Afghanistan is going through a perilous time. According to the United Nations 2020 Human Development Index, it ranks 169 out of 189 countries. The countries that are below Afghanistan in the index include Yemen, Sudan, Ethiopia, etc. The low ranking of Afghanistan indicates the miserable condition of state development sectors: Life expectancy, adult literacy, GDP, per capita income, etc. The production of narcotics, along with their patronage by the Taliban, is serious malice ruining the Afghan society from within.
There is no doubt that Afghanistan has emerged as a narco industry-based state in the present context of the Taliban ‘rule’. The Taliban are unabashedly trying to expand their drug income since their ‘takeover’ in mid-August. Accordingly, the worth of opium in Afghanistan has more than tripled. Interestingly, this year’s opium harvest in Afghanistan, completed in July, marked the fifth year in a row with production at the historic high of more than 6,000 tonnes, potentially yielding up to 320 tonnes of pure heroin to be trafficked to markets around the world.
Also, income from opiates (morphine, heroin and opium) in Afghanistan amounted to $1.8-2.7 billion in 2021. In the province of Helmand, in southern Afghanistan, bordering Pakistan, 20 percent of the land was dedicated to poppy cultivation, and in some districts, the proportion was even higher. Sadly, poppy took away land from vitally important food crops, including wheat. According to one estimate made by UNFAO, cereal production for 2021 in Afghanistan was estimated at 4.6 million tonnes, about 20 percent lower than 2020.
Strategically, Afghanistan is part of the ‘Golden Crescent’, also comprising Iran and Pakistan. Interestingly, there are three well-defined heroin trafficking routes that originate in the Golden Crescent region. The Balkan route operates through Iran and Turkey and moves the bulk of Afghan heroin to Europe. The northern route supplies heroin to the Russian Federation and Central Asia. Due to increased law enforcement along these two routes, alternate routes have emerged, collectively called the southern route, which pushes heroin to Iran and Pakistan, and from these countries, via sea and air, to other parts of the world.
Expectedly, Pakistan plays a crucial role in transporting the drug produce of Afghanistan to various parts of the world. Conventionally, the drug trading routes from Afghanistan to Pakistan forward to the rest of the world are the Torkham border crossing, Kunjrab, Ghulam Khan, and Karachi. Nevertheless, due to amplified security, about 62 alternative drug trafficking routes run through Pakistan’s Balochistan province. Contrabands are smuggled by road to Iran, Turkey and onwards to Europe. Another portion is smuggled via sea to the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Africa and the rest of South Asia through Chaman, Nushki, Chagaghi, Dalbandeen, Panjgur, Turbat, Gwadar and Jeewani areas of Balochistan Province. The third and more exclusive option available to high-end drug cartels is air smuggling via airplane.
Worryingly, along with poppy and heroin, the illegal drug economy of Afghanistan has become progressively complex, with the sharp increase in methamphetamine manufacture in recent years. High regional and global demand for methamphetamine (crystal meth), joined with a saturated market for opiates, could push further increase of production of methamphetamine and other synthetic drugs. Apparently, the arid and barren geographical conditions of Afghanistan have proved beneficial for the cultivation of a particular plant, Ephedra, which is commonly used to produce crystal meth on a low budget. Methamphetamine production is concentrated in the western parts of Afghanistan, especially in provinces of Heart, Farah, parts of Ghor and Helmand, and there is little overlap with opium cultivation. The Ephedra plant grows in the mountainous central highlands, typically at an altitude of over 2,500 metres, contrasting the poppy cultivation, which can be cultivated in virtually all parts of the country where there is agricultural land. The makeshift laboratories producing meth are placed in the desert areas of Afghanistan.
Under the Taliban regime, narcotics are consumed and sold openly. After years of earning protection money from the banned drug trade, while fighting their insurgency against the US-NATO-backed Afghan government, the Taliban now want a sort of image makeover. The Taliban now want to put an end to the cultivation and use of Afghanistan’s most valued export item — narcotics. The Taliban in the first week of December banned the farmers from picking Ephedra, but the laboratories are not closed down. The tacit support of the Taliban is in a way helping in the cultivation of Ephedra and the consequent production of crystal meth.
Trying to depict a ‘clean’ image and distancing itself from narcotics production, Taliban spokesperson Bilal Karimi stated: “Under the Islamic Emirate before 2001, the growing and selling of opium dropped to zero. Right now we are trying to find alternatives. We can’t take this away from people without offering them something else. Eradicating this is good for us in the international community, so the world should help too.”
Clearly, narco-terrorism in this region is overtly connected with terror funding. It is well-known that Al Qaeda depended on couriers to move money in the 1990s and before the 9/11 attacks. According to the 9/11 Commission Monograph, Al Qaeda used money changers to transfer $1 million from the UAE to Pakistan and then used couriers to allocate the funds as cash into Afghanistan. The history of narcotics production in Afghanistan goes back to the late 1970s. After the Soviets invaded, the US-backed the Mujahideen resistance, many of whom also worked as narcotics traffickers. Similarly, the devastation following the Soviet invasion left many farmers with no alternative but to harvest opium, a plant that is comparatively easy to produce in poor conditions. After the Soviets evacuated, each side in the ensuing civil war used drug revenue to finance their fiefdoms.
The ongoing political turmoil and the slipping back to an absolute state of chaos would prove beneficial to the narco trade of Afghanistan. The international agencies are worried that disorder would create conditions for even higher illicit narcotics production, a potential boon for the Taliban. The illegal production and augmentation of the export chain would prove also beneficial for other terror actors like Al Qaeda and ISIS. As there is no concept of produce sharing among these various terrorist organisations, the country should be prepared for more violence and anarchy.
The writer is Research Fellow, Institute for Conflict Management, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.