Afghanistan is the world’s top producer of opium, producing 90 percent of global supply. The opium trade results in the generation of approximately $68 billion in annual revenue. In 2016, opium production increased by 43 percent mainly due to an increase in insurgency. In addition to this, more than 2.9 million Afghans are involved in opium production one way or another, which is more than 12 percent of the total population.
After the election of 2014 and the formation of a National Unity Government (NUG), there were hopes that the NUG would fight narcotics, corruption and strengthen the rule of law. But 2016 has turned out to be a year of rising drug output in Afghanistan, which quickly dashed these hopes.
Moreover, about $3 billion of the total opium produced remains in Afghanistan. The Taliban is earning up to $400 million annually from the illicit drugs, particularly from the restive Southern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, and Nimruz. This income from drugs goes to fund the Taliban’s war engine, which has continued for more well over a decade now and remains alarming.
The nexus between the Taliban and opium cultivation stems from the establishment of its regime. In 1997, only Pakistan and Saudi Arabia recognized the Taliban movement in Afghanistan and provided assistance to the movement while most of the world balked due to their brutal actions against democracy, human rights, women, and their hosting of Al Qaeda.
In 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Omar announced the ban of opium cultivation and it dramatically decreased to 7,600 hectares from 82,000 in 2000. Subsequently, with the overthrow of the Taliban regime by international forces led by United States, the farmers and drug dealers gradually ramped up opium production. In 2005, the Taliban began to regroup and encouraged opium production in order to finance their insurgency.
Today, around 40 percent of Taliban funding comes from opium, which enables them to fight the Afghan government and the international community. Most of the Taliban in Helmand and Kandahar are engaged in the drug trade, fighting for profit rather than religion and ideology.
The Taliban demand taxes on their terms, no matter what the farmers grow. If farmers decide to produce something other than opium, the Taliban’s response is to ask them to pay the equivalent amount that they would have paid had they grown opium.
Moreover, the Taliban not only encourages farmers to grow the crop, but makes it much easier for the farmers to produce opium and much more difficult and even deadly for them to produce other crops. In exchange for their taxes, the Taliban protect the land by fighting the Afghan government and even fence off certain cultivation areas by planting mines and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Above all, the Taliban’s former leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour, before taking the leadership, was responsible for the drug market at Gerdi Jangal, located in Balochistan, which touches Helmand province.
Opium not only logistically fuels the Taliban, but the drug dealers influence the highest decision-making body of the Taliban, the Quetta Shura. The now-deceased Mullah Akhtar Mansour’s selection as leader of the Taliban owed to his successes within the drug business, which bought him loyalty within the Taliban’s command.
Due to the high profit from illicit drugs, Taliban groups have even fought each other for control of drug trafficking routes and the collection of taxes. Mullah Mohammad Rasool, another well-known commander, had fought Mansour’s men couple of times for control of drug trafficking routes and this was one of the reasons he opposed the selection of Mansour as leader of Taliban.
In the field, Taliban-affiliated dealers provide seeds to farmers, particularly in Kandahar and Helmand, and collect opium after the harvest. The drug dealers also supply farmers with tools, fertilizers, and even cash in order to urge farmers to cultivate opium.
The drug trade not only supports the Taliban financially, but garners them political supports as well, winning them the backing of local drug lords, drug dealers, and youth who work in poppy fields, lancing opium at equivalent to $4 per day wages.
The Taliban impose two additional types of taxes over their illicit drugs business, the land and road taxes — the land tax for opium production and the road tax for trafficking. For the protection of drug convoys, the Taliban also attack military checkpoints. The drug dealers, apart from providing taxes for trafficking, also provide Taliban with weapons, vehicles, motorcycles, and satellite phones. Recently, drug dealers have also set up hospitals in Balochistan in Pakistan, where wounded Taliban get treated.
As the connection between the Taliban and opium grows stronger, the fight against narcotics in Afghanistan must join the agenda of war like never before. Unless, counternarcotics operations are made a priority in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan by NATO and the NUG, the insurgency will continue.
Hashim Wahdatyar is a political analyst based in Washington D.C. He is a former spokesperson and Programme Officer for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Afghanistan. He tweets @hashimwahdat. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own