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After 20 years, $2 trillion spent, 4 presidents, and 2,448 American lives lost, US forces in Afghanistan are officially withdrawing after Taliban militants seized the country’s capital, Kabul, this month. Because it is currently the world’s biggest Opiate supplier, some UN and US officials are concerned that Afghanistan’s opium production will increase under the Islamic fundamentalist group who has been profiting from the industry.
Since 2001, the US has been unsuccessful in halting the production of Heroin that in 2017 accounted for 7% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP). Despite not having control of the country for 2 decades, the Taliban has benefited greatly from this market that supplies 8o% of opium worldwide. UN officials estimate that the group made a profit of $400 million between 2018 and 2019. It is believed that the Taliban has become involved in all aspects of the opium industry in Afghanistan including planting, extraction, trafficking, taxing, and building drug labs.
Opioids are made from a compound that is extracted from the poppy seed. Currently, Afghanistan has over 550,000 acres of poppy fields. Although Opioids, such as Morphine, are usually prescribed to treat pain, all forms of this substance can be highly addictive and lead to fatal outcomes if use is non-medical or prolonged. There is an especially high risk for addiction with Heroin use which was involved in 19.8% of US drug overdose deaths in 2019. Opioid use and fatalities have been steadily increasing worldwide over the last 4 decades with opium being present in 70% of drug use deaths. This growing problem is often referred to as the Opioid crisis or epidemic.
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Although poppy has grown in Afghanistan for centuries, the country did not significantly produce and trade the substance until the late 1970s. In 1979, the government lost control of the rural land along the Pakistani border as they warred with the Soviet Union. Guerilla fighters began to use opium as a way to fund large scale arms purchases. Between 1972 and 1980, surrounding countries, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey, banned the production and sale of opium which opened the market for Afghanistan.
In 1996, after the Soviet Union had withdrawn, the Taliban, a religious-political group often associated with terrorism, seized control of Afghanistan. Initially, the group encouraged opium growth as its production required 9 times the amount of laborers than wheat (one of the country’s main crops) did. Due to human rights violations, terrorism support, and increasing opium production, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan was isolated by most other world governments. In an effort to gain international acceptance, the Taliban banned the production of opium in the year 2000. This ban received much backlash from civilians and negatively affected the country’s economy by causing a severe loss of income for 15% of the population. It is likely that this helped weaken the Taliban, making them vulnerable to US invasion 1 year later.
Since their collapse in 2001, the Taliban has spent the last 2 decades rebuilding and gradually gaining more control over the rural areas where poppy is grown and opium is produced. They profited off of the booming industry by imposing taxes and tariffs on farmers, labs, and traders. The head of the Kabul office of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime, Cesar Gudes, was quoted saying that the group has been relying on opium trade as their main source of income.
During the war in Afghanistan, the US focused on limiting the production of opium to stop the Taliban from profiting, amongst other reasons. Attempts, such as poppy eradication, air strikes to suspected Heroin labs, and alternative crop programs, cost the US over $8 billion. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful. Farmers and laborers, who depend on the production of opium, grew angry with the US involvement in Kabul and began to support the Taliban.
With the Taliban recently gaining control over Kabul and US involvement retreating, Afghanistan is experiencing a state of economic and humanitarian crisis. The longest war in America’s history has left the country with years of widespread destruction. Millions of civilians have been uprooted from their homes while foreign aid has been cut and local spending is decreasing. These factors are likely to cause many impoverished Afghans to be more dependent on the production of opium. In 2019, opium harvesting supplied 120,000 jobs for the country.
Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, addressed the country’s opium industry at a press conference last week. He vowed that Afghanistan will not be a country of opium cultivation and that they will bring opium cultivation to zero again, in reference to the 2000 ban. To stop Heroin production and drug smuggling, Mujahid says the country will need help.
From now on, Afghanistan will be a narcotics-free country but it needs international assistance. The international community should help us so that we can have alternative crops. We can provide alternative crops. Then, of course, very soon, we can bring it to an end,” Mujahid said.
Experts believe that this vow is unlikely to come to fruition as opium trade has become too integral to the Taliban and Afghanistan’s economy. The country is on track to become a “narco-state” because the poppy plant is much more lucrative than any of their other cash crops. Cultivation of opium in Afghanistan has seen a 37% increase in the past year alone. By banning Afghanistan’s opium production, the Taliban risks alienating the country’s rural areas and the farmers who are financially dependent on the substance. This kind of economic impact can lead to a possible rebellion against them. At the same time, the group is hoping to avoid the isolation they experienced in 1996 when they first gained control.
“We don’t want to repeat any conflict anymore again. We want to do away with factors for conflict. Therefore, the Islamic Emirate does not have any kind of hostility or animosity with anybody; animosities have come to an end and we would like to live peacefully. We don’t want any internal enemies and any external enemies,” Mujahid said of the group’s intentions.
While the Taliban is claiming that they want to stop opium production that was involved in 50,000 US overdose deaths in 2019, balancing possible economic effects and resistance with their need for international support will be difficult. This is particularly true as the group has been and continues to benefit from the trade of the extremely dangerous and illicit substance.
Emily Murray is a Digital Content Writer at Addiction Center. She earned a B.A. in Interdisciplinary Studies with Behavioral/Social Sciences and Art concentrations along with a Journalism minor from the University of Central Florida. Dedicated to creativity and conciseness, Emily hopes her words can be of service to those affected by addiction.