Truly Unprecedented: The Taliban Drugs Ban v2.0.
Updated: Jun 7
With the Taliban having exceeded expectations and reduced poppy cultivation to levels not seen since 2001, there is now a real need to understand the potential effects of the drugs ban on Afghanistan, the region, and further downstream.
For many of us old enough to have seen a particular style of music, or clothes, come round a second or third time, the term “unprecedented” is often overused. Those who are from Afghanistan, or worked there for a sustained period, are likely to feel much the same. There are many incidents or events where we know the term unprecedented has been deployed too casually to gain attention, describing an incident or phenomena that has perhaps occurred before – albeit in a slightly different guise - or is likely to be surpassed in the not too distant future.
It is no more so than when it comes to drug production in Afghanistan. Reports of unprecedented levels of cultivation, eradication, and seizures became the mainstay of officials and the media for many years. “Peak” or “unprecedented” levels of opium cultivation were reported one year, only to have been topped one or two seasons later. Reductions in cultivation were often described in the same cavalier way and all too often ascribed to particular programs or interventions despite evidence to the contrary.
With all this in mind it is worth considering the truly unprecedented reductions in poppy cultivation that have occurred in Afghanistan in 2023. Many will have had the feeling of “ground hog day” when they heard the Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah imposed a ban on drugs in Afghanistan in April 2022, only seven months after the Taliban took power. Memories of past drug control efforts both under Taliban v1.0 and the former Afghan Republic will have come to mind and ongoing reports of crop destruction, and drug seizures, will have been viewed with a heavy dose of scepticism.
Yet the reality is, an effective ban on poppy cultivation has been imposed in Afghanistan in 2023 and opium production will be negligible compared to 2022. In fact, high resolution imagery shows that in the province of Helmand poppy cultivation has fallen from more than 120,000 hectares in 2022 to less than 1,000 hectares in 2023 – a reduction in this one province alone that surpasses any prior national poppy ban in Afghanistan, even the Taliban prohibition of 2000/01.
Wheat also dominates the landscape of other provinces in the south and southwest – an area that typically grows around 80% of Afghanistan’s total poppy crop- and by the end of the season there were only small pockets of poppy cultivation remaining in the eastern province of Nangarhar, another major opium producing province. While cultivation persists – and may have even increased - in parts of the northeast, such as Badakhshan, it is clear the stage is set for the lowest levels of poppy cultivation since the Taliban ban of 2000/01.
The widespread scepticism that accompanied the opium ban when it was announced in April 2022, and throughout the growing season, must now adjust to this new reality, and as this paper explains, while the results of this drugs ban are dramatic, the potential consequences for Afghanistan, the region, and Europe, are even more so.
A Process Not an Event
Scepticism is certainly justified when it comes to Taliban rule. There remain many promises from the peace process in Doha that have not been kept, and the Taliban leadership’s decision to announce a ban on the drugs trade at the very moment when it rescinded its agreement to reopen girls schools, certainly looked like distraction. However, even scepticism needs to be informed by facts and when it comes to the drugs ban there has been considerable confusion in media reporting and analyst’s comments as to how the imposition of the ban has been progressing. A large part of the challenge has been a failure to understand the sequencing of events – most notably drug crop growing seasons – and therefore what realistically the Taliban authorities can be held accountable for at specific moments in time.
An obvious example would be the release of UNODC’s 2022 Afghanistan poppy survey in November 2022 and the announcement that cultivation had risen by 32% on the previous year. This brought considerable criticism of the Taliban in the press and other outlets despite the fact that the crop harvested in 2022 was planted twelve months prior to UNODC’s report of an increase, and five months before Haibatullah even announced his drugs ban. At the same time the Taliban’s concerted actions against what was a burgeoning methamphetamine industry went largely unnoticed in the press, as if it was only the prohibition of opiates that mattered, and that efforts to curtail the supply of one drug did not impact on the market for others.
Instead, UNODC’s report was often viewed as vindication for those that did not believe a drugs ban was being enforced, and the headline figure for a crop planted in late 2021 became the go-to figure to be cited by officials and the media even as the new planting season began one year later, and when efforts were already underway to deter planting.
Aside from the timing of the growing season the political realities of Afghanistan were also often ignored in many of these critiques. When first announced the drug ban sounded like it was absolute and as if it would take immediate effect. This is perhaps a perception shaped by perception: the religious weight of the decree, the Taliban’s prior record in banning cultivation in 2000/01, and the way that the insurgency had not only swept into power in August 2021, but how the Taliban itself presents the authority of its leaders on the world stage.
In fact, what followed Haibatullah’s proclamation in April 2022 was a steady ramping up of pressure on drugs production, initially targeting the smaller lower yielding spring and summer poppy crops in the south and southwest, before tackling the methamphetamine industry over the summer and fall, and culminating in concerted action against the 2022/23 poppy crop.
The campaign also involved building support for the ban among the different wings of the administration and rural constituents, something that may still not have been fully achieved given continued cultivation and the slower pace of eradication in some areas, particularly Badakhshan. Far from absolute, Haibatullah’s drugs ban seems to be a policy shaped by the economic and political realities of Afghanistan and the well documented challenges that Afghan leaders have historically had imposing their will on both state institutions and on the rural areas where drugs production is concentrated.
A Slow Roll Out on Opium Poppy
The Taliban’s efforts to ban poppy began in the spring of 2022 just after the ban was announced in early April. In particular, the spring and summer planted crops in the south and southwest were targeted for eradication. The authorities didn’t touch the standing crop – the one planted in the fall of 2021 - that was only a week or two from harvest as that would have provoked widespread unrest so close to the harvest season and after farmers had invested considerable time and resources in their poppy fields.
Rather it was the second and even third crops of the season that was the focus of the Taliban’s eradication efforts over the spring and summer of 2022. Typically, small and poor yielding, these crops were not well established and were a much easier target for the authorities. Much was made of these efforts with videos of crop destruction posted on social media by the Ministry of Interior as well as by individual commanders and farmers.
Some videos surfaced showing tractors destroying the recently planted spring crop – barely 10 centimetres in size – leaving unscathed adjacent fields of healthy flowering poppy crops chest-high, furthering doubts that the Taliban were not serious about the ban their leader had imposed.
However, for those that don’t think the Taliban play the long game the destruction of the spring and summer poppy crops in Haibatullah’s heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar in the summer of 2022 served as an important message to farmers across the country that there was a strong probability that his prohibition would be enforced when the new season began in November.
At the same time, by not destroying the crop planted in the fall of 2021, farmers – particularly those with larger landholdings in the south and southwest – were given the means to survive, even thrive, despite the successful imposition of ban on the opium crop in 2022/23.
Not all Poppy Farmers are the Same
The natural response to the prospect of a pending ban was for farmers to hoard what opium they could. Were a ban imposed, prices would inevitably rise providing a potential windfall for those that had the financial means to retain the crop that they had grown that year. In some cases, farmers would have sold other assets just so that they could retain all or part of their final yield: some livestock, or a motorbike – assets that would diminish in value – in order that they could keep their opium and gain from a future rise in prices.
Those best placed to profit were the farmers with large landholdings in the south and southwest who not only have sufficient land for food and other crops to meet their family’s needs but also plenty of land for poppy. In fact, what often goes unnoticed in parts of south and southwest Afghanistan is just how much desert land has been grabbed and brought under cultivation in the last decade. Irrigated by groundwater pumped by solar power, farmers in these former desert lands can cultivate three or four hectares of land, with more than half of it dedicated to poppy; a stark contrast to those in the east and northeast where farmers with more than a hectare of irrigated land are considered land-rich, and where poppy is concentrated in areas where landholdings are much smaller.
The growing draw on ground water will also have helped farmers in the south and southwest gain healthy yields where others will have been more severely impacted by drought. Even in the canal irrigated areas, farmers have installed solar powered deep wells to draw on ground water for periods when the surface water runs dry. As such, many farmers in Helmand and other parts of the south would have been shielded from the worst of the drought in 2022, and obtained opium yields of 60 kilogrammes per hectare or more that they have been able to store for the proverbial “rainy day”.
The largest landowners typically have further advantage in that they also employ others to work on their poppy - sharecroppers and itinerant harvesters - many of whom are paid a share of the final opium crop. By purchasing the crop from these land-poor individuals at harvest time when prices are at their lowest, the landowner can keep the entire yield of the land, storing it in anticipation that prices will rise next season when a ban is imposed. Those on the other end of this transaction – the land poor – are not so lucky. In the absence of other sources of income, or assets, many are compelled to sell their share of the crop at harvest time when prices are at their lowest.
What we see from this contrasting picture of agriculture in Afghanistan is the very different position that farmers would have been in at the end of the 2022 poppy season. Some would have been awash with a surplus of opium that they believed would accrue in value were a ban imposed. Others would have nothing left, having sold what opium they received that spring to pay off any loans taken over the scarce winter months, and used any residual to prepare their land for the summer. While those with little to no opium left would have watched events over summer fearful that a ban would be imposed and of the economic implications were they prevented from planting poppy in the fall of 2022; those with stocks might have welcomed the prospect, knowing that a dramatic reduction in supply would be accompanied by a rise in prices and be to their benefit. It is also possibly not a coincidence that those most likely to gain from a ban were the relatively land-rich farmers of the south and southwest.
Over the course of the summer of 2022 the Taliban ratcheted up their efforts against the methamphetamine industry, targeting the ephedra crop in the highlands and ephedrine labs across the country. In particular, the Taliban built on the restrictions they had imposed on the most visible signs of the methamphetamine industry during the initial months of their rule: the trading of ephedra at Abdul Wadood bazaar in Bakwa in the southwestern province of Farah.
Since as early as 2017 Abdul Wadood had been a central hub of the ephedra trade. During the Afghan Republic traders would purchase ephedra harvested across the central highlands of Afghanistan - where the crop grows wild – and sell it at Abdul Wadood. The crop would be purchased in a wide array of provinces, including Badghis, Ghazni, Ghor, Uruzgan, Farah, and parts of northern Helmand, and transported to the bazaar without any legal restrictions. Once in Abdul Wadood the crop would be stored on open ground in the centre of the bazaar, where it would be milled and sold to the growing number of makeshift ephedrine labs that had been established in the surrounding area.
In December 2021, just a few months after taking power – and just as the ephedra season ended – the Taliban announced a ban on harvesting the crop. The local authorities in Bakwa also told traders that they would no longer be allowed to store their ephedra in Abdul Wadood. It had been a large crop that year, with many more people going to the mountains of central Afghanistan to harvest ephedra in the wake of the collapse of the Afghan Republic. On 27 November 2021 high resolution satellite imagery showed almost 12,000 cubic metres of ephedra in Abdul Wadood, enough to make 220 metric tons of methamphetamine. By the end of January 2022 there was nothing left, the bazaar was empty, and it has remained so ever since.
Restrictions on the production and trade of ephedra and its derivatives gathered a pace and by mid-September 2023 the Taliban had closed Abdul Wadood entirely and moved against the ephedrine labs that surrounded the bazaar. High resolution satellite imagery shows just how impactful this effort was with zero ephedrine labs visible in a 400 square kilometre area around Abdul Wadood in September 2022, compared to 174 in February 2020, 126 in March 2021 and 114 in January 2022. The market disruption was significant and by November 2022 the price of ephedra and ephedrine had risen fourfold compared to twelve months prior, while meth prices had tripled. Prices have largely remained at these levels ever since.
It was not just Abdul Wadood and its environs. There was also widespread reporting of lab destruction and the seizures of ephedra and ephedrine in other provinces over much of 2022. While highlighting the efforts of the authorities to impose a ban, the growing number of provinces in which these actions were taken – from Bamian to Herat, Ghor to Sar e Pol, Uruzgan to Faryab – also revealed just how extensive the ephedra trade and ephedrine production had become even prior to the Taliban takeover, and how footloose the industry continues to be. When it comes to methamphetamine, disruption rather than elimination is the more likely outcome of these efforts.
A Reluctance to Plant
By the time the poppy planting season came round in November 2022 it was clear the Taliban were serious about imposing a ban on the crop, particularly in the south and southwest where as much as 80% of the poppy crop is grown.
The threat of a ban in these areas was not just rhetoric; the signals were clear. Farmers in provinces like Helmand, Farah, and Kandahar had already experienced the destruction of their spring and summer crops in 2022. They had also seen the Taliban launch efforts to curb the trade in ephedra and the closure and destruction of large numbers of ephedrine and methamphetamine labs in Bakwa, Khashrod, and other districts of the south and southwest. These actions had led to market disruption, rising costs and increased prices for ephedra, ephedrine, and methamphetamine. It had also led to growing concerns about the future opium crop and a marked increase in the price of opium and their derivatives.
By November 2022, opium prices had risen to almost US$360 per kilogram in the south and southwest, and US$ 475 per kilogram in the east – triple what it had been in November 2021 - and a stark contrast to the prices of around US$ 60 per kilogram in the harvest of 2020, the month before the Taliban came to power. While many might assume this dramatic increase in prices would have prompted farmers to plant in the fall, urged on by the prospect of higher income, it was often the opposite. In fact, across much of the south and southwest farmers refrained from cultivation altogether. With a heightened risk of arrest and crop destruction, and buoyed by stocks from their 2022 crop and rising prices, many elected not to grow. Some would have even welcomed the ban and the increased purchasing power that it brought. The ability to buy a new motorbike, a car, a solar powered tubewell, marry off your sons? What’s not to like?
As planting season approached there was certainly a clear economic advantage for those with larger landholdings who had cultivated opium extensively in previous years, and who had retained all or much of their crop. For example, by selling later in the year – in November 2022 when prices were at their highest in the south - a farmer with one hectare of poppy could earn a net return of just over US$16,000, compared to less than US$ 4,000 had they sold their crop at harvest time. These landed farmers also had a distinct economic advantage over those that worked the land of others, employed as sharecroppers or harvesters, who had little decision making power over how agricultural land is used. Many farmers may even have assumed that opium prices would increase further in the face of a successful ban and by foregoing planting in the fall of 2022, they would more than gain in 2023.
In other parts of Afghanistan there was no such economic advantages. More mountainous and densely populated areas – provinces like Nangarhar or Badakhshan - do not have the irrigated land of those in the south and southwest, and are therefore unlikely to have the opium stocks from previous year. Up in the areas where poppy has been most densely cultivated in the east and north east it is difficult to find a farmer cultivating one hectare of land; a farmer cultivating one hectare of poppy is extremely rare. Consequently, recalcitrance was more common, and planting persisted, in some of the more remote parts of Nangarhar despite the threat of eradication and arrest. Whilst in Badakhshan, there was little effort to deter planting at all.
Destroying Much of What Remains
The trick is to deter planting in the first place. Once the poppy crop is committed to the ground - and especially if it is grown by an overwhelming majority of farmers in a village - crop destruction becomes much more difficult for the authorities. It is after all a much less risky venture to target a single farmer cultivating poppy than an entire community where a collective and violent response becomes far more likely. An even greater risk is to attempt to destroy the crop just prior to harvest when farmers have committed considerable time and resources and can almost taste the fruits of their labour.
Faced with low levels of planting in the south and southwest the Taliban appears to have moved easily against those farmers who persisted with poppy this season, destroying what little crop remained. The campaign also began early in the season just after planting giving farmers the opportunity to replant their land with wheat, or to leave it fallow for a spring cultivar of cotton or groundnuts.
In the south and southwest videos started to surface in the media showing crop destruction even behind compound walls, something that the authorities during the former Afghan Republic would try to avoid, fearful of provoking unrest due to the private nature of these spaces and a custom of seclusion.
It was a sign that the Taliban were serious in their efforts to ban poppy and would not tolerate cultivation. Other images showed crops being destroyed that were not weeded, reflecting an unwillingness by farmers to invest further resources when they are unsure whether the crop would reach harvest.
Over the course of the season the Taliban moved beyond their heartlands and stepped up the eradication effort across rural Afghanistan. Provinces as diverse as Herat, Zabul, Faryab, Takhar, Sar e Pul, Baghlan, Kunduz, Balkh, and Parwan were all subjected to eradication. In most areas there were few incidents and eradication prompted little reaction. In the more recalcitrant east and north east - areas where planting this season was more widespread - the Taliban met violent resistance that culminated in deaths and injuries to both farmers and the local authorities.
In the east, protracted violence in the upper reaches of the remote district of Achin in Nangarhar, did not deter the Taliban from their efforts and they pressed on up into the upper valleys of Bandar, Pekha, and Mohmand, to destroy the crop in all but the farthest farms. Imagery shows that such were their efforts to deter planting and destroy the remaining crop that by the end of the 2022/23 growing season only 865 hectares of poppy were left intact in Nangarhar, compared to more than 7,000 hectares in 2022.
What will remain of this year’s crop in Badakhshan is not yet clear. There are reports that violent resistance in Darayem in May 2023 prompted the authorities to curtail their already limited eradication efforts in the province. With the option of cultivating a spring crop in the more remote rainfed lands where the authorities will be unwilling to engage, there is a possibility that a substantial amount of this years poppy crop will remain unscathed, and that that cultivation may even increase compared to 2022.
However, drawing on the results of the high resolution satellite imagery analysis Badakhshan will be the exception not the rule. Ultimately, the lion’s share of Afghanistan’s opium crop is grown in the south and southwest of the country, with as much as half of it cultivated in Helmand alone. With high resolution imagery showing only 740 hectares of opium poppy remaining in Helmand in April 2023, compared to over 129,000 hectares in 2022, and similarly low levels of cultivation across much of the main irrigated lands of the southern provinces of Kandahar, Farah, and Nimroz where poppy is usually grown, the evidence points to the lowest crops since the Taliban last imposed a ban in 2001. Despite the scepticism, a ban really is in place.
An Outbreak of Speculation
The reason for imposing a ban will no doubt become a major focus in the media and a source of considerable speculation for some time to come. There will be those that claim to have an inside track on the Taliban leadership’s thoughts. They might argue that the ban is either a genuine act of religious zeal, a continuation of Haibatullah’s efforts to concentrate power, an effort to attract large amounts of development assistance from the international community, or perhaps, some, or all, of the above.
There will also be those that claim that the whole thing is a scam: question the veracity of the results of the imagery and argue that if a ban has been effectively imposed, it is driven by the Taliban’s desire to monopolise the trade. They may reference the previous ban of 2000/01, and echo the arguments of market manipulation and of Taliban stockpiles, failing to acknowledge that they were never found. They may gloss over the challenges of controlling the trade in “lootable goods” like opium, especially in a country like Afghanistan where the state has always had limited reach. Some of these commentators might even be those that failed to acknowledge that corrupt officials made more from the drugs trade during the former Afghan Republic than the Taliban, and pressed the argument that the Taliban as insurgents ran a kind of VAT system on the opium economy that never held up to scrutiny.
There will also be those that move straight to debating the challenges of holding together the coalition of interests that shaped and imposed the current drugs ban. Who will question what continued cultivation – and resistance to eradication - in some of the upper valleys of Nangarhar and Badakhshan mean; the implications for Haibatullah’s rule; and whether it will be possible (or wise) to impose a ban for a second year.
While we leave it to others to speculate on Taliban intent and the likelihood of a second year of a ban, it is important to map out the evidence regarding the impact of the ban on Afghanistan, the region, and further downstream.
The Opiate Pipeline Continues (for now)
From the perspective of drugs supply there are no immediate signs that Europe will experience a shortage of opiates despite such low levels of poppy cultivation this season. Although at a twenty year high, opium prices in Afghanistan have been falling since December 2022 suggesting there is significant inventory in the system, particularly in the south where prices are comparatively low.
There are few restrictions on trade. Opium grown prior to the imposition of Haibatullah’s ban continues to be sold and seizures by Afghanistan’s neighbours and further afield, suggest a continued supply of both opiates and methamphetamine. In March 2023, the Taliban even removed the formal tax they imposed on the export of opiates since coming to power, easing the transactions costs for the cross border trade.
It is important to note that the last time the Taliban imposed a ban in July 2000 it took 18 months before there was a significant drop in the quality of heroin in UK markets, and two years for purity to fall from 55% to 34%. It is difficult to determine whether the same kind of time lag would apply this time round. After all, the 2000/01 ban was imposed for only one season and collapsed in the wake of 9/11.
However, were the current ban to be extended into a second season it could create a different dynamic; it would certainly be an unprecedented action, and could lead to price gauging in western European markets even before a genuine shortage occurs downstream. At this stage, with so much inventory in place it certainly seems that concerns that this year’s ban will cause a fentanyl epidemic are likely misplaced but all bets would be off were a second year of a ban imposed, and were the Taliban to move against the trade in the fall of 2023, as is rumoured.
An Uneven Economic Fall Out
Of far greater immediate concern is the implications of the drugs ban on the Afghan population. The opium economy has long been one of the Afghanistan’s biggest employers. The opium industry in 2022 would have provided jobs for 450,000 people (full time equivalent), and US$1.3 billion in net income to farmers. The poppy crop in Helmand alone would have provided almost 21 million days of work for those weeding and harvesting, and US$61 million in wages in 2022.
While undoubtedly dramatic, the effects of the ban will be uneven, and we should be wary of generalised notions of the “poor poppy farmer”. There will be those whose lives will be unaffected by the ban, at least in the short term. Many of the largest landowners will even have prospered selling some of their crop later in the season when prices rose to as high as US$360 per kilogramme in the south. Others will continue to hold on to as much of their crop as possible, conscious that were a second year of a ban to be imposed there could be further steep rises in prices ahead.
The more landed of the south and southwest will also be able to grow sufficient wheat to meet their family’s needs, and have land left over for cash-crops like cotton, ground nut and melon. While the prices of these crops have risen and markets are currently buoyant, the income earned would only be sufficient to meet their normal household expenses. Paying for anything over and above - a family illness, a funeral, a wedding, or purchase a new motorbike, or solar tubewell - would require income from trade or employment, and most importantly, the sale of their opium stocks, to meet the costs. These are the farmers that can endure a continued ban if they have sufficient opium to draw on.
Those most at risk are the land poor: those who do not have sufficient land to meet their basic needs or who have no land at all. These farmers typically do not have a surplus of opium from the 2022 crop, and who rely on jobs weeding and harvesting during the growing season. They will not only have seen a loss in direct income from opium working on whatever land they have, and on the farms of others during periods of peak demand in the poppy season, they will also be experiencing a downfall in wages in other sectors due to the wider economic effects of the poppy ban.
The Risk of Increased Outmigration as a Response
In the south the ban will already be taking its toll on the landless: those that earned up to a third of their annual income weeding and harvesting poppy each year. In the east, in a province like Nangarhar, the impact of the ban will be felt much more widely. Denied the possibilities of growing poppy, many have turned almost entirely to wheat but will not have sufficient land to feed their families. Some will cultivate a portion of land with crops like onion, garlic, and tomato, but will not raise enough income to feed, cloth, and provide healthcare for a family of ten or more people.
Distress sales will become more common. The sale of long term productive assets – vehicles, gold, and land – will be one of the few viable ways for families in these areas to survive. As in other provinces non-farm income will be key, where it is available. Where it is not – and in many places these opportunities are rapidly diminishing due to the economic crisis - outmigration will become an increasingly important coping strategy for those with the means to pay.
Ultimately, the routes for migrants from Afghanistan remain open, and the cost remains affordable. Currently, it is only US$2,000 to send a son to Turkey by land from Afghanistan, a further US$1,000 will get them as far as Serbia – little more than the value of a few kilograms of opium, or what you might get from the sale of a car. From Belgrade they can self-deploy at little cost and travel further into Europe. Moreover, many of those making this journey will be aided by those that went before them – former members of the Afghan National Army, the National Police and government workers who fled the country when the Taliban took power. For the family left behind in Afghanistan the money sent home from Europe each month makes a significant difference to their lives.
With over 80,000 households in Nangarhar in areas with a long history of poppy cultivation, the likelihood of a dramatic increase in outmigration is high. We will see similar trends in other provinces where cultivation has also been concentrated in areas with small landholdings and high population densities. Were a second year of a ban to be enforced an exodus is possible. Indeed, were a protracted ban in place, European nations might face a choice between Afghan drugs or Afghan migrants.