Inside the Taliban's relentless war on drugs in Afghanistan

Time to Read: 9 minute
Inside the Taliban relentless war on drugs in Afghanistan
Inside the Taliban relentless war on drugs in Afghanistan
Khushbu Kumari

Afghanistan used to produce more 80% of the world's opium. A BBC team investigated on the ground what impact the ban on poppy cultivation has had and how it has affected farmers.

With an AK-47 assault rifle slung over his left shoulder and a stick in his right hand, Abdul hits the heads of the poppies as hard as he can.

The stems fly through the air, like the sap from the poppy bulb, releasing the pungent odor of opium at its strongest.

Within minutes, Abdul and a dozen of men destroy the crop of poppies that covered the small field. The armed men, all dressed in shalwar kameez (a traditional Afghan tunic with baggy pants), most with long beards and some with kohl-rimmed eyes, pile into the back of a pickup truck and they go to the next field.

The men belong to a Taliban counter-narcotics unit in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. And we got rare access to join them on one of their patrols to eradicate opium poppy cultivation.

Less than two years ago, these men were insurgent fighters in the war for control of the country. After the victory of the Taliban they are on the official side and carry out the orders of the government.

In April 2022, Taliban Supreme Leader Haibatullah Akhundzada decreed that the cultivation of poppies, from which opium, the key ingredient in heroin, can be extracted, was strictly prohibited. The decree warned that anyone who violated the ban would be punished under Sharia law and their harvest would be destroyed.

Afghanistan used to produce more than 80% of the world's opium. Heroin made from Afghan opium accounts for 95% of the market in Europe.

The BBC traveled to Afghanistan and used satellite analysis to examine the effects of government action on opium cultivation.

Taliban leaders appear to have been more successful in stamping out the crop than anyone before.

We found a large drop in poppy cultivation in the main opium-producing provinces, with one expert noting that the annual crop could be 80% lower than last year.

Less profitable wheat crops have supplanted poppies in the fields and many farmers say they are suffering financially.

We traveled to provinces like Nangarhar, Kandahar and Helmand, drove on muddy roads, walked for miles in remote and mountainous areas and we made our way through farmland to see the reality on the ground.

The Taliban decree did not apply to the opium crop 2022, which according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) increased by a third compared to 2021.

This year, however, is very different . The evidence we saw on the ground is backed up by satellite imagery.

David Mansfield, a leading expert on the Afghan drug trade, is working with Alcis, a UK company that specializes in satellite analysis.

“The crop is likely to be less than 20% of what it was in 2022. The scale of the reduction is unprecedented,“ he said.

A large number of farmers has complied with the ban and Taliban fighters destroy the crops of those who have not.

Toor Khan, the commander of the Taliban patrol unit we are with in Nangarhar, he tells us that he and his men have been destroying poppy fields for nearly five months, wiping out tens of thousands of acres of crops.

“They are destroying my field, may God destroy your home,” a woman shouts angrily at the Taliban unit as they bulldoze her poppy field.

“I told you this tomorrow you will destroy it yourself. You didn't, so now I have to,' Toor Khan yells. She retreats inside the house.

Her son was detained by the Taliban during the operation and released with a warning a few hours later.

The Taliban are armed and in large numbers because there have been cases of resistance from some residents. At least one civilian was killed in a shootout during the eradication campaign, and there are reports of other violent clashes.

Farmer Ali Mohammad Mia watches with a stricken look as the unit Destroy your field. Pink poppy flowers, green bulbs, and broken stems litter the ground at the end of the operation.

Why did you grow poppies despite the ban? we asked the farmer.

“If you don't have food at home and your children are hungry, what else would you do?“, he answers. We don't have large tracts of land. If we grew wheat we would get a fraction of what we earn from opium”.

What is striking is the speed at which the Taliban carry out their work using only sticks.

The patrol cleared six fields, each between 200 and 300 square meters, in just over half an hour.

How do you feel about destroying a source of income for your own hungry people? we asked Toor Khan.

“It is the order of our leader. Our loyalty to him is such that if he told my friend to hang me, I would accept it and hand myself over to my friend, he says.

Helmand province, in the south-west of the country, It used to be the heart of Afghanistan's poppy cultivation and produced more than half of the country's opium there.

We went to Helmand independently of the Taliban's counter-narcotics unit to see firsthand what's going on now.

Last year, when we were in the province, we saw land covered with poppy fields. This time we cannot detect a single field of that crop.

Alcis's analysis shows that poppy cultivation in Helmand has been reduced by more than 99%.

“High-resolution images from Helmand province show that poppy cultivation has been reduced to less than 1,000 hectares. The previous year it was 129,000 hectares”, says David Mansfield.

We speak to farmer Niamatullah Dilsoz in Marjah district, south of Helmand's capital, Lashkar Gah, while harvesting wheat. Last year he had planted opium in that same field. Niamatullah tells us that almost all farmers in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, have complied with the ban.

“Some farmers tried to grow poppies in walled gardens, but the Taliban found the plantations and destroyed them, he adds”.

Except for the sound of wheat stalks being cut and birdsong, all is quiet in the field. During the war, this area was a front line.

Niamatullah is in her early 20s. This is the first time in his life that he does not fear being hit by a bomb when he ventures out.

But for a people already shocked by a long war, opium prohibition has dealt a devastating blow The destruction of crops comes amid an economic collapse that has caused near-universal poverty in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of the population does not know where their next meal will come from.

“We are very upset. Wheat gives us less than a quarter of what we used to earn from opium, says Niamatullah. “I cannot meet the needs of my family. I had to ask for a loan. There is hunger everywhere and we don't have any help from the government“.

We asked Zabiullah Mujahid, the main spokesman for the Taliban government, what his government is doing government to help people.

“We know that people are very poor and suffering. But the harm that opium causes outweighs its benefits. Four million Afghans out of a population of 37 million suffered from drug addiction. That's a lot,” he says. “As for alternative sources of livelihood, we want the international community to help Afghans cope with the losses.“

The spokesman rejects claims by the UN, the United States and other countries that opium was a major source of income for the Taliban when they were fighting Western troops and the former Afghan regime.

& #8220;How can the Taliban expect help from international organizations when the Taliban government itself endangered the operations and funding of those organizations by banning women's work in all NGOs?”, we asked the official spokesperson.

“The international community should not link humanitarian issues with political issues,” says Mujahid.

“Opium is not only harming Afghanistan, the whole world is affected by it. If the world is saved from this great evil, then it is only fair that the Afghan people receive aid in return”.

The impact of the ban on opium prices is evident.

In Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban and traditionally another important poppy-growing area, we meet a farmer holding on to a small part of his crop from last year: two plastic bags, each the size of a a football, filled with dark, pungent-smelling opium resin. We are hiding his identity to protect him.

“Last year, just before prohibition, I sold a bag like this for a fifth of what I could get now. I am waiting for the price to increase even more so that I can support my family for longer. Our situation is very bad. I already had to ask for a loan to buy food and clothes. Of course I know that opium is harmful, but what is the alternative?”, he tells us.

It may take a while so that crop destruction impacts the retail price of heroin.

“Although opium and heroin prices remain at their highest in 20 years, they have been falling for the past six months, despite low levels of poppy cultivation this year,” says Mansfield.

“This suggests that there are significant reserves in the system, and that heroin production and trade continue. Seizures in neighboring states and further afield also indicate that heroin shortages are not imminent”

Mike Trace, a former UNODC official, was a senior adviser to the British government on drug policy when the first Taliban regime banned opium cultivation in 2000, a year before the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

“That didn't have a massive, immediate impact on Western prices and markets, because the actors accumulate a lot of inventory along that drug route,” he says. “That is the nature of the market and it has not fundamentally changed in the last 20 years”.

United States spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan to try to eradicate opium production and trafficking, thus cutting off the Taliban's source of funding.

US forces launched airstrikes on poppy fields in Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, they burned opium stocks and raided drug labs.

But opium was also grown freely in areas controlled by the US-backed former Afghan regime, something the BBC witnessed before the Taliban takeover in 2021.

For now, the Taliban appear to have accomplished in Afghanistan what they The West could not. But there are questions about how long they can sustain the situation.

Regarding heroin addiction in the UK and the rest of Europe.

“People are likely to turn to synthetic drugs, which can be much more harmful than opium.”

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