Rise to Peace blog

The Taliban’s Opium Ban Will Prove Unsustainable

In 2020, around 85% of all opium was grown in Afghanistan. The Taliban has previously exploited this trade by placing taxes on the movement, production, and sale of opium. Officials estimate these taxes amounted to nearly $200 million per year for the Taliban. However, the Taliban have just placed an outright ban on opium production, usage, transportation, trade, export, and import. As Afghanistan’s economy continues its freefall, opium production remains the only reliable option for impoverished Afghanis. Some interpret this ban as an optimistic sight for counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism measures, as high rates of opium production are one of the strongest predictors of high levels of terrorist activity in Afghani Provinces. The banning of opium could have significant implications on economic and terrorist activity in the region. Still, it remains doubtful that this ban will be sustainable.

Since the recent Taliban takeover, there have been increasing pressures from the international community to halt the opium trade in Afghanistan. The U.S. has already spent nearly $9 billion on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, signaling this issue’s importance to U.S. politicians. The Taliban see this ban as a step toward gaining international recognition and the humanitarian aid they lost. This move also comes amidst a severe humanitarian and economic crisis and likely will have some counterintuitive effects.

For one, banning the production of opium eliminates one of the last resorts for some of the poorest farmers. As Afghanistan’s economy continues to fall, farmers turn toward illicit crops, primarily opium, to bring quicker and higher returns. The enacting and enforcement of a ban will leave these farmers with little to no options. This will also lead to a significant backlash against the Taliban, which could increase the risk of radicalization to oppose the Taliban. Should this backlash prove strong enough, the Taliban may even begin to change their stance on drug production. This was the case following the poppy ban at the end of their last rule, which faced severe popular outrage and led the Taliban to almost entirely change their stance.

Secondly, this ban is challenged by market forces. Over the past few months, the prices of opium have skyrocketed out of uncertainty in the market. As the ban was just announced, the prices will likely continue to increase dramatically. In 2001, when the Taliban previously banned opium, its price quadrupled from $87 per kilogram in 2000 to $385 in 2002. This creates massive incentives for farmers to continue to grow opium. While production comes with a newfound risk of opposing the Taliban, farmers have few options. They are already at risk of food insecurity and starvation. This short-term, drastic reduction in opium production is likely unsustainable and could in fact increase opium production in the long term.

Next Steps

Counter-narcotics face a bleak future in Afghanistan. While the Taliban’s ban is likely to reduce production in the short term, a truly effective solution would address the root causes of the opium trade. Poverty and food insecurity remain commonplace, forcing individuals to find alternative sources of income. Political instability makes restrictions and governance unpredictable and inadequate. And the lack of humanitarian aid provides no lifelines to this crisis. Until these underlying issues are addressed, measures to reduce the production, trafficking, and sale of narcotics will be inhumane and unreliable. While future U.S. policy to address the opium trade is unclear, policymakers should act under the assumption that the Taliban’s current ban on opium will be unsustainable and a quick fix to a complicated issue.

 

Rise to Peace Counter-Terrorism Research Fellow

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