30% of the cultivated area was used for growing poppy, with the rest mostly wheat. At this time, prices were decreasing and pressure on opium production in the more established areas caused an expansion of cultivation into areas of former desert. Growers in these new areas use water drawn from deep wells for irrigation, which is a source of concern for future water security.

Afghan farmers are now more than ever dependent on opium for their livelihoods as there are no viable alternatives for generating income. These marginal areas require investment in higher-cost farming techniques, such as pumps to draw water for irrigation, which only cash from opium can provide.

Despite the lack of success in reducing opium cultivation, there has been an expectation that the Taliban might succeed where others have failed. This is not just wishful thinking. Their previous ban halted cultivation in 2001, as the graph above shows, although from a lower level of overall opium production than now.

The widespread effectiveness of their ban on opium cultivation was the result of brutal enforcement in areas under their control. Individual farmers were first warned and those violating the ban were forced to destroy their crops alongside corporal punishment and prison.

An Afghan man smoking an opium pipe.
Black smoke: opium addiction is a serious problem in Afghanistan. EPA-EFE/Maxim Shipenkov

One of the difficulties in measuring the impact of the new ban is the inevitable lag between any enforcement and the release of official figures. The Taliban’s April 2022 ban came when the growing season was already well underway so it’s still too early to properly assess the extent to which it has been obeyed. The ban announced in July 2000 halted production in the 2021 season.

Time will tell

Opium cultivation in the south effectively starts each October, when farmers decide on what they are going to plant. The poppy seedlings remain dormant over winter and begin growing as temperatures rise in the spring. They flower in March or April and are harvested shortly afterwards.

The UNODC’s annual survey measures the area of poppy cultivation when the crops are still green, at a time when they are distinct in the satellite images used to detect them. But the final results come much later because of the huge effort required to produce robust estimates. These surveys require extensive data collection, mapping of fields at sample locations, and thorough quality control before countrywide results can be released.

It is possible that we have not yet seen any impact of the current policy and that the 2023 growing season might be a better test of the Taliban’s ban.

Conditions on the ground have also changed since 2001. The UN’s analysis points to the growth in the illicit economy since the Taliban’s 2021 takeover as the legitimate economy has shrunk, alongside an increase in the price of opium (tripling 2022 incomes), as reasons to be cautious about the effect of any new policy.

With no sign of any reduction in demand, much will depend on how the ban has been enforced in late 2022 and early 2023. The Taliban’s long-term commitment to their previous ban was not tested as they were toppled by the US in 2001. So we will have to wait until the UNODC publishes its next set of figures to assess how committed the Taliban has been to eradicating opium cultivation – and how successful they have been in a country that remains riven with conflict.