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Will the Taliban curb drug trade, the economic backbone of Afghanistan?

The Taliban involvement in drug trade was never a secret, however its dimension was never completely understood. Though they were always suspected to be one of the wealthiest insurgent groups in the world, Taliban never let out the details about the volume and revenue of drug trade which was powering its two-decade long fight against civilian government and Western forces in Afghanistan.

01.12.2021 20:30
Piše: Valerio Fabbri
Ključne besede:   Afghanistan   opium   heroin   Talibans   drugs   Kabul   UN   BBC

Approximately one out of ten Afghans is engaged in the drugs business.

The swift move by Taliban to recapture power in Kabul in August 2021 provided a shocking visual for the world, as the terrorist group appeared to be militarily stronger and financially sounder than when it was ousted by the US-led coalition in 2001. Over twenty years of withering constant attacks, Taliban surprised the civilized world by continuously recapturing lost territories one at a time, while also increasing its financial stealth. Maintaining this level of insurgency would have required a great deal of funding from sources both inside and outside of Afghanistan. This makes the world wonder about the revenue sources, which provided the bedrock for the Taliban’s operation and growth. While the involvement in drug trade was never a secret, its dimension was never completely understood. Though they were always suspected to be one of the wealthiest insurgent groups in the world, Taliban never let out the details about the volume and revenue of drug trade which was powering its two-decade long fight against civilian government and Western forces.

 

The Taliban have long been thought to run a taxation system to cover their insurgent operations, including the illegal drug trade. While profitability estimates diverge, Taliban’s engagement with the illicit drug economy is widely known as a vital revenue stream. According to a study by BBC in 2018, Taliban’s total annual income was around $1.5 billion, to which drug trade is estimated to be contributing around $420 million a year, while according to other sources the drug trade accounts for up to 60 % of the total revenue.

 

Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, which can be refined to make heroin. With an estimated annual export value of $1.5-$3 billion, it is a vast business, making the country a supplier of majority of heroin worldwide. According to a UN estimate, opium harvesting provided almost 120,000 jobs in Afghanistan in 2019. These volumes act as a cash cow for the Talban in the form of several kinds of taxes and levies. The collection is done across points in the production value chain under different heads. For example, Ushr, an Islamic 10 % tax on the harvests of irrigated land used for opium poppy cultivation, contributes the lion’s share when it comes to revenue from drugs. 

 

Some researchers, however, point out towards an increasing prevalence of taxation of drugs based on volume and fixed price depending upon weight/quantity. These "production taxes" are collected from the laboratories converting opium into heroin, as well as the traders who smuggle the illicit drugs. After production, levy is imposed on transportation on trucks that travel from production locations to the user units. By some accounts the transportation levies alone make Taliban around $ 750,000 per year. This is coupled with another head known as Protection money, a charge that is applied for armed protection of transported opiates. Finally, there are large-scale donations made by the traffickers to the Taliban, to ensure this very protection for trafficking across borders. 

  

Some Taliban commanders have been responsible for running drug labs themselves as an overseeing force. Their direct involvement in the process has been visible more frequently in recent years. Poppy is deeply entwined in the socio-economic fabric of the country, and hence in its political arrangements and power relations. The Taliban is increasingly turning into a more active participant as there are various criminal gangs connected to various militias, tribal elites, and many ex-warlords-cum-government officials at various levels. During the past 20 years, police units, often highly abusive and criminalized, are also said to have taxed the drug economy. Further, local commanders and powerbrokers taxed it, as well as owned or sponsored poppy fields. They also rented land to poppy farmers and provided microcredit for cultivation. Border officials, such as at Kabul airport or at the Spin Boldak or Zaranj crossings, let traffic pass for a cut from the profits.

 

While the drug trade acted as a lifeline for Taliban during the past twenty years, the ruins it brought to Afghanistan’s ordinary citizens cannot be overstated. A 2017 study by European Foundation for South Asian Studies (EFSAS) reflects upon the extent of illicit drug industry involvement in civilian life. According to it, the interwovenness of drug trade within Afghanistan shows its deep anchoring in society and in the lives of civilians. While illicit engagement in the sector offers employment opportunities for the civil population which lacks alternatives. According to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), synthetic drugs are estimated to contribute as much as 46,8 million euros to local wages per year. Approximately one out of ten Afghans is engaged in the drugs business. The employment, however, often results in dependency and debt traps particularly for individuals in rural communities. The effects can be felt in the form of volatile incomes for families and lack of formal alternatives. 

  

The effects are not limited to the workforce engaged in the production of poppy cultivation and drug production. Heroin, produced by the means of poppy cultivation and subsequent processing at drug labs, has been at the centre of attention of Afghan illicit drug trade for decades. Since heroin has become a staple for Afghanistan, its prominence has surpassed the national borders to reach other countries. The annual Afghan production of heroin using oven-dried opium is estimated to be around 6,000 tons. Currently, the prices of opiates have surged due to an uncertain upcoming season because of indicated bans on cultivation. Prices have almost tripled from $70 to $200 for raw opium. However, crops in the new season are expected to stabilize the prices. Farmers in the southern provinces of the country said they are happy about their opium produce in the fall season of this year. Moreover, farmers in Kandahar and Helmand feel that the yield has been good considering the drought in the country. A farmer from Kandahar was recently quoted in Tolo News as saying that despite this year’s drought, the cultivation of the opium is favorable as there is no other work.  

  

Increasing facilities for the storage of stock and storage of opium poppy is driving new capital and labour towards methamphetamine. While the heroin’s production has been steady for the past few years, the methamphetamine industry has increased significantly, offering employment to some 20,000 persons. The contribution for those in the methamphetamine industry to the local wages is an estimated $ 55 million per year, which makes it appealing to local communities. Moreover, little land and professional equipment is necessary for civilians to make a living from engaging in the industry, which enhances willingness to partake. 

 

An illicit economy of this scale naturally requires support structure and regulation, which the Taliban has been providing for decades now. However, the close international scrutiny on its functioning since August 2021 has led to efforts for image makeover by the group. Through tactical declarations aimed at gaining legitimacy, the Taliban is trying to act as if it is keen on halting the production of narcotics in Afghanistan. While it may appeal to some sections and sympathetic countries, international community at large would recall Taliban’s previous promises regarding non-violent behavior and women rights before falling for the new ones. Given the sustenance and longevity assured by the drug trade, it would not be easy for the Taliban to camouflage it under false promises.

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