‘It’s our lifeline’: Taliban back, but Afghans say opium has come to stay | Global development

The Taliban’s announcement that it plans to ban opium production in Afghanistan does not disturb experienced dealer Ahmed Khan *.

“They could not finance their war if there was no opium,” said Khan, who operates from Baramcha, close to the border with Pakistan.

He has been trading in the drug for a quarter of a century and is convinced that the group cannot really afford to stop trading.

“There would be a backlash from poppy farmers, drug lords and the general public if the Taliban banned opium production. The Taliban has benefited most from opium production for 20 years.”

Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world, accounting for more than 80% of global production between 2015 and 2020, generating millions of dollars annually.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), 6,300 tonnes of opium were harvested in Afghanistan last year, a quantity that can produce up to 290 tonnes of pure heroin. The amount of land given for poppy production increased by more than a third between 2019 and 2020 to 224,000 hectares (553,516 acres).

But at his first press conference after the Taliban came to power in August, the group’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid announced that drug production would stop. “From now on, no one will interfere [in the heroin trade], no one can be involved in drug smuggling, ”he said.

The announcement immediately saw opium prices almost double, from £ 55,000 (£ 445) for 4.5kg to £ 100,000 (£ 810), Khan said.

“But now that traders know it will not be banned, prices have fallen to £ 510,” said Khan, who predicted that “there will be a boom in opium trade” now that the Taliban are back in power.

Afghanistan grows more than 80% of the world's opium
Afghanistan grows more than 80% of the world’s opium. Photo: Shah Meer Baloch / The Guardian

It is not only Khan who does not believe that the Taliban can or will ban production. With the economy collapsing and a drought pushing millions into starvation, Taliban officials in the south warn that there is no viable alternative for farmers.

“Farmers face a looming threat of drought. Agricultural land and orchards are hard hit and it will force many farmers to grow poppies because it is the only lifeline,” said Abdul Ahad, governor of Helmand province, where the vast majority of Opium is grown, to the Guardian.

“If the international community does not accept our demands and demands of civilians, farmers and the government, the farmers would go back to poppy cultivation because we have no other options.

“The international community should help build dams, provide seeds and help farmers grow other crops.”

US attempt to interrupt trade and spend $ 8 billion USD over 15 years on destroying crops and laboratories, made little progress. Although the former leader of the Taliban, Mullah Omar, officially banned the cultivation and trade of opium in 2000, trade continued.

The past 30 years have seen Baramcha transform from a deserted southern city into the center of Afghanistan’s opium industry – and into 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 to Pakistan.

In 2019, the most recent year for which UNODC has data, the Taliban and other non-state actors raised up to $ 113 million in opiate taxes. In 2017, when a record was harvested, up to $ 350 million was raised.

Khan says he sells at least 50 tons of opium a year to buyers in Baramcha, who then smuggles the drug into Pakistan’s southwestern province of Balochistan. The smugglers cross mountainous and rugged terrain and head west into Iran.

Some Afghan farmers now harvest up to three poppy crops a year instead of one to meet demand.

Men gather around bags of heroin and hashish as they trade and check the quality of a drug market on the outskirts of Kandahar
Men gather around bags of heroin and hashish while negotiating and checking the quality of a drug market on the outskirts of Kandahar. Photo: Bülent Kılıç / AFP / Getty Images

In Musa Qala, Mohammed Yaqoob stands in the middle of a field of white and pink poppy flowers that lies beyond a parched river bed. 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 been growing opium in these fields for more than 20 years. He grows other crops, but it is opium that puts food on the table.

“We have no other way to make money,” said Yaqoob, who can earn around £ 2,000 in a good season.

“If the Taliban wanted to ban opium cultivation, it means they would make us starve, which I do not think they would do. We will resist it.”

He adds: “I want the foreigners to leave us Afghans alone and only help us by giving us seeds and other facilities for agriculture, then we might grow something other than opium. Otherwise, there is no alternative for us. ”

Farmers say they can not survive on growing vegetables and grains alone
Farmers say they can not survive on growing vegetables and grains alone. Photo: Shah Meer Baloch / The Guardian

Amrullah, who goes by one name, agrees. He has been growing opium in Musa Qala for four decades. He does not own the land, but is responsible for agriculture and the care of the crops. In return, he gets a quarter of the earnings, bringing in between £ 4,000 and £ 7,000 a year.

“We do not get anything from wheat and vegetables, which need a lot of water and can not supplement our income,” says Amrullah.

“I have made good money [from opium] from 2015 to 2019, but due to the intense war and drought, the crop was affected. With the Taliban back in power, we hope to cultivate poppy and work in peace. “

* Name changed

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