The Policy Dilemma in Afghanistan: There are no good options in response to the Taliban’s Opium Ban
Updated: Aug 9
Speculation and opinions about the Taliban’s narcotics ban have characterised the current debate. However, the evidence clearly suggests that Mullah Haibatullah, the Taliban’s leader, has achieved his objective when promulgating a religious edict against drugs in April 2022. In fact, although the poppy season in Afghanistan is only just coming to its end in the more mountainous parts of the country, in areas such as Badakhshan, it is already apparent that cultivation will have fallen by more than 80% compared with 2022.
Cynics question the veracity of this claim that cultivation has fallen, arguing that the BBC and other media outlets have only seen what the Taliban wanted them to see, and that bias, as well as other factors such as logistical convenience, has led them to restrict their enquiries to more accessible areas where the Afghan state has traditionally been able to impose its will.
Yet, it is not those in the media that proffer this judgement, it is high-resolution satellite imagery analysis which demonstrates that poppy cultivation has fallen so dramatically in 2023. Most notably, only 740 hectares were grown in Helmand this year compared to 129,000 hectares in 2022 (see Figure1). This one province is typically responsible for half of Afghanistan’s total production. Cultivation is also negligible across the southwest and much of the east.
In fact, such low levels of cultivation have not been seen since the Taliban opium ban of 2000-2001, when the total area of cultivation was less than 8,000 hectares. It is unlikely that cultivation will reach such a low level in 2023, but the scale of the reduction will be unprecedented. Over the last decade cultivation has typically been in the order of 200,000 hectares or more per year – a function of the conflict in which the Taliban was a primary actor. Whereas prior to the last time the Taliban imposed a ban, poppy cultivation rarely exceeded 90,000 hectares.
Figure 1: Imagery showing low levels of poppy in 2023, with cultivation falling from 129,000 hectares in 2022 to only 740 hectares in 2023.
However, beneath the surface and this focus on aggregate levels of cultivation, we find a variegated picture, where trends in poppy cultivation (and other drug crops) and the trade in opiates and methamphetamine tell us much about Taliban rule. The ban on opium, like the prohibition against the methamphetamine industry, has not been uniformly accepted by the rural population or by those responsible for implementing such bans within the Taliban’s ranks.
While the population in the province of Helmand has almost universally complied with the ban, planting little poppy in the first place, people in other provinces have not been so acquiescent. Farmers in the more remote parts of the southern districts of Nangarhar planted substantial amounts of poppy, and in Badakhshan cultivation is likely to have increased (see Figures 2 and 3). The population in the districts of Nesh and parts of Khakrez in the province of Kandahar also defied the ban.
Figure 2: Imagery showing continued poppy cultivation in the district of Jurm in the northeastern province of Badakhshan in July 2023.
Perhaps more important, some Taliban commanders charged with responsibility for deterring planting of opium poppy in the first place, and destroying any poppy that was cultivated, have tried to avoid implementing their leader’s religious edict. There has clearly been great unease in these, and no doubt other areas, over pressing all communities to abandon growing poppy. In Badakhshan, for example, provincial and local authorities have shown a deep reluctance to implement Haibatullah’s drugs ban from the start, as their predecessors were during the counternarcotics campaigns under Presidents Karzai and Ghani during the Afghan Republic.
The same is true of the southern districts of Nangarhar, where the local authorities were half-hearted in their efforts to deter planting and subsequently had to destroy the crop later in the season (see Figure 3). The district of Achin is the most extreme example, where the district authorities repeatedly sought to negotiate and avoid a confrontation with the population, making multiple attempts to encourage farmers in the area to destroy their own crops, before finally having to mount an aggressive eradication effort backed by Taliban soldiers, which culminated in deaths and injuries.
Figure 3: Imagery showing part of the remote district of Achin, in southern Nangarhar on the Pakistan border. On the left the imagery from 9 April 2023 shows large amounts of poppy grown alongside fields of wheat. The image on the right from 29 April 2023, shows an area where several poppy fields have been destroyed but also many fields of opium poppy in the surrounding area where the crop remains unscathed.
These were scenes reminiscent of the crop destruction efforts of Nangarhar Governor Gul Aga Sherzai between 2008 and 2012, events that were instrumental in the Afghan Republic’s subsequent loss of the district to the insurgency, with other districts falling as well. The similarities will not have been lost on the population, and there is already growing disquiet in these very same areas, where both farmers and the local authorities know there are no viable alternatives in place and where a continued ban is likely to require even greater levels of coercion.
These and other examples of failure to comply with the drugs ban reflect some of the fracture lines in the Afghan state, namely areas where those in Kabul (or Kandahar) have typically sought to manage dissent rather than trying to rule directly. By enforcing a drug ban and pressing crop destruction deep into some of the most remote areas, while offering no alternatives, the Taliban leadership risks provoking rural unrest, as well as growing dissent within its own ranks, particularly Taliban members from these areas who must answer to their families, neighbours, and rural constituencies.
In fact, we can already see some of the perils that the Taliban face with their efforts to prohibit methamphetamine. Despite the claims we see from some commentators and the United Nations Sanctions Monitoring Team, there has been a fairly robust campaign against the methamphetamine industry, but so far the Taliban have only disrupted production and trade, not eliminated it. While the ban has raised the costs of doing business, the harvesting of ephedra continues, and ephedrine production has continued to spread across the mountainous highlands, making it even harder to police (see Figures 4, 5, 6, and 7).
Figure 4: Graph showing the change in the price of ephedra, ephedrine and methamphetamine between September 2019 and July 2023.
Figure 5: Imagery showing increased ephedrine production in the district of Kajaki in northern Helmand with the lab on the left showing signs of expansion between May 2021 and February 2023, and a new smaller facility emerging to the right of the image in 2023.
Figure 6: Imagery analysis showing an increase in the number of ephedrine labs in the district of Kajaki in northern Helmand between June 2020 and February 2023.
Figure 7: Imagery showing ephedrine production in the district of Dawlatyar, in the central province of Ghor in January 2023. This is an area where ephedra grows wild in the mountains and where there has been an increase in ephedrine production since the imposition of the Taliban ban in April 2022.
It is telling that despite Haibatullah’s edict which explicitly included trade in opium and its derivatives, little has been done to restrict such trade to date. Targeting this part of the opium economy would directly impact the interests of a considerable number of people in the south, including those in the Taliban, and would require raiding household compounds across the region: this is likely to be a step too far even for Haibatullah’s most ardent supporters.
There will also be limits to the compliance of rural communities in the south and southwest with a continuing ban on poppy cultivation. While large farms in Helmand – and the opium stocks that have been acquired – mean that farmers in the southern provinces are in a much better position to endure a ban than those in the east and northeast, there will come a point where those stocks will also run out, and a return to poppy becomes highly likely (see Figure 8). While they may be broadly supportive of the ban currently because of the economic benefits increased opium prices has brought those with stocks, farmers in these areas are expressing concerns over the effects of a sustained ban on the economy, and subsequently on crime and outmigration.
Figure 8: A photo of a large farm in the former desert area to the north of the Boghra canal in Helmand. The photograph shows the farm irrigated from a large reservoir. This reservoir is filled from ground water pumped using solar power. Imagery analysis shows that in 2023 there were as many as 100,000 of these reservoirs in the deserts of the south and south west, compared to less than 200 in 2014.
Hence there appears to be an inevitability that in the absence of alternatives, the ban will come to an end in one way or another, even though it was promulgated by religious decree by the Taliban’s designated leader of the faithful. It is hard not to believe that the current economic and political realities of Afghanistan will prevail, and that widespread drug crop cultivation will return at some point in the future.
For now, western donors are left to consider their options in the short term and what to do in in response to the current ban and the prospect that it could continue for a second consecutive year (albeit with increasing resistance). The demands for development assistance have already begun with both the United Nations and the Taliban calling on donors to support alternative livelihoods/development programmes. Increased humanitarian assistance could play some role in addressing the most deleterious effects of the ban on the land-poor rural population in the short term, but will do little, if anything to address the structural factors that have led to such widespread drug production in Afghanistan.
Decades of failed alternative livelihoods/development projects in Afghanistan, particularly simple crop substitution programmes, show that small-scale development efforts targeted at the south will achieve little in the current economic crisis and would primarily benefit landed farmers that have gained the most from the current ban. The kind of development effort needed to support an enduring reduction in poppy cultivation would require a dramatic change in the current relationship between the Taliban and the international community and more than a decade of significant funding, as well as donors and implementing agencies learning lessons from experience over the past more than 20 years. Evidence from other drug producing countries also demonstrate sustainable reductions in cultivation require a growing economy and the creation of large numbers of jobs to absorb those displaced from poppy cultivation.
Ultimately, it will be a matter of considering the least-worst options. Pressing a ban into a second year will be risky for the Taliban. Since this was a religious edict, it will be difficult for Haibatullah to rescind the ban. At the same time, the fact that some areas have not complied with the ban exposes the limits of his authority both with the population and within the Taliban movement. Some in the leadership may challenge the efficacy of promulgating a ban so early in the Taliban rule, while others will look to blame western donors for not doing enough to support Afghan farmers, even knowing that the task is too great and the time frame too short to counter the economic impact of the ban.
In rural Afghanistan, there will be those who argue that continued cultivation in areas like Badakhshan, and parts of Kandahar, justifies a wider return to cultivation in the 2023/24 growing season. Some areas such as the hinterlands of the upper valleys of Nangarhar will have little choice. Imposing a ban for a second year will require greater amounts of coercion, placing further stresses on the Taliban movement and its relationship with the rural population that it drew support from during the insurgency. These will be some of the same areas where those looking to destabilise Taliban rule will seek to capitalise.
For instance, pressing the poppy ban in Badakhshan next season could prove particularly risky given the local leadership’s reluctance to prohibit cultivation this year, the violent opposition they met in response to eradication efforts, and the recent high profile attacks by Islamic State. In fact, preventing cultivation in Badakhshan in the 2023/24 growing season might require the use of Taliban forces from outside the province which could exacerbate ethnic tensions, and fuel support for the armed opposition.
At the same time, there are concerns over the impact a shortage of opiates will have on the drug using population in Europe. However, it is possible that the predictions of a pending shortage in opiates and the threat that fentanyl fills the void are overstated. The last time the Taliban imposed a ban in July 2000 it took 18 months before there was a significant drop in heroin purity in the UK, and in June 2002 purity had fallen to 34 per cent, from 55 per cent two years earlier. It is far from clear that the same time lag would apply this time round.
Currently, it is likely that significant inventories of opium remain in Afghanistan, given that the production of opium exceeded 6,000 metric tonnes a year for much of the last decade – a sharp contrast to the 3,000 metric tonnes produced annually in the 1990s. Moreover, there are thoughts that opium stocks in Afghanistan could be even higher than might be anticipated due to the systematic underreporting of yields.
And while opium and heroin prices in Afghanistan remain at a 20-year high, they have been falling over the last 6 months despite extremely low levels of cultivation this year (see Figures 9 and 10). The production and trade in heroin also continues, and seizures in the region continue unabated, suggesting that a shortage of heroin in the UK and Europe is not imminent. There is however a risk that were the current ban to be extended into a second season it could create a different dynamic; and could lead to price gauging in western European markets even before a genuine shortage occurs downstream.
Unfortunately, speculation and opinion has often been at the forefront of policy making on Afghanistan. But the evidence is now clear: the Taliban has significantly reduced opium cultivation this year. Western policy makers now face a difficult decision how to use this evidence to respond to a challenging situation where there are no good options. As things currently stand, western governments may need to calibrate their response to the Taliban ban based on the outcomes they consider least undesirable. It is not possible to provide sufficient development assistance to stem the eventual return of poppy cultivation, but to press the Taliban to continue the ban could prompt a dramatic increase in outmigration and destabilise the regime in Kabul. Some may well decide that a continued flow of drugs from Afghanistan may be the least worst outcome.
Figure 9: Graph showing opium prices in southern and eastern Afghanistan between August 1997 and July 2023.
Figure 10: Graph showing the price of morphine base, heroin base and heroin hydrochloride between June 2021 and July 2023
David Mansfield has been conducting research on illicit economies in Afghanistan and on its borders each year since 1997. David has a PhD in development studies and is the author of “A State Built on Sand: How opium undermined Afghanistan”. He has produced more than 80 research-based products on rural livelihoods and cross-border economies, many for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, and working in close partnership with Alcis.