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Drug Trafficking Yields Millions and Drives Taliban Action in Afghanistan

UN agency estimates that opium production in 2017, the country’s record, moved up to US$ 6.6 billion; for experts, the Taliban earns up to US$ 400 million a year.

The United States has spent more than $8 billion in 15 years of efforts to deprive the Taliban of profiting from the trade in opium and heroin produced in Afghanistan.

However, the strategy – which involved actions ranging from poppy eradication to airstrikes on suspect crops and laboratories – failed.

As the US ends its longest war, Afghanistan remains the world’s largest supplier of illicit opiates, which is unlikely to change in the near future as the Taliban is about to take full control of the country, US officials and experts said. Americans and the UN.

Widespread destruction during the war, millions of people displaced, foreign aid cuts, and local spending losses by foreign troops who have left the country fuel an economic and humanitarian crisis that is likely to leave many Afghans dependent on the narcotics trade to survive.

This dependency threatens to bring further instability as the Taliban, other armed groups, tribal military chiefs, and corrupt government officials vie for drug profits and power.

Some United States and United Nations officials fear that the fall of the Afghan government will create the conditions for even greater illicit opiate production, a potential boon for the Taliban.

“The Taliban counts the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” César Guedes, head of the Kabul office of the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told Reuters.

“Greater production will allow the sale of drugs at a cheaper and more attractive price and, therefore, greater accessibility”, he added.

“This is the best time for these illicit groups to position themselves [to expand their businesses], said Guedes, speaking about the insurgent takeover of Kabul on Sunday (15).

The Taliban banned poppy cultivation in 2000, while seeking international legitimacy, but faced a popular backlash and later changed its stance, according to experts.

Despite the threats posed by Afghanistan’s illicit drug trade, the United States and other nations rarely mention in public the need to address these sales – estimated by UNODC at more than 80% of global supplies of opium and heroin – experts noted.

“We were paralyzed and, unfortunately, we allowed the Taliban to become possibly the largest funded undesignated terrorist organization in the world,” said a US official with knowledge of the drug trade in Afghanistan.

“The US and international partners continued to withdraw [from the country] and did not address poppy cultivation,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “What everyone is going to find out is that it blew up.”

Asked about this issue, a US State Department official said the country would continue to support the Afghan people, “including continued efforts against drug trafficking,” but declined to say how aid would continue if the Taliban consolidates power.

Increase in poppy cultivation

Afghan farmers weigh many factors when deciding how much poppy to plant. These range from annual rainfall and the price of wheat – the main alternative crop to poppies – to world prices for opium and heroin.

However, even during droughts and wheat shortages, when cereal prices soared, Afghan farmers grew poppies and extracted opium gum, which is refined into morphine and heroin.

In recent years, many have installed Chinese-made solar panels to power deep-water wells.

Three of the past four years have seen some of Afghanistan’s highest levels of opium production, according to UNODC. Even with the Covid-19 pandemic, poppy cultivation increased 37% last year, according to a report released in May.

Illicit narcotics are “the biggest industry in the country, with the exception of war,” said Barnett Rubin, a former State Department adviser for Afghanistan.

The highest estimate in the history of the country’s opium production was set in 2017, with 9,900 tons valued at about US$1.4 billion, or about 7% of Afghanistan’s GDP, he reported. the UNODC.

When the value of drugs for export and local consumption is factored into the imported chemical precursors, UNODC estimated the country’s overall illicit opiate savings that year at up to US$6.6 billion (R$34.6 billion).

The Taliban and public officials have long been involved in the narcotics trade, experts said, though some question the extent of the insurgents’ role and profits.

The United Nations and Washington say the Taliban is involved on all fronts, from poppy farming, opium extraction, and trafficking to the collection of “taxes” from drug growers and laboratories and smugglers for shipments bound for Africa, Europe, Canada, Russia, Middle East and other parts of Asia.

Some of these shipments are launched across the heavily patrolled Iranian border with rudimentary catapults, reported David Mansfield, a leading researcher of Afghanistan’s illicit drug trade.

UN officials reported that the Taliban likely earned more than $400 million between 2018 and 2019 (about R$2.09 billion) from the drug trade.

A May 2021 US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) report estimated that up to 60 percent of the group’s annual revenue comes from illicit narcotics.

Some experts dispute this data.

Mansfield says his field studies show that the most the Taliban can earn from illicit opiates is about $40 million annually, predominantly from taxes on opium production, heroin labs, and drug shipments.

For him, insurgents make more money by charging taxes on legal imports and exports at roadside checkpoints.

Washington spent about $8.6 billion between 2002 and 2017 to strangle Afghanistan’s drug trade in order to end that source of income for the Taliban, according to a 2018 report by SIGAR.

In addition to poppy eradication, the United States and allies have supported interdiction strikes and alternative cultivation programs, airstrikes on alleged heroin labs, and other measures.

“[These efforts] haven’t really been very successful,” retired US Army General Joseph Votel, who led US Central Command from 2016 to 2019, told Reuters.

Instead, experts say, they have fueled anger at the Kabul government and its foreign supporters — and sympathy for the Taliban — among farmers and workers who depend on opium production to feed their families.

The Taliban learned that lesson from the 2000 ban on poppy cultivation, said Brookings Institution scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown.

Despite a sharp decline in production, the ban unleashed “a huge political storm against the group and was one of the reasons there were such dramatic defections after the US invasion,” she said.

Therefore, experts say, the Taliban is unlikely to ban poppy cultivation if it consolidates power this time around.

“A future [Taliban] government will need to act carefully to avoid alienating its rural constituency and not provoke resistance and violent rebellion,” Mansfield said.

Source: With Agencies

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