Afghanistan’s ruling Taliban on Sunday announced a ban on harvesting poppies, even as farmers in some parts of the country began extracting the opium from the plant that is needed for making heroin.
The Taliban warned farmers that their crops will be burned and that they can be jailed if they proceed with the harvest. The harvest and planting seasons vary across Afghanistan. In the Taliban heartland of southern Kandahar the harvesting has begun but in the east of the country some farmers are just beginning to plant their crop.
In desperately poor Afghanistan the ban seems certain to further impoverish its poorest citizens at a time when the country is in an economic free fall.
The decree was announced by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid at a news conference in the capital of Kabul. The order also outlawed the manufacturing of narcotics and the transportation, trade, export and import of heroin, hashish and alcohol.
The ban is reminiscent of the previous Taliban rule in the late 1990s when the movement espousing a harsh interpretation of Islam outlawed poppy production. At that time, the ban was implemented countrywide within two years, and according to the U.N. largely helped eradicate poppy production.
However, after the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, farmers in many parts of the country returned to poppy production. Poppies are the main source of income for millions of small farmers and day laborers who can earn upwards of $300 a month harvesting them and extracting the opium.
Today, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, despite billions of dollars spent by the international community during its 20 years in Afghanistan to eradicate the drug. In 2021, before the Taliban takeover, Afghanistan produced more than 6,000 tons of opium, which the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said could potentially yield 320 tons of pure heroin.
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Afghanistan produces more opium than all opium-producing countries combined and last year was the sixth straight year of record opium harvests.
During the years-long Taliban insurgency, the movement reportedly made millions of dollars taxing farmers and middle men to move their drugs outside Afghanistan. Senior officials of the U.S.-backed government also reportedly made millions on the flourishing drug trade.
Washington spent more than $8 billion trying to eradicate poppy production in Afghanistan during its nearly 20-year war, which ended with the Taliban takeover of the country in August.
Nearly 80% of heroin produced from Afghan opium reaches Europe through Central Asia and Pakistan.
According to a U.N. report in 2021, income from opiates in Afghanistan was between $1.8 billion and $2.7 billion, more than 7% of the country's GDP. The same report said “illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan” make much more.
The Taliban's ban comes as the country faces a humanitarian crisis that spurred the U.N. to ask for $4.4 billion last month as 95% of Afghans do not have enough to eat.
The ban, while hitting drug production houses hard, will likely devastate small farmers who rely on opium production to survive. It's difficult to know how the Taliban will be able to create substitute crops and financing for farmers, at a time when international development money has stopped.
Afghanistan's poorest often use the promise of the next year's poppy harvest to buy staples such as flour, sugar, cooking oil and heating oil.
When the Taliban last ruled, they employed village elders and mosque clerics to enforce the ban. In villages that ignored the ban, the Taliban arrested the elders, clerics and offending farmers.
Gannon reported from Islamabad