The Taliban Will Have Trouble Reining in Afghanistan’s Opium Economy

The Taliban Will Have Trouble Reining in Afghanistan’s Opium Economy
An Afghan man walks through a poppy field in the Surkhroad district of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, April 14, 2017 (AP photo by Rahmat Gul).

In the aftermath of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, a great deal of attention has been given to the causes and consequences of the failed intra-Afghan peace process, the factors leading to the collapse of the Afghan military and the role played by pervasive corruption at the highest levels of the country’s internationally backed government. Far less discussion has focused on the ways that economic factors, especially the illicit opium economy, strengthened the Taliban in their years as an insurgency, and how they will limit the Taliban’s options now that they are in power. 

Shortly after the fall of Kabul, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid stated that Afghanistan under Taliban rule would not become a narco-state, announcing the group’s intention to curtail the production of opium. Nevertheless, the Taliban have historically taken an opportunistic approach toward opiates and heroin, forbidding their consumption, but not the cultivation of the poppies they are derived from or their processing and sale. During the last several years before the fall of Kabul, most opium production in Afghanistan occurred in areas already under Taliban control or influence. Rough estimates suggest the Taliban may have generated around 60 percent of their income, or up to $400 million each year, from the drug trade.

Shifting the economy away from poppies and opium to create alternative livelihoods for the country’s vast agricultural population is a formidable task. Afghanistan produced about 85 percent of the world’s opium in 2020. In recent years, the opium crop directly generated between 7 and 12 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product. However, its contribution is significantly higher when considering opium’s linkages to the country’s formal economy. The opium harvest generated around 119,000 full-time jobs in 2019, for instance, while the opium economy involves thousands of additional workers as opium traders, heroin producers and domestic dealers. 

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