KANDAHAR, Afghanistan—As Afghanistan plummets deeper into a devastating economic crisis, the Taliban have declared a war on drugs that snatches away the sole cash crops relied on by many struggling rural families—opium poppy and ephedra, a plant that contains a precursor for manufacturing methamphetamine—putting millions at risk of starvation and potentially alienating the group’s own long-suffering support base.
High-ranking Talibs insist that drugs have been fully eradicated from the country and the ban is a matter of ethics; opium and meth are simply “dangerous for the world,” as one senior narcotics official put it. Farmers, low-level soldiers, and rural leaders say they’ve been told it’s a necessary sacrifice to secure recognition and desperately needed humanitarian aid. But in Kabul, where prices have soared and users are rounded up and imprisoned in hellish so-called rehab centers, dealers and users are adamant that supply is undiminished—and that Taliban soldiers still control the trade.
The road from Kabul to Kandahar—Afghanistan’s former capital in the south, where most opium poppies are grown—is just 300 miles long but takes 15 hours to drive. When we made the trip in October 2022, it was peak harvest time for the region’s famous pomegranates, but the landscape was arid. Clouds of dust and sand periodically swirled around our 1991 Toyota Camry, making it harder to spot craters left by roadside bombs or even the groups of small children kneeling in the middle of the road, begging with hands outstretched to oncoming trucks that lurched to avoid them just in time.
In Kandahar province, we were directed along a maze of rocky tracks toward the Afghanistan-Pakistan border by a Taliban soldier; he had been assigned to us for “protection” at a crumbling local military base. Every river and stream had dried up; the only signs of water access were occasional solar panels, used to generate electricity to pump water from deep underground. Until the ban, this scant water supply was used to irrigate the poppy fields that carpeted the area and provided a rare source of income to Kandahar’s rural poor. Twenty years of war scarred the hills and farms. There are bomb craters, ruined schoolhouses, burnt husks of police cars, and even the grave of a child killed in a U.S. airstrike, but the death toll of the conflict could pale in comparison with that of a newly waged war on drugs.
Having leveraged the drug trade to fund their insurgency for decades, in 2021 the Taliban outlawed the harvesting of ephedra, which grows wild in the mountains and from which ephedrine, a meth precursor, can be extracted, and the following April abruptly banned opium cultivation and production. This move blindsided many farmers in Afghanistan’s poppy-growing heartlands. Standing outside his shed-like motorbike repair shop on the side of the road in Kandahar province, Wakil Ahmad pointed to an empty swath of land behind the building.
“Before, this was a poppy farm,” he said. Six months earlier, just a few weeks before harvesting began, the Taliban told his family that this harvest would be their last. If they continued to grow poppies, they would be fined and thrown in jail. “The fields are useless now,” Ahmad said. “We lost everything. We don’t have any other options. We can’t grow anything else.”
With the country grappling with pariah status and the specter of financial collapse, the decision to eliminate opium poppies and processing of ephedra has baffled Afghans and international observers alike. Afghanistan’s narcotics market earns far more money for its people than any other commodity in the country: the total value of all legal products exported from Afghanistan totaled just $870 million in 2019, which is dwarfed by an illicit opiate market reaching an estimated value of $1.2-$2.1 billion.
With international aid and trade largely suspended, opium and meth became the last economic lifeline for many in provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand. In a country where the public sector minimum wage is under $60 per month, foraging for ephedra can bring in $30 per day, which, although laborious, takes no special skills or investment—traders even travel to pick up the product. In the traditional Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, poppy cultivation raises around $400 million a year for farming families, including the 30-year-old Talib resting his Kalashnikov rifle on his knees in the front seat of our car. The soldier said he has received no salary for the 15 years that he has served in the Taliban forces and doesn’t know how he’ll support his family without growing opium.
The Taliban last attempted to wipe out opium in 2000, with short-lived success. After the U.S. invasion in 2001, production saw a general upward trend, and cultivation spiked in 2017, providing crucial income for insurgents—including, notoriously, the Taliban themselves. Researchers such as David Mansfield argue that it’s highly unlikely the Talib leaders who issued the 2000 ban were trying to artificially inflate prices with a view to cashing in, but as the price of opium increased in the ensuing two decades, they certainly had no qualms openly profiting from it.
The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported an uptick in opium production after the Taliban seized power in August 2021, including a 32 percent rise in 2022. This production was concentrated in the southern provinces of Nimroz, Kandahar, Helmand, Uruzgan, and Zabul, which together account for nearly three-quarters of the total area under cultivation. Kandahar saw 12,300 extra hectares dedicated to poppy in 2022, a 72 percent increase from the year before. Processing of ephedra has also increased since 2017, supplying a cottage industry in ephedrine extraction at hundreds of meth labs across the country.
Back in Kabul, local street dealer Khalid scoffed at the idea that the Taliban have stepped back from the drug trade. Heroin and meth are typically bought in bulk from an area called Shahrak-e Aria (close to Kabul Airport), he said, and he sees “a lot of Talibs there” selling wholesale to dealers. Khalid said he has also bought drugs from a Taliban office in Shahr-e Naw, a largely upscale neighborhood known for its manicured public park but where, just outside the railings, we saw at least 50 men huddled around opium and meth pipes in midafternoon.
While it’s getting harder to smuggle illicit drugs into the capital through the Taliban checkpoints, Khalid said, at one wholesaler where he buys smaller quantities for street dealing, kilo packets of meth are packaged with an official Taliban seal, the symbol of the Islamic Emirate. This, Khalid believes, lets drugs pass through the “Kabul doors”—in other words, they are waved through checkpoints without closer inspection.
Analysts watching the situation closely say they haven’t seen evidence of stockpiling, but domestic availability of illicit drugs appears unaffected even as prices soar in anticipation of future shortages. Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution, said she fears that individual Taliban commanders may exploit price surges to increase their own heroin and meth portfolios, by allowing pockets of production to continue under their control in order to inflate their own profits.
On its own, the uninterrupted supply doesn’t prove that opium is still being cultivated in Afghanistan—Felbab-Brown says it typically takes two years of supply restrictions to affect availability on the street—but it contradicts claims made by government officials that all opium and heroin has been eradicated from the country.
There are other signs that some production has continued with the knowledge and blessing of Taliban commanders. Some farmers in the southern provinces told Radio Azadi last October that they were allowed to go ahead with their harvests, and a major heroin-trafficking operation run by Afghan nationals was busted in India’s Punjab region in January. Whether this is a deliberate attempt to shore up control of a smaller, more valuable trade or simply a case of opportunistic factions exploiting the situation to enrich themselves, Talibs appear to be the only winners of the ban.