Whistling in the Wind: The Inevitable Return of Poppy Cultivation to Afghanistan
High-resolution satellite imagery analysis reveals that poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in 2023 is unlikely to exceed 30,000 hectares (ha), compared to over 210,000 ha in 2022 - a dramatic reduction of more than 85 percent.
There is now little doubt that farmers across vast swathes of the country abandoned opium production this year. Most notable is the dramatic fall in cultivation in the province of Helmand, where typically as much as half of Afghanistan’s poppy crop is grown. Here cultivation fell an astounding 99% from 129,000 hectares in 2022 to only 740 hectares twelve months later. Particularly low levels of poppy cultivation are evident in other provinces in the south, including Farah (from 11,589 ha to 532 ha) and Nimroz (from 2,364 ha to 209 ha). Reductions in Kandahar (from 16,446 ha to 5,685 ha) and Uruzgan (from 15,094 ha to 1,878 ha) are also substantial.
Despite the significant reductions in poppy cultivation in some parts of the country, the rise in cultivation in Badakhshan (from 13,803 ha to 15,391 ha), along with persistent cultivation in the upper reaches of the mountains of southern Nangarhar, and the more remote parts of Kandahar, Uruzgan, and Baghlan (from 3,515 ha to 1,474 ha), offers further evidence of the challenges even the Taliban face in eliminating the crop in the more inaccessible parts of the country where state presence has historically been limited. Furthermore, persistent, and increased poppy cultivation in Badakhshan in 2023 will not go unnoticed to those that remember the last Taliban ban of 2001, when there was also an uptick in production in the province. The main difference being, at that time Badakhshan was in opposition to the Taliban and dominated by the United Front, not as it is today, led by a local leadership loyal to the Islamic Emirate.
However, behind the aggregate and provincial statistics, are the farmers and their families that cultivate poppy in different parts of the country. While policy makers grapple with how to respond to the Taliban ban and reach for a limited drop-down menu of counternarcotics responses – alternative livelihoods, eradication, demand reduction, and interdiction - these farmer’s circumstances provide important context by which to judge the imposition of the ban, its sustainability, and the likely effectiveness of what might be done to prevent a resurgence in cultivation. Three case studies from disparate poppy growing areas of the country highlight the complex development response required to address the causes of cultivation and the impact of the Taliban ban. These case studies as well as the broader empirical evidence highlight that investments in so called alternative livelihood projects, with their focus on crop substitution for the landed, offer limited prospects for success. Without large scale, longer term funding for broader development and a focus on job creation targeted at the land poor, the return of widespread poppy cultivation seems inevitable.
Pushing on an open door: Banning poppy in the deserts of the southwest
Jan Aga used to live close to the district centre of Musa Qala in northern Helmand. While directly and amply irrigated by the Musa Qala River, the one hectare of farmland Jan Aga and his five brothers inherited following his father’s death was too small and unviable once divided up and parcelled out between them. So, just over a decade ago Jan Aga took his wife and then six children into the desert area ten kilometres east of his village, to where he had managed to buy three hectares of land for as little as US$ 5,400, less than one tenth what it would cost to purchase land in his village at the time.
Like many of those who first moved into these former desert areas, Jan Aga had to clear and level his land to make it suitable for cultivation (see Figure 1). He rented a drilling rig and drilled 120 metres below the surface to tap into the underground aquifer that would provide him with the water he, his family, his livestock, and his crops would need to survive in the desert area he would come to call home.
Figure 1: Aerial photograph of settlement of desert land in Helmand
When Jan Aga first moved in 2012, the first water, “the gul”, was found forty-five metres below the surface, and could be drawn using a diesel generator and pump. However, as the water table began to fall (along with opium prices), and diesel prices rose, Jan Aga switched to solar power.
In 2016, the water table was already at more than sixty metres depth, so he purchased thirty-six large solar panels, and dug a one-metre deep, five hundred square metre reservoir where the ground water could be stored temporarily before being used to irrigate Jan Aga’s land (see Figure 2). While this shift to solar technology cost him almost US$10,000 up front- a significant expense on top of the US$3,600 he’d already spent establishing his deep well four years earlier – from that point forward he incurred none of the recurrent costs associated with using diesel power with its wildly fluctuating fuel prices, nor replacement costs for damaged generators and pumps - a common result of the adulterated fuel that is widespread in the area.
Figure 2: Imagery showing solar powered tubewell with reservoir
Jan Aga is the first to admit he paid for his move and the transformation of his desert land largely by cultivating poppy. Despite, adding three additional children to his family following his move, and with wheat yields of 3.8 metric tons per hectare, Jan Aga never needed much more than half a hectare of wheat to meet the requirements of his family of ten but often cultivated up to one hectare “just in case.” The rest of Jan Aga’s land was dedicated to cash crops, and in each of the last five years he cultivated at least two hectares of poppy.
For Jan Aga and many of his neighbours, there were few alternatives. Although cotton prices surged following the collapse of the Afghan Republic in 2021 and the rise in the number of private gins and changes to trade policies, he, like many of his neighbours, grew little, given their distance to the market. As most farmers cultivated sufficient fruit and vegetables in their kitchen gardens for their own consumption, there was also little effective demand for commercial production in the area, and Jan Aga knew he had little hope of competing with farmers in with the well-irrigated areas surrounding the cities of Lashkar Gah and Gereshk in selling to the urban population of Helmand. Poppy he knows well: his children can help (few of them are in school), which is a blessing given how labour-intensive the crop is, and with herbicides becoming increasingly commonplace, the labour demands of the crop during the weeding season are not as onerous as they once were.
With each hectare of poppy typically yielding almost seventy kilogrammes of opium, Jan Aga had accrued quite an inventory by the time the Taliban began to enforce its drug ban in Musa Qala in the fall of 2022. Opium was Jan Aga’s primary source of income so he would often sell a substantial part of his crop each year to meet his household expenses, especially during the former Afghan Republic when prices were much lower, but he often had 20 kilograms left over in those years when he did not have a major expense, such as a funeral, wedding, or new farm equipment. His was not the privileged position of his neighbour, who with even more desert land than Jan Aga, four grown sons, and a store selling fertiliser in the district bazaar, claimed to have more than one metric ton of opium stored - the product of more than a decade of cultivation and enough disposable income that he had not sold any of his opium for years.
So, when Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah announced the drugs ban in April 2022, Jan Aga was not distraught as many might have expected. In fact, he welcomed the ban, noting the dramatic rise in opium prices that followed and the concomitant rise in value of the opium he had accumulated over the years. Whereas the opium price had been as low as US$ 60 per kilogram one month prior to the Taliban coming to power in August 2021, he watched as prices more than doubled to US$130 per kilogram a year later when the 2022 harvest came, and shortly after Haibatullah declared his edict. By November that year prices were as high as US$360 per kilogram (see Figure 3). Jan Aga was particularly grateful for the two month “grace period” announced by the Ministry of Interior the day after Haibatullah’s religious proclamation, as this allowed Jan Aga to harvest the poppy crop he had planted in the fall of 2021, before the ban was announced. In fact, Jan Aga not only retained his own share of the May 2022 harvest but also bought back the quarter share of the final crop that landowners typically pay the labourers they recruit to help with the harvest, swelling his opium stores even further.
Figure 3: Chart showing the net returns on poppy cultivation in 2022, differentiating by land ownership and the time of sale
Jan Aga knows that his stores of opium will not last forever, but is conscious that opium prices will increase further if a second consecutive year of the ban is enforced, and already sees evidence of this happening as the next season approaches, with prices rising by as much as 50 per cent since July 2023 (see Figure 4). There is little market for the excess wheat that he cultivated this year, but he will store what he can and maybe sell some of the surplus, knowing that it cannot compete with the quality and price of imports from Kazakhstan. He hopes that the Taliban drugs ban will not endure, but knows that he can ride it out for at least another season or more. His more immediate concern is the impact of the ban on those in Musa Qala who are much less fortunate than himself: the small landowners, sharecroppers and landless who do not have the kind of stores of opium that he and his neighbour have accrued. He fears many of the young will leave the country in search of work, and that others will turn to crime, undermining stability in the area.
Figure 3: Chart showing the net returns on poppy cultivation in 2022, differentiating by land ownership and the time of sale
Imposing a poppy ban on the land-poor: The growing crisis in the east
Fida Mohammad’s circumstances could not be more different than that of Jan Aga: he owns only one hectare of land in lower Achin, less than seven kilometres from the Nangarhar canal that runs to the north of his village (see Figure 5) and drawing water from the nearby river, Fida Mohammad does not have a deep well. While he does not own a lot of land, at least he does not need to rent or sharecrop the land of others, unlike many in his area.
Fida Mohammad’s error was that he did not believe the local Taliban commander would enforce the ban that the leadership had announced and instead decided to increase the amount of land he had dedicated to poppy in 2022. To do so he abandoned the potato he had grown the year before, and reduced the amount of wheat he cultivated. Due to drought, none of his crops had fared particularly well in 2022, but he thought that at least with rising opium prices he might be able to improve his family’s lot by growing more poppy in 2023.
Figure 5: Aerial photograph showing typical farming area to the south of the canal in Nangarhar province
Fida Mohammad knew the crop was banned. As early as the fall of 2022, prior to planting, he heard the warnings that the poppy crop would be destroyed, but was convinced those threats would come to nought, particularly given that almost every household in his village and - from what he could grasp from his travels - most of the farmers in Achin, had planted poppy. He thought that the Taliban would not risk alienating the entire area so early in its rule.
He was wrong. The district governor mounted several attempts to persuade those in his village not to cultivate. Initially, farmers were told not to plant in the fall of 2022. When many ignored this message, the local authorities encouraged farmers to destroy their own crops just after planting season had finished and as the crop had begun to germinate; at a point when they could have replanted the cleared land with wheat. Some farmers heeded the message, but Fida Mohammad did not believe the authorities would mount a meaningful eradication campaign and send soldiers and tractors to destroy farmers’ crops.
After all, that would have been too much like the former Republic, which had incurred disastrous consequences. He even ignored the later campaign that came to the village in January 2023, which destroyed the crops near the roadside.
Then, in late March 2023, Fida Mohammad realised he had gravely misjudged the situation. Once the Taliban soldiers had finished, Fida Mohammad had no poppy at all. He, like other recalcitrants in his lower Achin village, lost his entire crop prior to harvest after expending so much time and money on his poppy, with the expectation that he would soon reap the rewards. In contrast with what happened in the upper parts of Achin, his fellow villagers did not mount a protest and there was no violence in response to the crop destruction, as there were so few farmers whose opium crop remained intact (see Figure 6).
Figure 6: Imagery showing an area of opium eradication in Achin district, Nangarhar, between 9th and 29th April
Fida Mohammad was left with only one-fifth hectare of green pea and a similar amount of wheat. While his land yielded a summer crop, the tomato and okra crop he had grown in 2022, along with the potato and green pea he harvested earlier in the spring, provided an income of little more than $0.50 per day to each of his family members. The yield of his summer crop of maize had also been so low it was used to make bread for his family and to feed his livestock, while the wheat he harvested in the spring of 2023 would only produce enough bread for his family for three months of the year.
Fida Mohammad had none of the stocks of opium found in the larger farms of Musa Qala; he simply did not have the land, or indeed the yields, of those in the southwest. While Fida Mohammad had looked to stretch out the sales of the opium he harvested in April 2022, and maximise the money he earned from the rise in prices that followed the Taliban announcement of a ban, due to household consumption needs, his entire crop was sold by October, earning a total of US$2,300. His decision to grow more poppy in the fall of 2022 and its subsequent eradication put Fida Mohammad in dire economic straits.
Like many in the area who suffered the same fate, or did not grow poppy at all, Fida Mohammad coped by curbing his household expenses, limiting the quantity and quality of food the family buys. He considered himself fortunate that no one in his family was seriously ill, as that could have incurred significant costs, and in his current circumstances he suspected he would not be able to pay for any treatment. He had already pulled his children from the private classes they attended to supplement the more basic education offered in the government schools, and was looking to sell some of his wife’s gold jewellery to make ends meet for what remained of the summer.
His remaining asset – other than his land - was his car worth around US$2,000. Had he a son old enough, Fida Mohammad would have sold his vehicle, and, like some of his neighbours, sent his son to Iran, Turkey and on to Europe via the border town of Ziranj in Nimroz, in the desperate hope that he would be able to settle, find work, and send money back to his family in Afghanistan. For now, Fida Mohammad looks to the next planting poppy planting season, worries about what the Taliban intend to do, and discusses with his fellow villagers whether they will plant, and whether there is an appetite to resist the authorities eradication efforts next year.
What ban? Increased poppy cultivation in the mountains of the northeast
Up in the mountains of Badakhshan, Hamid Gul’s farm is larger than Fida Mohammed’s, but the two hectares of land he owns is in the less productive rainfed area of the district of Jurm and is therefore cultivated only every other year. In the summer of 2022, Hamid Gul harvested almost 2.5 metric tons of wheat from his rainfed land, enough to feed his family of ten for up to 16 months, and his stores are now almost coming to an end. However, in the fall of the same year, he also obtained from a landowner two fifths of a hectare in the irrigated valley, cultivating all of it with poppy in return for half the final crop: potentially a major boon to his family’s income.
When the planting season came, there was no doubt in Hamid Gul’s mind that he would grow poppy. Firstly, the landowner had insisted: the land would not have been given to Hamid Gul to farm unless he had agreed to cultivate poppy, and had he refused there were plenty of other farmers who would have taken the landowner up on the offer. Secondly, with opium prices in Badakhshan as high as US$255 per kilogram in the fall [AH3] of 2022, there was no other crop that could compete.
During the planting season in late 2022, Hamid Gul had heard some rather half-hearted messages in the mosque at Juma (Friday) prayers. He even saw the letter from the provincial authorities posted on the wall – not that he could read it – but he did not believe they would follow through - after all, the district governor was from the same area and was unlikely to press his fellow villagers too hard.
Hamid Gul was right. The campaign to destroy the crop in Badakhshan in the spring and summer of 2023 was almost as lacklustre as the effort to deter planting in the fall (see Figure 7). With land located close to the roadside, in early May 2023 he did lose a small parcel of his poppy crop to the local authorities, as they and their colleagues from both Faizabad and Kabul looked to be seen to be engaged in an effective eradication campaign, but it really was more of a nuisance than anything – “something for the camera”. In late May 2023, the eradication campaign was called off in the area following an attack on the district governor and his subsequent resignation - embarrassed by the fact that his own villagers had turned against him.
Figure 7: Imagery showing fields of poppy in Jurm district Badakhshan in July 2023, after the eradication season had finished.
Hamid Gul sold his half share of the sixteen kilogram opium harvest (the equivalent of forty kilograms per hectare) for US$140 per kilogram, a total of US$1,120. He also earned US$1,400 from the sale of some of his livestock in the spring. However, his most significant source of income was the monies earned by his son. In contrast to many of his fellow villagers – and many others in Badakhshan - Hamid Gul did not have a family member in Iran (a smaller number in Turkey) sending remittances back home every few months. Rather, Hamid Gul’s son was a Taliban soldier earning a salary of almost US$ 150 per month, the equivalent of US$1,800 per year. To Hamid Gul this was a game changer: a secure income each month of the year.
With an income of little more than the equivalent of US$ 1 per day per family member, Hamid Gul remained poor, but not as vulnerable as he would have been were the Taliban to have enforced its ban on poppy in Badakhshan as they did in other provinces. Like many in Badakhshan, Hamid Gul considered the economy more buoyant than twelve months prior.
He received a monthly package of food items from the United Nations for a six-month period over the winter, and along with the sales of his opium (at an inflated price) and livestock, and his son’s salary, his income was higher than it had been for several years. The increased poppy cultivation in Badakhshan in 2023 also created competition for labour during the weeding and harvest season, boosting local wages. The influx of labourers during the harvest season also increased consumption in the district bazaar, inflating the earnings of local shopkeepers and hoteliers.
Given the importance of opium to the local economy, and the levels of poverty across the province, Hamid Gul did not believe the Taliban would ban poppy anytime soon. Humanitarian assistance had already been curtailed and Hamid Gul had been informed that from May 2023 he would need to share his monthly US$ 70 food package with three other households. A poppy ban would, he believed, create an economic crisis. With divisions within the Taliban in Badakhshan, and their reluctance to enforce the ban in 2023, he did not believe they would look to worsen the already fragile economy and prompt many of the young to leave the country, with growing unrest amongst those staying behind.
Generalising the particular: the scale and complexity of the task
While Jan Aga, Fida Mohammed, and Hamid Gul, are just three examples amongst hundreds of thousands of farmers involved in the opium economy in Afghanistan, we should be careful not to relegate their experiences to mere anecdotes. In fact, their stories reflect a much wider experience within their respective provinces and beyond.
For example, imagery analysis shows that Jan Aga is one of an estimated 3.1 million people - 310,00 households - that between 2005 and 2023 left the long-established villages that straddle the primary riverways in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, and Farah to set up home in what was once dry desert land. The encroachment into the desert has been so great that more than one million hectares of former desert land are now under agricultural production, almost twice the area under surface water (see Figure 8). An estimated 2.7 million people - 271,000 households – now reside in areas of dense poppy cultivation in Kandahar and Helmand alone, many of them in these former desert areas where poppy has become the mainstay of their economy (see Figure 9). With yet more farmers moving to the desert, the uptick of solar-powered deep wells even in surface irrigated areas, and rapidly falling groundwater, it is clear there is a pending economic crisis unfolding across the south and southwest of Afghanistan, in which the Taliban’s ban on poppy cultivation is but one contributing factor (see Figure10).
Figure 8: Imagery analysis showing the increase in the area under agriculture in south and southwest Afghanistan following the encroachment of desert land between 2005 and 2023
Figure 9: Imagery analysis showing the number of household compounds in areas of varying poppy density in Helmand and Kandahar
Figure 10: Imagery analysis showing the increase in the number of reservoirs associated with the solar powered deep wells in south and southwest Afghanistan between 2016 and 2022, showing a dramatic uptick in the surface irrigated areas of the Helmand and Arghandab rivers since 2021
It is land scarcity that lies at the root of the economic problems of Fida Mohammad and Hamid Gul and this is a common experience for an estimated 610,000 people - 61,000 households - where poppy is most densely cultivated in Nangarhar and Badakhshan (see Figures 11 and 12). In fact, the enforcement of a comprehensive ban in Nangarhar between 2008 and 2010 imposed significant costs on these same communities during the former Afghan Republic, a period of rapid economic growth, when the international community was spending hundreds of millions of dollars in the province. Even during those boom times, in the absence of poppy, those in the southern districts of Nangarhar were compelled to look for work elsewhere, joining what was then the Afghan National Army or finding jobs in the cities of Jalalabad and Kabul in what was a burgeoning service sector and construction industry. Given their circumstances – limited land, high population densities, limited local demand and distance from major urban centres - alternative crops and agricultural investments proved insufficient.
Households with limited land in Badakhshan also relied heavily on enlistment in the Afghan National Army, as well as on remittances from family members in Iran, for income over the last two decades. Moreover, during the former Afghan Republic poppy cultivation was rarely curbed, offering a similar economic cushion for farmers as it does today. However, the economic situation today is far less favourable: a widespread economic crisis, curtailing of humanitarian assistance by more than US$ 1 billion this year, lack of development funding, and high unemployment means that continued poppy cultivation is likely to become even more important to rural livelihoods even amongst the landed in Badakhshan, and additionally so for those who are more marginal.
As the three case studies, and aggregate data shows, poppy cultivation is a response to an array of development challenges that rural communities in Afghanistan face. It is grown across different areas and different socio-economic groups, and the benefits vary dramatically. Responses that are wedded to simply replacing poppy with other crops fail to take this important context in mind. It is an approach that meets neither development nor drug control objectives: targeting the landed, wealthier members of the community who are likely to have gained most from the current ban, while ignoring the needs of the land poor who are more dependent on opium for a livelihood.
Figure 11: Imagery analysis showing the number of household compounds in areas of varying poppy density in Nangarhar
Figure 12: Imagery analysis showing the number of household compounds in areas of varying poppy density in Badakhshan
Attempting to hold back the tide: the inevitable return to cultivation
It is the case that we are in uncharted waters as the next planting season approaches and we look to see if the ban is extended into an unprecedented second consecutive year. When the Taliban imposed a ban the last time they were in power, there were already signs of rural unrest after only one season, but the debate as to whether prohibition would continue became moot following 9/11 and the regime’s subsequent collapse.
It could be argued that there is much greater potential for a more enduring ban this time round, given that when the Taliban seized Kabul in August 2021, they inherited a very different country with established government institutions and a much larger economy.
However, there is also an economic reality that undermines any ban on opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, and we should be careful not to exaggerate the ability of Taliban rule to overcome it. As the scholar and author Tom Barfield notes “Those Afghan leaders who would best succeed during the [twentieth century] employed a ‘Wizard of Oz’ strategy. They declared their governments all-powerful but rarely risked testing their claim by implementing controversial policies. The leaders most prone to failure and state collapse were those who assumed that they possessed the power to do as they pleased, and then provoked opposition that their regimes proved incapable of suppressing.”
There is already considerable evidence that the current ban has not been uniformly accepted by the rural population or by those within the Taliban’s own ranks responsible for implementing it. History also shows that it is not simply a matter of the coercive power of the state; rural communities have agency and shape the politics of Afghanistan far beyond their immediate area. When the economic impact of a ban on poppy cultivation is felt collectively across a growing population, local resistance can quickly escalate, prompting those in the districts responsible for enforcement to retreat, unwilling to impose further losses on their own families, neighbours, and communities, and to risk exposing the limits of their power.
While landed farmers in the south and southwest may be able to endure a ban for a few years due to the advantage of their farm sizes and the opium inventories they have accrued, neither their opium, nor indeed their groundwater, will last forever. Although the better-off are less concerned about their own economic situation were a second consecutive year of a ban to be enforced, there is a growing disquiet even amongst the landed about the impact on more marginal members of their communities – the sharecroppers, tenants and landless – and the risk that growing impoverishment might have on crime and instability. While opium prices may rise and their inventories increase in value, even the wealthy consider the larger impact of the ban and how it harms the wider community whose interests they are often called on to represent, and who have a history of turning against the rural elite.
In the east, the ban has already taken its toll after only one year. Landowners such as Fida Mohammad are already particularly vulnerable to shocks such as illness or drought, and are unable to meet the costs of family events like funerals or marriage. The impact on those with even smaller landholdings, or with no land at all, is far more severe, and experience shows the risk that outmigration and unrest will increase over time. Evidence shows that once resistance takes hold in the localities like the upper areas of the southern districts of Nangarhar, where poppy cultivation is at its most concentrated, it can quickly spread to the lower areas of the province straddling the Kabul River.
The situation in Badakhshan further highlights the economic and political fragility of the current poppy ban. This past season the provincial authorities, most of them hailing from within the province, were unwilling to enforce a ban on the area or even to press for reductions, resulting in the increased levels of cultivation we have seen in the province in 2023. This will not have gone unnoticed in other parts of the country, particularly in the south and the east where the ban was largely complied with.
If these communities and the elites in these areas are not to use continued cultivation in Badakhshan as leverage and an excuse to return to poppy next year, the Taliban leadership will need to adopt an aggressive position in the run-up to the next planting season in the fall. Conscious of the severe economic effects of a ban in a land-poor province such as Badakhshan, and the pushback from rural communities this year, it is likely that greater force will be required to implement the poppy ban in the coming season. Furthermore, with the local Taliban reluctant to act against poppy this year, a more robust effort against the crop would possibly require outside force. Perhaps this explains why the provincial governor of Badakhshan was replaced in July 2023 by a Pashtoon from Kandahar.
Whichever way you look at it, a drive to press for dramatic reductions in poppy cultivation in Badakhshan in the coming season will be destabilising. The economic impact would be severe and result in an increase in outmigration to Iran, Turkey and potentially Europe, adding to those leaving from other land-poor provinces where the ban has already been effectively enforced. Unseating local Taliban commanders in positions of power in Badakhshan, or undermining their authority with an influx of outsiders, particularly Pashtoons, is also likely to provoke unrest in a province where the local Taliban are riven and there has already been several high-profile attacks on the leadership.
The dramatic increase in opium prices since July 2023 only complicates matters further (see Figure 13). Pushing a ban into a second year without tackling the trade could further increase the divisions in the country: inflating the value of the assets of traders and the landed with their inventories, while denying future income to the small landholders who are heavily dependent on poppy for their annual income. The fact that the losses and benefits of this policy would be unevenly distributed and have a geographic, tribal, and potentially ethnic dimension, increases the potential for unrest in the rural areas most effected, and could exacerbate tensions within the Taliban. It seems inevitable that while widespread poppy cultivation may not return in 2024 it is only a matter of time.
Figure 13: Graph showing dry opium prices, January 2020 to September 2023
The answer is not as obvious as you’d think
Ultimately, there is a need to question whether the current dramatic reduction in poppy cultivation is an unambiguously positive outcome. While the Pavlovian response is to automatically consider any drugs ban a “good thing” that should be welcomed, it is not as clear-cut as many might think.
If the likely outcomes of enduring reductions in cultivation is a growing economic crisis, political instability, and an outflow of migrants from rural Afghanistan to Europe, one must question whether those arguing that the ban unequivocally produces benefits have given the matter sufficient thought. It is certainly worth noting that during the former Afghan Republic, such a dramatic reduction in cultivation was not the position of the United Kingdom as the G8 lead nation on counternarcotics, nor that of European nations, concerned as they were that such a move would lead to an economic and humanitarian crisis and undermine support for the Afghan government. In short, the UK and others, only pressed for an outright ban in an area only when the political and economic conditions allowed.
Aside from the fact that such a dramatic reduction was not advocated by the international community during the former Afghan Republic, or indeed vis-vis the current de facto authorities, there remains the question of what an effective response to the Taliban ban might look like. History has shown the limited, and often counterproductive effects on poppy cultivation when policy makers reach for the drop-down menu of counter narcotics responses. It has been widely reported that decades of failed alternative livelihoods / development projects in Afghanistan, particularly simple crop substitution programmes, show that small-scale boundaried development efforts would achieve little in the current economic crisis.
For example, between 2002 and 2017, the US government spent US$ 1.46 billion on alternative livelihoods, but this did little to prevent record levels of poppy cultivation. The experiences of farmers such as Jan Aga, Fida Mohammad, and Hamid Gul, outlined in this paper, further reflect that alternative livelihoods interventions that take a one size fits all approach are ineffective and, in the current circumstances, would primarily benefit landed farmers that have already gained the most from the current ban. Whilst alternative livelihoods may seem like the most logical response to offset the negative economic effects of the ban, they would not scratch the surface of multifaceted and complex dilemma.
Decades of evidence from other drug producing countries demonstrate sustainable reductions in cultivation require a growing economy and the creation of large numbers of jobs to support the land-poor and absorb those that will be displaced from poppy cultivation. To achieve the kind of development effort needed to support an enduring reduction in poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, would require a dramatic change in the current relationship between the Taliban and the international community. For one, it would require the UK and others to commit to work closely with the Taliban over the next decade or longer to transform the rural economy. This would not only require a change in political direction, but it would require 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.
Unfortunately, without this fundamental shift in approach, the international community is left tinkering around the edges and will be able to do little to prevent cultivation returning in the coming years. Funding small scale alternative livelihoods programs will be like whistling in the wind, and given past experience could prove to be throwing good money after bad. It will only prompt the Taliban to blame the international community for what they will say, not incorrectly, is a wholly inadequate response when they relent to the economic realities of the rural population and the political reaction it provokes, even within its own ranks. As the late European diplomat and long term Afghan watcher, Francesc Vendrell noted in response to the last Taliban drugs ban in 2001 when head of the then United Nations Special Mission for Afghanistan “The Taliban will not put religious purism ahead of their military ambitions”.
Rather than follow the well-trodden path of funding counternarcotics interventions in Afghanistan, including poorly focused alternative livelihoods programs that have repeatedly failed to deliver, it might be better to recast the conversation and ask the Taliban leadership as to what their plans are for continuing the policy they chose to enact and what they will do to address the consequences. This might include a discussion about the national development plans they need to mitigate the far reaching impact of the ban and the kind of compromises they would be willing to make on gender, human rights, and inclusive government to obtain financial support. In the short term there could be greater financial aid for humanitarian assistance in those areas where the ban has hit the land-poor the hardest. In particular, it would be useful to hear more from the Taliban leadership about what they propose to do about the trade in opiates, an area where there have been few signs of action as of yet.
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 eighty 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. David was also the lead researcher on the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s Counter Narcotics: Lessons from the US Experience in Afghanistan, covering the period from 2002- 2017.
 These figures are based on imagery analysis of twelve provinces that were responsible for 95% of total cultivation in 2022.
 Throughout this article the names of the farmers and some of their details have been changed to protect their identity.