Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan: The World’s Next Narco-State?

Taliban-Controlled Afghanistan: The World’s Next Narco-State?

Shortly after capturing Kabul, the Taliban announced that it would crack down on opium production in Afghanistan, threatening a blow to one of the country’s most profitable industries. While the group was somewhat successful at drug interdiction during its previous stint in power two decades ago, a number of factors, including the need for popular support, international pariah-hood, and ongoing economic collapse, render it unlikely that the Taliban will truly follow through on its promise.

The Return of Taliban Drug Prohibition?

On August 17, 2021, less than a week after the Taliban’s capture of Kabul, the group’s spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, announced that the Taliban would outlaw opium production. “We will bring opium production to zero again,” he stated, referencing the strict prohibitionist policies of the Taliban’s previous tenure ruling the country. “There will be no drug production, no drug smuggling.” 

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Afghanistan remains the world’s largest producer of opium, the key ingredient in heroin. Between 2015 and 2020, the country was responsible for an estimated 83% of global opium supply, mostly sold across Europe, the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. The exact value of the illicit traffic is difficult to ascertain, but there are estimates that Afghanistan produced roughly 9,900 tons of opium in 2017, which is worth approximately $1.4 billion, totalling 7% of the country’s gross domestic product. 

Despite the group’s ironclad rhetoric on opium production, there are numerous factors at play that suggest the Taliban is more likely to embrace the drug trade than eliminate it. 

A Brief History of Drug Production in Afghanistan

Although opium had been a major element of the regional economy for centuries, it did not begin to have global implications until 1979. After the Soviets invaded, the U.S. backed the Mujahidin resistance, many of whom moonlighted as narcotics traffickers. Likewise, the utter devastation wrought by the Soviets on the Afghan economy left many farmers with no alternative but to harvest opium, a plant that is relatively easy to produce in poor conditions. For the insurgent commanders, narcotics trafficking was a means of financing a holy war, and for the U.S., the Drug War took a backseat to the Cold War.  

After the Soviets evacuated, each side in the subsequent civil war used drug revenue to finance their fiefdoms. Although the Taliban was known to profit from drug trafficking during their rise to power, they later reversed course, and in July of 2000 banned all opium production as “un-Islamic.” The results were mixed. While 90% of Afghan opium crops were destroyed and the world’s supply was cut by two-thirds, the strict ban seriously harmed the livelihoods of Afghan farmers and undercut support for the Taliban. 

Following the U.S.-led invasion in late 2001, a primary objective was the eradication of poppy plants and interdiction of drug traffickers. By late 2019, the U.S. spent almost $10 billion fighting Afghan drug production. Despite some early successes, competing priorities, local corruption, and lack of viable economic alternatives to opium production led the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) in June 2018 to conclude that “no counternarcotics program led to lasting reductions in poppy cultivation or opium production.” 

During this time, the Taliban insurgents reversed their earlier prohibition and turned to narcotics as a source of revenue. The U.N. estimated that the group earned as much as $400 million from narcotics in 2018-2019, and SIGAR estimated that 60% Taliban revenue came from drugs. 

Prohibition or Narco-State?   

Now that the Taliban is the undisputed master of Afghanistan, the group has paid lip service to curbing drug production. Militants in Kandahar have reportedly told farmers that growing opium is now illegal, resulting in a dramatic spike in prices across Afghanistan. However, the Taliban’s dedication to the opium ban is unlikely for a number of reasons. 

Given that the previous ban undermined popular support for the Taliban, it is possible that the group will not be especially draconian out of fear of losing what popular support it currently enjoys. 

Similarly, the economic situation in which the country finds itself is dire. The U.S. government recently blocked Taliban access to Afghan government assets in U.S. banks and the Federal Reserve, and has sought to compel the International Monetary Fund to do the same. The World Bank froze $600 million in health care funds at a time when the Afghan healthcare system is on the brink of collapse. Official recognition by Western states is likely out of the question, and Russia has signaled a lack of interest as well. The Taliban is in essence governing a pariah state dangling over a precipice. 

In light of this, it is extremely doubtful that the Taliban will pursue an opium ban with the same vigor seen twenty years ago. When push comes to shove, it is likely that the group will embrace the same lesson that extremists across the world have learned: crime pays. AQIM, ISIS, FARC, AUC, and Hezbollah, among others, have all involved themselves in drug trafficking to various degrees. Faced with economic catastrophe, it is probable that the group will embrace Afghanistan’s centuries-old, recession-proof, inelastic cash cow: opium. 

The Taliban leadership will likely realize that the benefits of allowing opium production, either implicitly or explicitly, will outweigh the drawbacks. There are already numerous precedents for jihadists justifying the ostensibly “un-Islamic” nature of drug trafficking. Aside from the Taliban relying on drug trafficking for financing during their insurgency campaign, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb justified kidnapping for ransom, equally repugnant under Islam, by concluding that “all actions aimed to defend or extend Islam were legitimate jihad actions.” Given the choice between surviving with drug trafficking, or dying without it, the Taliban is likely to choose the former, and justify it religiously as the lesser of two evils. 

What this adds up to is an extremely dangerous situation for the West. For Europe, which receives an estimated 95% of its heroin from Afghanistan, Taliban-backed narcotraffickers would likely result in increased supply, decreased prices, and more drug deaths. While that is dangerous enough, the profits from this illicit activity in Europe, and elsewhere, will be effectively financing a brutal Islamist regime that, despite its rhetoric, still remains closely tied to Al Qaeda. Together, these results will pose a serious threat to global security.

About Author