Will the Taliban's efforts to control drugs succeed?
Updated: Jun 13
Growing reports of poppy eradication in Southwest Afghanistan are causing some confusion, particularly the sight of tractors ploughing fields of emergent poppy, next to a neighbouring field of undamaged poppy ready to harvest.
Such scenes have been met with understandable scepticism and accusations that “this is all for the cameras”, “surely if it were otherwise the entire crop would have been destroyed regardless of its size or maturity?” This is not an unreasonable response (see my Twitter post here )
There is a long history of exaggerated reports of eradication in Afghanistan and not just by those in the Afghan government also by US Government. With eradication used as a measure of Counter Narcotic commitment, there are often theatrics that accompany crop destruction that need to be charted and understood.
Moreover, the ban announced by the Taliban on the 3rd of April 2022 - by Hibatullah Akhundzada no less - was absolute and left nothing to interpretation:
Well, that is of course until political and economic realities take hold. Privately, Taliban leaders stepped back and said they would allow the crop, planted in the autumn, to be harvested and sold and then the ban would be enforced. These leaders were, no doubt, conscious of the challenges they would face destroying a crop cultivated by so many across such a widespread area, which was fast approaching harvest. It was sure to provoke a reaction in the rural heartlands; the can was kicked down the road.
What appears to be taking place now is an attempt to live up to that commitment and an effort to destroy the season’s second crop in the Southwest.
Historically, this was never much of a crop. It wasn’t included in UNODC’s annual figures only by the US Government, who estimated it covered less than 5,000 hectares.
In fact, the second crop was only seen in the Southwest circa 2014, largely in the cooler upper areas of Helmand and Kandahar. Planted in March/April its maturation is hastened by the warm temperatures leading to low yields of less than 4.5kg/jerib.
Previously, high input costs and relatively low prices meant the second crop was not an attractive proposition in the Southwest. There were more profitable ways to spend the summer, including construction jobs in the city. It could be argued that the current second crop in the Southwest is in part of the Taliban’s own making. After all it was the Taliban who pump primed the drugs economy by banning opium at harvest time amidst one of the worst economic crises to hit the country. (See Twitter thread here)
Within days of announcing the ban in March opium prices rose in the Southwest from $100/kg to $235/kg. Even after what was undoubtedly a generous season with a significant amount of land dedicated to the crop and good yields, the price of fresh opium still stands @ $190/kg. It is likely that the 2.5x increase in opium prices encouraged further cultivation in and the economic crisis made the second crop more attractive. With fewer jobs and more Afghans relying on their land for income, there was little to be lost from planting poppy in the spring.
That was until the Taliban started destroying it. There are reports of eradication across the Southwest including in Shah Walikot, Kajaki, Marjah, Maiwand & Panjwai. There are also reports of farmers destroying their own crop fearful of Taliban reprisals. While the level of destruction undoubtedly remains relatively low in hectarage terms, it sends signals to those farmers thinking about what to plant in the autumn of this year.
It is not just this second poppy crop that the Taliban has targeted. We have seen efforts to deter the trade in ephedra, the crop used in the production of methamphetamine in Afghanistan.
The Taliban first announced a ban on the ephedra harvest in November 2021, just after that season’s harvest had finished (there is a pattern here)
This announcement went largely unnoticed by the outside world. However, in Afghanistan it led to a surge in the price of ephedra, ephedrine and meth. It was a welcome development for those involved in the industry who had seen profits dwindle. (see more in my Twitter thread here). It is hard to assess the impact of a ban on ephedra until after the harvest has finished, but we can see the residual effects on Taliban efforts to restrict trade. The bazaar at Abdul Wadood in Bakwa, has long been a focal point of the meth trade in the Southwest.
On 27 November 2021 we could see almost 12,000 m3 of ephedra amassed in the bazaar, enough to make the equivalent of 220 MT of meth. By 8 January 2022, the inventory was already depleted and by 23rd January it was gone.
Even if we take into consideration the seasonal nature of the crop and the potential for falling inventory in the spring prior to the new harvest, Abdul Wadood bazaar has never been completely denuded of stocks.
The price of meth and ephedrine are also through the roof at $550/kg and $256/kg respectively; the market is clearly concerned about future supply.
It seems too early to say how we read these drug control efforts by the Taliban. The next important date on the agricultural calendar will be in late July when the ephedra harvest is due. This is a crop that might be easier to ban outright. It doesn’t have the deep-seated tradition of poppy or the geographic coverage. Nor is it cultivated widely by hundreds of thousands of farmers and their families in the Pashtoon heartlands of the east and south.
Ephedra primarily grows wild in the mountains of the central highlands and, until recently, its harvest was dominated by some of the poorest members of these mountain communities.
Despite its relative obscurity when compared to poppy, the meth economy was worth an estimated $580 million per annum (even before the hike in prices caused by the ban) and created almost 2.5 million labour days of employment, much of it in some of the most marginal areas.
There could be some deeply troubling times ahead. Perhaps in the short term the Taliban can turn these spigots off one by one: firstly, the second opium crop in the Southwest, then the ephedra crop in the highlands, followed by the autumn opium crop across the entire country. Maybe then it can act against the trade. The Taliban could argue that the rural population can take the hit in the short term, having benefited from the rise in prices resulting from their prohibition.
But this will not be the case for all and for many this “windfall” will not last for long. In the past it was the urban areas and security forces that absorbed those from the countryside fleeing a poppy ban. This is not an option in the current economic circumstances.
Nor will so called alternative development projects with their bias to crop substitution fill the hole in the absence of wider development efforts and economic growth. In the absence of a meaningful plan there appears to be a much heightened risk of greater levels of rural poverty and an exodus of people fleeing Afghanistan.