The United States, it is reported, spent more than $8 billion over 15 years to deprive the Taliban of their profits from Afghanistan's opium and heroin trade.
Now, as the long war comes to an end and the Taliban has completed its takeover of the country, one wonders where the global drug trade goes from here.
Afghan’s drug history
Heroin and opium are the two most prolific drugs in Afghanistan. In fact, opium is woven deeply into the fabric of Afghanistan.
In the 18th century, Britain saw opium in Afghanistan as a viable export.
However, it was in the 1980s that Afghanistan witnessed a surge in opium production, as the Islamist mujahideen groups that fought the Soviet Union looked for means to fund the insurgency.
In 2000, seeking international legitimacy, the Taliban banned poppy growing, but faced a popular backlash, forcing them to change their stance, say experts.
Soaring numbers of opium production
Illicit narcotics are "the country's largest industry except for war," said Barnett Rubin, a former US State Department adviser on Afghanistan.
In 1996, Afghanistan had produced 2,250 metric tonnes of opium. That number soared in 1999 to 4,580 metric tonnes.
In 2018, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that the country’s “opiate economy is worth between 6 and 11 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP".
The estimated all-time high for opium production was set in 2017 at 9,900 tonnes worth some $1.4 billion in sales by farmers or roughly 7 percent of Afghanistan's GDP, the UNODC reported.
And as per a report released by the UNODC, despite the world being hit by the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, Afghanistan saw a 37 percent rise in the total area of opium poppy cultivation. The report stated that of the 2.94 lakh hectare of illicit opium poppy cultivated globally in 2020, some 2.24 lakh hectare was in Afghanistan; 80 percent higher than what it was a decade earlier.
The country accounted for an estimated 83 percent of global opium production over the period 2015-20. Also, nearly 83 percent of the total global seizure of heroin and morphine in 2019 were related to opiates produced in Afghanistan.
What is Taliban’s role?
The United Nations and the US have stated that the Taliban are involved in all facets -- from poppy planting, opium extraction, and trafficking to exacting "taxes" from cultivators and drug labs to charging smugglers fees for shipments bound for Africa, Europe, Canada, Russia, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia.
"The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income," Cesar Gudes, the head of the Kabul office of the UNODC, was quoted as saying. "More production brings drugs with a cheaper and more attractive price, and therefore a wider accessibility."
A UNODC report cited that an Afghan drug trafficker named Abdul Sattar made an individual donation of $333,000 to senior Taliban commanders from drug profits. Some 83 percent of the interviewed traffickers confirmed that they made payments to the Taliban for different reasons.
UN officials reported that the Taliban likely earned more than $400 million between 2018 and 2019 from the drug trade.
A May 2021 US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan report quoted a US official as estimating they derive up to 60 percent of their annual revenue from illicit narcotics.
What the future holds
Experts are of the opinion that despite what happens next — a complete Taliban victory or if a civil war breaks out — it is unlikely that Afghanistan's illicit drug economy will change or diminish. In fact, experts add that it is unlikely that the Taliban will prohibit poppy cultivation should they gain power.
The drug trade in Afghanistan is simply too embedded, which will drive the global heroin market.
India, too, will face consequences as the flow of narcotics will increase as also terror groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Islamic State will have access to new funding sources.