Uncharted Territory: Does the Taliban’s new edict signal a crackdown on the drugs trade is looming?
The 2023/24 poppy season is already upon us, and most indicators including market prices suggest that the Taliban regime is going to press for a ban for an unprecedented second consecutive year. Even more unprecedented is the growing pressure the Taliban appear to be applying on the drugs trade just as the planting season begins. Were the Taliban to continue its ban on cultivation, as well as engage in a robust effort against the trade – particularly if they move against inventory and processing – it would be a real game changer with significant ramifications both downstream in Europe and for the political-economy of Afghanistan; not least for an estimated 6.9 million people who were denied the ability to earn an income from growing poppy in 2023 (see Figure 1).[i]
Figure 1. Domestic compounds (in pink) within 100 metres of a poppy field in southwest Afghanistan in 2022 and 2023
A national poppy ban with some gaps
There is widespread acceptance that poppy cultivation fell dramatically in 2023. We had early indications of low levels of cultivation in January 2023 after the main planting season concluded. This was then confirmed in April 2023 when imagery showed negligible levels of cultivation in Helmand, and a limited poppy crop across much of the Southwest and the eastern province of Nangarhar.
In June 2023, detailed provincial imagery analysis began to yield results and we reported that cultivation in Helmand (a province typically responsible for around half Afghanistan’s total opium production) had fallen from 129,640 hectares in 2022 to only 740 hectares in 2023. Over the last two months, Alcis has produced further estimates, and by September 2023 we had final figures for 12 major poppy growing provinces responsible for 95% of poppy cultivation in 2022. An example of these results at the field level for 2022 and 2023 is at Figure 2 below.
Figure 2. Poppy and other crop cultivation in southwest Afghanistan in 2022 and 2023
Alcis estimates are now available for the entire country (see Table 1) and show a dramatic 86% reduction in opium poppy cultivation, down from 219,744 hectares in 2022 to only 31,088 hectares in 2023. Opium poppy cultivation is now limited to only 15 provinces, with just under half of Afghanistan’s total opium poppy cultivation concentrated in the north eastern province of Badakhshan.
Table 1 and chart. Provincial estimates of opium cultivation for 2022 and 2023
It is important to note that this estimate is not a partial survey based on satellite imagery from a limited sample of locations in Afghanistan from which estimates are then extrapolated, where there are endless methodological debates as to how representative the sample really is - particularly in a country as diverse as Afghanistan. Rather, Alcis’ estimates are the result of analysis of satellite imagery collected across the whole of Afghanistan repeatedly throughout the winter cropping season. As such, it is a method that reviews every field in Afghanistan multiple times through its growing cycle.
Furthermore, this method does not produce an estimate of poppy cultivation alone. It also offers an estimate of the amount of land dedicated to wheat, orchards, vineyards, and other crops - the agricultural alternatives to poppy - and thereby insights into how enduring a ban will be, and how this varies by area. In the context of Afghanistan, it is truly a unique methodological approach.
What we see in the estimates are the persistent - and in the case of Badakhshan rising - levels of poppy cultivation in many provinces and thereby the challenges even the Taliban face in imposing their will on some of the more remote and sometimes unruly parts of the country.
In some provinces there are areas where poppy continues to be cultivated, including quite substantial opium production in parts of Kandahar, Uruzgan, Dai Kundi, and Baghlan. In other provinces cultivation is much more limited but its presence still reflects the historical fracture lines in the Afghan state.
This is no more so than in the upper parts of Achin district in southern Nangarhar, an area where contemporary history documents resistance to both the Taliban prohibition of 2000/01, and efforts in 2005 and 2006 under the Republic to eliminate the crop. It was also the centre for Islamic State Khorasan Province in the eastern region between 2015 and 2018 and subsequently the target for the US military’s Mother of All Bombs (MoAB) in April 2017.
Ultimately, the Taliban drugs ban prevented an estimated 6.9 million people from cultivating poppy in 2023. While many of the 428,781 households in the southwestern provinces of Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan, Farah and Nimroz would have escaped the full economic impact of the ban as a result of the inventories they hold – reflecting their larger landholdings, good yields, and a long history of cultivation – many of the 590,641 households that cultivated the crop in other parts of the country in 2022 were not so privileged (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Graph showing the net returns on one hectare of opium poppy and how they vary by land tenure and date of sale
There is growing evidence that households compelled to abandon poppy in the eastern province of Nangarhar are already pursuing coping strategies that are indicative of heightened levels of economic distress. The sale of long-term productive assets, including farm equipment, jewellery, and land to meet basic expenses and send male family members abroad, is not uncommon. There are other parts of the country where similar strategies are being pursued. A potential second consecutive year of a ban will hit these communities particularly hard, as over time there are fewer assets to sell.
In the past, imposing this kind of collective shock on rural communities has proven politically destabilising in Afghanistan. A comprehensive ban imposed across the whole country would impact an estimated 10 million people – 1,019,422 households – and in the current economic climate is likely to lead in increasing rates of outmigration (see Figure 4) and possibly growing dissent in the countryside. As such, it is only rational to question whether the Taliban will continue its efforts, despite the religious credentials afforded to the ban.
Figure 4. Afghan migrants crossing the Mashkhel mountains between Pakistan and Iran
Will the Taliban target the trade?
While there is widespread recognition about the low level of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan following our announcement of such negligible cultivation in Helmand in July 2023, there is much less information in the public domain about the trade in opiates.
There has certainly been little in the media about the Taliban’s court’s decision in February 2023 to prohibit the official taxes that were being collected on the cross-border trade. A decision that was enforced one month later. Nor was there coverage of the decision in July 2023 to shut down the catapults (see Figures 5 and 6) that had proliferated on the Afghan border with Iran (see Figure 7) following the Taliban takeover.
Figure 5. A catapult firing a 1kg ball of opiates into Iran from Afghanistan
Figure 6. Opium packed ready for catapulting into Iran
Figure 7. Imagery analysis showing the number of catapults located on the border with Iran, north of Zaranj, in Nimroz province, Afghanistan
Even more absent is detail on the promulgation of a new drugs law on 1 October 2023. This law (in Pashto) and (in English) was agreed upon in a meeting chaired by Mullah Haibutullah on 28 August 2023 with the head of the Supreme Court, five provincial governors and other members of the Taliban leadership in attendance. It was a meeting dominated by southern Pashtoons.
Until a few months ago, there were few signs of pressure on the opium trade. However, there is evidence that the new drugs law is already having an effect, with many provincial authorities receiving a copy of the ordinance and a number disseminating news of the prescribed penalties through meetings with elders and in mosques.
In fact, over the last two months there has been a variety of "warning shots" issued against traders and couriers (arrest and released with drugs returned, followed by arrests, and released with no drugs returned) and there is some anticipation of a more draconian clampdown in the months ahead. It is the same strategy adopted against the trade in ephedra, ephedrine and methamphetamine in Bakwa in September 2022.
Now, as the poppy season begins, opium prices have increased in Badakhshan, Nangarhar and the southwest, with prices almost doubling in each area between July and October 2023 (see Figure 8). This in turn has impacted on the price of opium derivatives - morphine base, heroin base and heroin hydrochloride (see Figure 9) - with increases of more than one third in the last month alone (doubling since July 2023). It is particularly interesting that, following the announcement of the new law, opium prices increased by 40% in the east, 20% in the northeast, but only 10% in the southwest, possibly reflecting the high levels of inventory in provinces like Helmand and Kandahar.
Figure 8. Prices of dry opium in Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces between February 2020 and October 2023
Figure 9. Prices of opium derivatives; morphine base, heroin base and heroin hydrochloride between August 2021 and October 2023
Smuggling costs have also increased along the primary routes following the announcement of the new law. Of particular note is the recent closure of the route from Nangarhar to Peshawar via Durbaba and Tirah, and the claim that drugs are now being rerouted south. We have not seen these kinds of pressures before under Taliban rule. As yet, the only route that has not experienced a rise in smuggling costs is the journey via Bahramchar in Helmand province, possibly reflecting continued privileges afforded to those in Helmand (see Figure 10). This is clearly a dynamic environment - and like the ban on cultivation - reflects the uneven nature of Taliban rule in which some groups are favoured over others.
Figure 10. A trader testing the quality of opium at an opium bazaar in southern Afghanistan
What does the next season have in store?
Currently all signs are pointing to the Taliban continuing to enforce their poppy cultivation ban. Doing this for a second consecutive year would be truly unprecedented. Moreover, contrary to expectations, there is growing evidence that the Taliban are ratcheting up the pressure on those involved in the opium trade. As with the ban on cultivation, this has not been a single act of prohibition but gradual enforcement by stealth.
The new drugs law appears to be evidence of further drug control efforts by the Taliban. It also comes at the beginning of the poppy planting season, inflating opium prices to levels that some areas have not seen since the Taliban drugs ban of 2001 (see Figure 11).
Figure 11. Prices of dry opium between August 1997 and October 2023
Higher prices will undoubtedly increase the incentives to grow poppy, particularly given the continued deterioration of the Afghan economy and the absence of viable alternatives for farmers. This in turn could increase the risk of violent resistance against Taliban efforts to impose a ban, particularly in Badakhshan now that planting has already begun, and where neither the authorities nor the population heeded Mullah Haibatullah’s edict in 2023.
However, moving against the drugs trade would also unsettle interests in the south, particularly were there a campaign to ban the trade of opium and processing of opiates. After all, the sale of an inventory rapidly increasing in value has been critical to livelihood resilience to the ban in the Taliban’s heartlands, and has no doubt offered significant advantage to those commanders deeply involved in the trade. At the cusp of the 2023/24 planting season, we find ourselves at a major inflection point in the history of illicit drug production in Afghanistan – this is most definitely uncharted territory.
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.
[i] This figure is based on a count of the number of domestic compounds, identified from high resolution satellite imagery, found within 100 metres of a poppy field in both 2022 (1,019,422) and in 2023 (331,187) and an average domestic compound occupancy of ten people. While it can be argued that not every household living in compounds within 100 metres of a poppy field actually grows poppy on their own land, it is likely that they derive some kind of income (directly or indirectly) from poppy cultivation.