• David Mansfield

Will They, Won’t They?

What do we know about the coming opium poppy season and what both farmers and the Taliban will do?



1. Introduction: Making sense of what is said and what can actually be done

As we approach the planting season for the primary opium crop in Afghanistan, many are asking will the Taliban enforce the ban that Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s Supreme Leader, announced on 3 April 2022?


At the time, Mullah Haibatullah’s decree announcing the prohibition of the cultivation, production, trade and use of all illegal drugs in Afghanistan was met with considerable scepticism. Understandably so. The timing of the announcement could not have been at a more inopportune moment when it came to enforcing a ban on the main fall opium crop. Only weeks from harvest and after months of investing time and resources, there was a strong risk that farmers would resist any efforts to destroy their crop. The failure to act against the crop possibly said much about the Taliban leadership’s hasty decision to announce a ban and the lack of support it had amongst local commanders and their rural constituents.


Instead, there was a flurry of local level crop destruction targeted at the spring and summer opium crop largely in the southwest. The way that the Taliban proactively engaged with the media on this campaign reflected how important it was to be seen to be enforcing a ban even if it had little effect in reducing the amount of opium produced. In fact, over the course of the spring and summer of 2022, there was little evidence to suggest a ban on opium was in place. The trade continued unabated within Afghanistan and on its borders, and local commanders persisted with collecting opium-related taxes, even increasing the rates.


Rather, it has been efforts to prohibit the trade in ephedra, as well as restrict the production of ephedrine and methamphetamine, that has suggested that any kind of ban is in place. It now appears that the ban on storing ephedra in the bazaar imposed on one of the main market hubs, Abdul Wadood bazaar, in December 2021 has not only endured though 2022 but the Governor has also launched a campaign against the ephedrine and methamphetamine labs in the surrounding area, and raided buildings and labs in other parts of the province. While far less pronounced, the authorities have also launched efforts to deter ephedra-based methamphetamine production in other parts of the central highlands, seizing tonnes of ephedra and chemical inputs in the process. Such is the intensity of the recent efforts in the southwest that it has led to a dramatic uptick in prices not just across the methamphetamine industry but also in the opium trade, pushing prices to levels that have not been seen for almost two decades.


So, while a number of media outlets have recently reported that nothing is happening with regard the Taliban’s ban on drugs, they may have been focusing on the wrong drug at the wrong time. After all, plant-based drugs have seasons, which along with the other factors, not least the prevailing economic and political conditions, determine what actions the authorities can take to deter production and trade. Therefore, to assess the Taliban’s efforts to enforce the ban and the likely responses of those involved in drugs production, it is necessary to better understand the sequencing of seasons, statements and actions.


2. Announcing the Ban(s): It’s all about timing:

On 15 August 2021, the Taliban captured Kabul. Three days later, the Taliban spokesman, Zabiullah Mujahid, announced that the new government would ban opium poppy cultivation but offered the caveat that only if economic alternatives could be found for those farmers who depended on the crop for their livelihood. While the effects of this statement were short lived and largely limited to a temporary uptick in opium prices, there was more to follow. This included a prohibition on the harvesting of ephedra, the crop from which methamphetamine is made, by the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock in early December 2021 and a ban on the storage of ephedra in Abdul Wadood bazaar in Bakwa, Farah, a location that had become a central hub for Afghanistan’s burgeoning methamphetamine economy. Again, the market reacted with a rise in prices, which this time persisted for a few months.


On 3 April 2022, these initial Taliban statements were followed up with the imposition of a comprehensive ban on the cultivation, production, trade and use of all drugs, not just on opium poppy cultivation but also the production of opiates, such as morphine base and heroin, cannabis and hashish as well as the burgeoning production and trade of methamphetamine in Afghanistan. Moreover, this was not merely a statement from a spokesman or a letter from a ministry but the Taliban’s Supreme Leader, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, who gave the pronouncement both significant political and religious weight.


The timing of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada’s statement was a surprise. The vast majority of Afghanistan’s opium crop is cultivated in the fall and harvested in April and May, as shown in Figure 1 below. In some parts of Nangarhar, in eastern Afghanistan, the harvest was just about to start, brought on early by particularly warm weather. In Helmand and Kandahar, in the south, the Taliban’s heartlands and Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada’s home base, the harvest was only a couple of weeks away. As with the previous announcements, opium prices began to rise again, albeit for a limited period of time, as shown in Figure 2.


Figure 1. Opium poppy harvesting periods across Afghanistan


Figure 2. Dry opium prices from February 2020 to October 2022


Indeed, experience shows that just before harvest is no time to announce a ban on poppy. At this point in the growing season, farmers had already invested considerable time and resources in their crop. They had laboured intensively over the fields, tilled the land, weeded the crop and irrigated it. They may have taken loans[i] to feed their families over the cold winter months, secured on the basis that their opium crop made them more credit worthy. Attempting to enforce a ban in April risked widespread dissent and would require Taliban commanders to destroy the crop at the very moment when farmers were about to realise the returns on their labour and pay off any debts they had incurred.


In the midst of a national economic crisis and without a warning prior to planting, there would be a significant risk that farmers would resist, possibly with violence, any effort to destroy the crop. The risk would be even higher in those villages where the majority of households were cultivating opium poppy and where there would be greater community cohesion. Taliban commanders, whose own financial interests could also have been at stake given their imposition of taxes on cultivation and trade, might have quickly found themselves using excessive violence against communities that had provided them with support during the insurgency and where their own family and friends resided. Worse still for the commanders, they may have had to retreat, leaving the crop largely intact and exposing their inability to implement such a ban. This would have shown that for all its religious credentials, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada’s decree was not only unenforceable but had been rejected by the very rural communities they claimed to support. Eradication of the crop at that stage of the growing season was clearly not an option.


No, if the Taliban had been serious about wanting to ban opium, they should have made an announcement prior to planting (as they did) and followed up with a determined campaign to deter planting (which they didn’t). The campaign would have included the co-opting of tribal and village elders, holding a series of provincial, district and village meetings and then arresting and holding captive those farmers who persisted with planting, to be released only when their family members guaranteed that the crop had been destroyed. The Taliban know this. It was how they banned opium poppy in the 2000/2001 growing season, when they reduced levels of cultivation in the country by more than 90 per cent.


It would appear that such was the concern amongst some in the Taliban leadership in Kabul that the day after Haibatullah’s decree, the Deputy Minister of Interior for Counter Narcotics, Hajji Abdullah Khan, held an informal meeting and offered “clarification” over how the ban would be implemented. He claimed that there would be “a two-month grace period” for the current opium crop during which the crop would not be destroyed and farmers would be allowed to sell the opium in the bazaar. He argued that after this two-month period “the ban would be rigorously applied” and that the prohibition on the sale and trafficking of heroin and synthetic drugs would be implemented immediately.

3. Tidying up after the decree: Struggling to be seen to be doing something against the main opium crop

The reality was that the enforcement of a ban on the cultivation of opium in 2022 was largely limited to the destruction of the spring and summer crops in the southwest provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, as shown in Figure 3 below. These later crops have always been more marginal, occupying little more than 5,000 hectares a year compared with a fall crop often exceeding 200,000 hectares and produce low yields due to the dry conditions during the summer. Nevertheless, some of the eradication was robust, even targeting crops grown behind compound walls, and farmers were arrested. Some elders were alleged to have destroyed their own crop and sent videos as evidence to the district governor.


Figure 3. Opium poppy eradication, late spring and summer 2022


At the time, the Taliban made much of the campaign, and numerous videos began to appear on social media, in some cases posted by the Ministry of Interior, as shown in Figure 4. However, even these videos showed the limits of the eradication effort, with some tractors seen destroying a spring crop at its early stage of growth, while passing by an adjacent field of fall poppy ready for harvest. Ultimately it is hard not to view this campaign against the spring crop in the southwest as largely a face-saving exercise following the decree and the realisation that it could not be enforced against the primary fall crop. However, it could also serve to send a message to farmers that were they to plant in the fall, that crop could be destroyed.


What is particularly notable is that contrary to the Ministry of Interior’s clarification of the two month grace period, no action was taken against the crops harvested later in the highland areas of Ghor and Badakhshan. There were no reports of eradication in these areas, suggesting that the crop was left largely intact. Nor was there any discernible effort to limit the trade of opiates within Afghanistan or on its borders before or after the grace period. In fact, opium continued to be openly traded in many of the district centres in rural Afghanistan.


A review of seizures in the region also highlights the degree to which opiates were able to cross the border. According to media reports, the Iranian authorities interdicted 11.5 metric tonnes of opium and 1.1 metric tonnes of heroin, between April and mid-September 2022, the vast majority of which was seized in Sistan Baluchistan. The seizure of 800 kilogrammes of heroin in Urumia in Western Azerbaijan in May 2022, is notable, not only due to the volume but also its proximity to the Turkish border and the onward route to Europe. The governments of Pakistan and India both reported a marked increase in the amounts of drugs they had seized following the Taliban takeover, including a shipment of almost three metric tonnes of heroin in Gujarat in September 2022.


This lack of serious, concerted action against the crop and the trade was compounded by reports that Taliban commanders in key provinces not only continued to collect taxes on opium but that they increased the rates.


4. Choosing an easier target: Ephedra-based methamphetamine

In contrast to the primary poppy crop, harvested only weeks after Mullah Haibatullah's April announcement, the ephedra crop is harvested between July and October. As such, the start of the 2022 ephedra harvest season marked a moment when the seriousness of the Taliban’s drugs prohibition could be better judged. Ephedra based methamphetamine is also a more recent development in Afghanistan, lacking opium production's long tradition and had the advantage of involving far fewer people along the supply chain as compared with opium.


It was in 2017 that methamphetamine production in Afghanistan changed dramatically. Prior to this, Afghanistan was one of many nations producing methamphetamine using Over-The-Counter (OTC) medicines and was thought to produce for a growing number of domestic consumers. Methamphetamine seized in neighbouring countries was largely assumed to have been produced locally and not imported from Afghanistan. It was not until 2020 that Afghanistan’s role as a major exporter of methamphetamine was recognised, following the dramatic increase in the number of seizures and the volumes of methamphetamine intercepted in neighbouring countries and further afield, including the Persian Gulf, South Asia, the Balkans and Oceania.


The use of ephedra as an input was a game changer, halving the costs of methamphetamine production in Afghanistan and leading to dramatic increases in the volume produced. Ephedra is a perennial crop that grows wild in the central mountains of Afghanistan at altitudes above 2,500 metres. Traditionally used as fuel and as a local medicine, the crop is harvested by residents from villages located at the foot of the mountains. Once harvested, the crop is dried in the sun for up to three weeks, after which it is milled and converted into ephedrine using a rudimentary understanding of chemistry and inputs that are easily available. Subsequently converting ephedrine into methamphetamine requires greater skill and capital, restricting the number of people involved.


Earlier research showed that the prevalence of ephedra and the relative ease by which it can be converted led to a burgeoning cottage-industry in ephedrine production. In 2021, high resolution satellite imagery identified 458 potential ephedrine labs in the districts of Bakwa and Khashrod alone. A map showing the density of these ephedrine labs is shown in Figure 5 and an example of an active ephedrine lab is shown in Figure 6 below.


Figure 5. Density mapping of ephedrine labs in Bakwa and Khashrod districts


Figure 6. An example of an active ephedrine processing lab


It was estimated that these labs in Bakwa and Khashrod alone could have produced enough ephedrine to make 1,000 metric tonnes of methamphetamine per year. The volume of methamphetamine seized in the region in 2021 and 2022, particularly on the border with Iran, offers further evidence of the possible immense scale of methamphetamine production within Afghanistan, as shown in Table 1 below.


Table 1. Recent seizures of methamphetamine, along with other drugs

Date

Meth (Kg)

Other drugs seized alongside (Kg)

Country

Location

Method

13 April 2022

25

300 heroin

Southern coast

Boat

​23 April 2022 (Kg)

60

-

Oman

South Al Batinah

Boat

25 April 2022

9

242 opium, 249 hashish

Iran

Sistan & Baluchistan

Car

09 May 2022

255

867 morphine, 260 heroin

Baluchistan

Building

10 May 2022

110

-

Oman

Muscat

Unknown

25 May 2022

1,000

-

Istanbul

Building

12 July 2022

169

-

Istanbul

Building

14 July 2022

250

742 opium, 252 heroin

Iran

Damghan, Samnan

Building

29 July 2022

393

-

Iran

Mahirud

Fuel Tanker

15 August 2022

100

-

Iran

Dogharoon

Fuel Tanker

16 August 2022

1,118

-

Mahirud

Fuel Tanker

19 August 2022

50

-

Iran

Esfahan city

Building

05 September 2022

500

-

Iran

Mahirud

Fuel Tanker

06 September 2022

313

10 heroin

Delhi

Car and building

5. Restrictions on ephedra: Another poorly timed announcement

When the Taliban captured Kabul in August 2021, the harvest season for ephedra was already underway. With the country in crisis and growing economic uncertainty, there were reports of increasing numbers of people turning to the ephedra harvest as a source of income, including former members of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces who had abandoned their positions and returned to their villages in the central highlands.


The scale of the ephedra harvest was such that on 27 November 2021, 11,886 cubic metres of dried ephedra could be seen at Abdul Wadood bazaar, enough to produce an estimated 220 metric tonnes of methamphetamine. The evolution of this trade at Abdul Wadood bazaar between August 2019 and early 2022 is shown in Figure 7 below. Volumes were such that the price of ephedra, ephedrine and methamphetamine fell to their lowest in four years, and methamphetamine prices, at around US$ 200/kilogramme, were a third lower than a year earlier and less than a tenth of the price in 2018. Prices for all three commodities between September 2019 to September 2022 are shown in Figure 8 below.


Figure 7. Mounds of milled ephedra at Abdul Wadood bazaar, between 2019 and 2022


Figure 8. Prices of ephedra, ephedrine and methamphetamine, September 2019 to September 2022


This situation changed a few weeks later, when in early December 2021, the Ministry of Agriculture Irrigation and Livestock banned the harvest of ephedra across the four provinces of Ghor, Farah, Nimroz and Bamian. Announced at the end of the harvest season, the ban did not negatively impact those households in the mountains who collected the crop or those who produced ephedrine and methamphetamine in places like Bakwa. In fact, the announcement led to a price hike that benefited all those along the supply chain in Afghanistan, increasing the price of ephedra, ephedrine and methamphetamine and related profits. By the end of December 2021, methamphetamine prices were as high as US$570 per kilogramme.


At the same time they banned the harvest of ephedra, the Taliban informed traders in Abdul Wadood bazaar that they could not store or sell ephedra in the bazaar and that they had four weeks to deplete existing stocks. High resolution imagery in Figure 7 above shows that by the 8th January 2022, the volume of ephedra held in the bazaar had already been reduced dramatically. Figure 9 below shows that by late April 2022 through to late September 2022, there was no inventory at all in the bazaar. Satellite imagery covering the surrounding area suggests that much of the ephedra was transported to nearby ephedrine labs and stored there, as many show unusually large amounts of inventory compared to previous years, where an example of five active ephedrine labs is shown in Figure 10 below.


Figure 9. Development of Abdul Wadood bazaar and its ephedra trading areas over time


Figure 10. Five active ephedrine labs with significant inventories close to Abdul Wadood bazaar in January 2022


The fact that ephedrine and methamphetamine production continued unabated despite the restrictions imposed on the ephedra trade in Bakwa was evident from the fall in their prices. By March 2022, methamphetamine was selling for as little as US$276 per kilogramme, while the price of ephedra (by then out of season) peaked at US$8.30 per man (the equivalent of US$1.84 per kilogramme), the highest price recorded since research began collecting data in 2018. Given these circumstances, it was not unreasonable to think that the Taliban’s prohibition on storing ephedra in Abdul Wadood bazaar might be largely presentational, particularly given the significant amount of coverage the bazaar and the methamphetamine industry received in the international media in late 2021 and early 2022.


6. A Ban in Practice: Action against ephedra-based methamphetamine

The harvest season for ephedra began at the end of July 2022, three months after Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada’s announcement of a comprehensive ban, giving those involved plenty of notice of the Taliban leadership’s position on the methamphetamine industry and local commanders sufficient time to mount a campaign to deter trade and production.


By September 2022, there was clear evidence of efforts to restrict the harvest of ephedra and the production of ephedrine and methamphetamine in some parts of the country. These restrictions were most notable in Bakwa where high resolution satellite imagery indicates that the Taliban continue their ban on the trade of ephedra in Abdul Wadood bazaar. The imagery in Figure 11 shows the inventory levels of ephedra at the bazaar at the end of September 2022 at nil.


Figure 11. Imagery showing no ephedra inventory at Abdul Wadood bazaar in September 2022


The chart in Figure 12, which is derived from satellite imagery collected each month over the bazaar, shows the change in the footprint area of ephedra mounds at the bazaar from November 2018 to present day, showing nil inventory at the bazaar from March 2022 onwards.


Figure 12. Footprint area of ephedra at Abdul Wadood bazaar


The Taliban also mounted efforts to close the ephedrine and methamphetamine labs in the surrounding area. By early September 2022, imagery shows that there were already very few labs active in the area, as shown in Figure 13 below.


Figure 13. The same five ephedrine labs that were active in Figure 10 above, now no longer active in late September 2022


By mid-September, the Taliban’s efforts to restrict methamphetamine production in Farah proceeded apace. On 15 September, the Governor of Farah met with tribal elders from the province and gave them a final warning, instructing them to cease the trade of ephedra and the production of ephedrine and methamphetamine within three days or face punishment. On 19 September 2022, armed Taliban forces entered Abdul Wadood bazaar, where they spent five hours searching the local shops, reinforcing the Governor’s message that the methamphetamine industry would not be tolerated in the area.


On 20 and 21 September, houses were raided in Gulistan, Bala Bulok and Bakwa in Farah, where hundreds of kilogrammes of ephedra (0.7 MT) and cannabis were seized along with Tablet K and chemical inputs such as caustic soda and acid (unspecified). While to date the focus of the effort has been in Farah, there are also reports of the Taliban mounting campaigns banning the harvest and trade of ephedra in parts of Ghor, such as Taiwara, Lal wa Sarangal and Dawlatyar, as well as seizing ephedra in the district bazaar of Chora in Uruzgan (1.35 metric tonnes), at labs in Herat city (1 metric tonne) and the district of Obi (unknown amount) in Herat, in Bamian (1 metric tonne) and most recently in houses in Khaki Safid (2 Metric tonnes).


The result of these efforts has been a significant rise in the price of ephedra, ephedrine and methamphetamine, particularly following the raid on Abdul Wadood bazaar, after which the price of ephedrine rose to US$251 per kilogramme and methamphetamine reached as much as US$857 per kilogramme. Although markets calmed in October, possibly recognising that some of the shortfall in supply from Bakwa would be met by production in other provinces, the price of ephedrine and methamphetamine remained high at US$150 and US$615 per kilogramme, respectively. As such, there are clear signs of market concern about shortages, particularly pronounced given that this is the time in the season when Abdul Wadood bazaar would usually have large volumes of inventory of ephedra and when prices would be at some of their lowest levels.


7. The Butterfly effect: How restrictions on ephedra-based methamphetamine are impacting the opium economy

It is said that markets don’t lie. And while it is hard to believe that the Taliban’s efforts last season to counter opium poppy cultivation trade impacted production, and many may doubt the Taliban’s efforts against ephedra-based methamphetamine, there is evidence of market jitters in the opium economy as well. For example, since June 2022, opium prices have more than doubled in the southwest and increased by more than a third in the east. By late September 2022, prices in both regions were over US$300 per kilogramme, the highest they had been since 2012, and by mid-October prices in the eastern region were as high as US$450 per kilogram, levels that have not been seen since 2003, as shown in Figure 14.


It is clear that the market is rattled and there are growing concerns that the Taliban may attempt to deter farmers from planting in the weeks ahead. There have already been reports of Taliban informing farmers in both eastern and southwestern Afghanistan that poppy cultivation will not be tolerated. There are similar reports in Badakhshan. However, rising prices, particularly in the current national economic crisis, will only serve to make cultivation more attractive to farmers, further increasing the incentive to plant as well as the potential for resistance, both from farmers and possibly from within the Taliban’s own ranks. There is much that might unfold in the months ahead.


Figure 14. Dry opium prices between August 1997 and October 2022


8. Conclusion: What lies ahead?

It is unclear how things will play out over the remainder of the ephedra season and in the final run-up to the beginning of the planting season for the main poppy crop at the end of October. The opium poppy season is upon us, with the bulk of the crop planted during the months of November and December.


Statements banning drugs by the Taliban leadership need to be implemented by commanders in the districts and villages of rural Afghanistan. The lack of any meaningful follow up in the immediate aftermath of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada’s April statement of a comprehensive ban was to be expected given that farmers were about to harvest their main opium crop. Local commanders may not only have had their own direct financial interests in bringing in a successful crop, but they would also have considered the interests of their family members and rural constituents.


Typically, it has been judged that the meth economy is smaller, more geographically concentrated, and as a wild crop and a recent phenomenon, does not have the same deep seated agricultural traditions and economic dependencies associated with the production and trade of opium. The politics of banning ephedra based methamphetamine have also been considered easier to manage. By employing fewer people, most of whom collected the crop in the central highlands, the economic burden of such a ban would be carried by a much smaller, more marginal population than would a ban on the poppy crop and therefore have fewer political risks. While some of these assumptions may be true, recent efforts to destroy labs in provinces as far flung as Farah, Herat, Ghor and Samangan have shown that our knowledge of ephedra based methamphetamine production in Afghanistan has been seriously wanting.


It is likely that deterring opium poppy cultivation, and even more so eradicating a crop that has already been planted, poses a much greater risk of resistance and violence given how many people are involved and how dependent some populations are on the crop for their livelihood. In the coming months, it will be for local Taliban commanders to weigh the potential blow-back of pursing a counter narcotics campaign that would deny many of its constituents a livelihood, while offering no obvious short-term incentives such as the provision of development assistance. Moreover, the recent dramatic rise in price, if sustained, has made opium poppy cultivation even more favourable, at a time when the cost of living is rising and there are none of the alternatives that households relied on during the bans imposed under the former Republic.


In the past, poppy bans have elicited a range of responses from rural households in Afghanistan. Those with a surplus of opium and other assets have been able to absorb the impact of a ban and diversify their livelihoods. However, the majority of households responded by sending their male members to find jobs in the cities and by reducing household costs, including curtailing their expenditure on food, withdrawing their children from education and even delaying essential health treatment. Coping strategies for the most vulnerable households have involved selling long term productive assets and pursuing hazardous activities, including, during the Republic, enlisting in the Afghan National Army or Police. Given the current economic crisis that has hit urban areas particularly severely and with the collapse of the Republic's security forces, there are few income earning opportunities with which to compensate for an absence of poppy. Sealing the border with Pakistan would further restrict the options of some of the most vulnerable, something that those groups opposing the Taliban might look to exploit, including Islamic State Khorasan Province and the National Resistance Front.

[i]The system of “salaam”, where farmers received an advance payment on their opium crop prior to harvest (at a rate of 50 per cent of the prevailing price) all but disappeared in rural Afghanistan more than a decade ago. With growing levels of cash in the rural economy, most farmers took their loans interest free (qarze hasana) from relatives or villagers and avoided the more predatory rates of interest charged on opium denominated debts. It is possible that a return of the salaam system in the coming years would be symbolic of just how challenging the rural economy has become.