MUSA QALA, Afghanistan – In the Taliban heartlands of southern Afghanistan, poppy fields spread as far as the eye can see.
Three weeks after the Taliban announced a ban on the cultivation of opium poppies, VICE World News went to the provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where most of the world’s heroin is produced, to gauge what is happening on the ground, in what is the first in-depth report from the region since the supposed ban.
Here, in Helmand, the Taliban has forbidden journalists from documenting poppy and opium-related activities without minders, so we travelled without the Taliban’s knowledge in order to report unsupervised.
In the dusty market of the remote town of Musa Qala, Helmand, traders display plastic bags full of opium next to scales, like others sell vegetables and fruits. The harvest is in full swing in the south, with the approval of Afghanistan’s new rulers.
Musa Qala lies within the Taliban's power base in this part of Afghanistan, a stronghold long before the Islamist group had completed its lightning fast takeover of the country in August last year. Like other rural parts of Afghanistan, anti-American feeling is strong, and women are nowhere to be seen.
Opium isn't a side business here reserved for a drug mafia – everybody is involved: the well-off own fields, the poor work on them, whether they're young or old, civilian or Taliban.
Men in poppy fields in Musa Qala in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand, slit poppy pods in the afternoon of April 18, 2022, in preparation for collecting the sap in the morning, with local Taliban approval.
“Here, there is not one family without at least one member owning or working on poppy fields,” said Ezbullah, 28, a poppy field owner.
The day is ending, and he has come to check on the workers harvesting poppy on his fields, in Ghandei village, near Musa Qala.
“A few days after the ban was announced, the Taliban went from home to home to tell us that for now it was OK to finish this harvest, but then we had to stop,” Ezbullah said.
The Taliban spread the word about the ban in mosques and markets to a population that largely supports their new hardline rulers – but which remains ambivalent about the decision to ban the trade in opium and other drugs.
“If they ban poppy cultivation, we don’t have any other way to make money and feed our families,” said Noor Ahmad, 35, as he slits poppy pods with a special curved wooden knife in preparation for collecting the sap in the morning.
Men drop poppy sap into a plastic can after collecting it in a field of Musa Qala district, in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand, at dawn on April 19, 2022.
At sunrise, despite rain pouring on the fields, he is back, his bare feet deep in the mud and his tunic stained with sap. Alongside daily workers, boys from local madrasas have come to harvest, desperate to make a little money.
With Afghanistan’s economy on the brink of collapse, and a famine ongoing, the ban couldn’t come at a worse time for poppy farmers. According to the World Food Programme, 22.8 million, more than half the population, face acute food insecurity.
As to what has motivated the ban, locals have two answers. The “good” one – to save the “village youth” addicted to opium – and another, less so – to please the foreigners.
“The Taliban took this decision for international recognition, and they didn’t think about the people,” said a 44-year-old poppy farmer, who VICE World News is not identifying for security reasons, in the neighbouring Kajaki district. Here, the harvest continues next to what used to be a frontline surrounding a much fought-for dam.
Men and boys slit poppy pods in a field of Kajaki district, in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand, at the end of the day on April 19, 2022.
The farmer remembers the first successful ban on poppy, implemented by the Taliban in July 2000, which lasted one season. Yet, he’s not sure this one will work: “It will maybe last a year (…) but I’m sure it will create problems”, he said, explaining that a ban had the potential to cause conflict between farmers and the Taliban.
Before the Taliban takeover last year, although poppy cultivation was technically forbidden, farmers could continue growing it as long as they paid a bribe to the local police.
The question is, amid all the warnings and PR, how serious are the Taliban about implementing the ban?
Because the Taliban, the farmers and the traders face an uncertain future without the poppy crop.
Opium makes up to 11 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP. Many think the Taliban is risking losing this income, while angering and endangering farmers and their families – all in the hope of gaining respect and money from the West.
Meanwhile the farmers also face a dilemma. A strict ban would put them out of work, as would a switch by landowners to less labour-intensive crops.
Many farmers would be left with no jobs, homes, or lands to cultivate and feed themselves from. Disobeying the Taliban, with their harsh track-record when it comes to punishment, is also risky.
Azrat Mohammad, who harvests opium poppy near Kajaki, said he was planning to plant again, but his brother told him to stop after the Taliban destroyed the crop he’d just sown.
Poppy harvest times vary across this vast country. Northern Helmand, where Kajaki is located, is one of the few places where a new crop can be sowed at this time of the year. But the ban has got farmers worried.
Children play with a bag of opium next to the field where their fathers are harvesting poppy in a field of Kajaki district, in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand.
“We are so poor, I hope we can grow poppy again,” said Mohammad, next to his young children playing with small bags of opium and poppy pods.
In these areas, long-controlled by the Taliban, and where heavy fighting has been ongoing for years, civilians won’t be the only ones affected by the ban.
According to several sources most, if not all, local Taliban members own fields or are linked to the poppy business one way or another – a potential conflict of interests that could jeopardise the ban.
In his office, Maulvi Noorulhaq, the Taliban deputy governor of the Kajaki district, admits that he owns a poppy field — but said he has stopped cultivating since the ban was announced.
Like many officials and civilians interviewed by VICE World News, he said the government has “promised” alternative crops and other solutions to replace poppy revenues. Sources across the south of Afghanistan said replacement crops could include tomatoes, wheat, rice, cotton, almonds, cucumber, corn, and even saffron. Others mention that poultry and new businesses could be solutions. Noorulhaq claimed these could be successful solutions. But he didn’t sound fully convinced.
As VICE World News travelled around the country’s south, it became clear that farmers seemed well aware of the high stakes game being played by their rulers.
The Taliban are treading a fine line.
In Deh Baba market, in the district of Kajaki, it's not safe for a Western journalist to be seen on the street, so we meet a group of opium dealers in a storage space, hidden behind a maze of vegetable patches and run down mud walls.
A major opium dealer in Kajaki, in his mid 20s, who VICE World News is not identifying for security reasons, controls the fields in the area, and helps runs an opium store. In the dark room, kilos of opium await trade.
“If the Taliban government doesn't give us an alternative, maybe the people will rebel and fight,” he said. “But maybe if the US knows about the ban they will give us a lot of money.”
Although the local Taliban leaders announced the ban with loudspeakers attached to their pick-up trucks, they have chosen not to bother Kajaki’s opium traders.
According to several sources, while the Taliban allow the local opium trade, they sometimes arrest dealers who — like the young dealer— bring opium for sale and transit abroad to the Baramcha market at the Pakistani border, an approximately 12-hour drive on rough terrain through the desert in the south of Helmand.
Despite the threat of arrest, dealers continue bringing opium to the border by avoiding the main road with its checkpoints. “It would be impossible,” to prevent them from using alternate routes, admitted an official.
The Taliban are also shutting down opium-processing labs. In Musa Qala district, 18 out of 20 labs have been shut down by their owners following the ban.
A man in his late 30s who VICE World News is not identifying for security reasons ran a lab transforming opium into chaynaki, a concentrated dried paste that is better suited for transport. Hidden far into an unruly garden, past mud ruins, next to the Helmand river bank, the room is still filled with metal pots, burners and tubes.
Despite traces of opium, the lab seems shut down, at least for now. After the visit, the lab owner and his friends, all staunch Taliban supporters, break their Ramadan fast in the garden, and are joined by a group of young fighters.
Later in the night, in another village near Musa Qala, a local Taliban security official, whose family owns poppy fields, said: “Every family here has one foot within the Taliban, the other in the opium trade”. He said in many parts of Helmand, but especially in Musa Qala, every family has at least one member involved in the opium or poppy business to support the family, and another fighting for the Taliban – be it for their beliefs or protection.
The Taliban are inextricably linked to the opium trade.
Like many others, the official hopes the government will provide alternatives and that “other countries will help a lot.”
In his message ahead of the Eid holiday last Friday, the Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhunzada repeated that poppy cultivation “is strictly prohibited.”
There was no mention of the current harvest being reaped and traded, with local government’s approval.
He called on the international community, “to assist the Afghan people, particularly farmers, to find alternative livelihoods and cultivation.”
Men slit poppy pods in the fields of Panjwai district, in Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar, in the afternoon of April 15, 2022.
Yet based on evidence from the last 20 years, replacing poppy with other crops hasn’t worked, and the Taliban currently have little funds to finance such initiatives anyway. They are betting on foreign money coming in.
“The search for the miracle crop to compete with poppy has become part of the problem,” said David Mansfield, an independent consultant who has spent more than two decades studying illicit economies and rural livelihoods in Afghanistan.
“The evidence over the last 20 years has shown that a move out of poppy requires farmers to experience a coincidence of improved security, governance and economic growth - and this has not happened in crop substitution,” he explained.
Although some crops can generate greater net returns than poppy, “not all farmers have access to the land, water, and markets that are required to make these crops economically viable”, said Mansfield.
Some observers say the Taliban are simply using the ban to pull in foreign financial aid. “Critics might see the ban as an effort to put pressure on the international community to respond – to what is portrayed as an act of altruism by the Taliban – by providing development assistance and lessening economic sanctions,” said Mansfield.
But he said for the West to respond to the ban by throwing money at the Taliban would be “unwise”.
“It’s been done so many times before in Afghanistan and it never ends well.” He said development assistance should not be “a rushed, pressured response” to a ban on the drug trade. “For the new government to pursue a strategy that threatens to further impoverish the population, unless assistance is given, is particularly cynical.”
Opium shops, one featuring the Taliban flag, in Panjwai district of Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, on April 25, 2022.
Provincial counter-narcotic chiefs for Helmand and Kandahar claim the Taliban have eradicated new crops and arrested dealers in both provinces. According to Haji Amanullah, the chief for Helmand, around 5,000 square metres of new crops have been eradicated in Musa Qala and neighbouring Nowzad district.
But videos shared on WhatsApp by traders and officials of supposed eradication of fields aren’t very convincing, and according to Mansfield, crops planted at this time of the year only constitute a marginal share of the market.
In other parts of the country, harvesting will take place later this summer. For the South “the next big test is in October and November when the next fall crop will be sown,” said Mansfield.
In Kandahar province, the Taliban's birthplace, to the east of Helmand, VICE World News found that here too, the poppy harvest and opium trade is continuing openly. Apparently this is part of a strategy.
A man sitting at a weekly market in Maiwand district of Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, to buy small quantities of opium from local farmers and seasonal workers on April 24, 2022.
“If we close [all the markets] at once, the people will revolt, so we do it progressively, and we focus on wide scale communication,” said Mahmood, deputy governor of Maiwand, a dry district where fighting has been raging for years.
At the weekly bazaar, organised in an open field in the Maiwand, or “red village,” opium traders still have their place among other stands.
“If they ban poppy, we won’t be able to find money, and it will be really risky for us,” said Mahmad Naim, as a man casually stops to sell him a bag of opium.
In Banditemor, another local village, opium traders are less relaxed, worried any attention could push the Taliban to close their shops. They will only talk to VICE World News in another street, in a store selling solar panels.
They echo the general feeling across the south: of course they do not like opium because it can cause addiction among young people, and they wish it could be replaced by new crops, businesses, and jobs. But they’re also aware that this is near to impossible right now.
Men trade opium in a market of Panjwai district, Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, on April 25, 2022.
Like in Helmand, the ban has managed to draw criticism in Kandahar, even from these most ultraconservative and pro-Taliban communities.
“I don't think this government will give an alternative to the farmers because it cannot even pay its mujahideen [fighters]. And if there is no alternative, people will be forced to protest against the government,” said one of the traders.
In Zheray district’s Housemadat area, men sell opium on the side of the main road to Kandahar city, despite Taliban pick-ups coming and going.
Although they’re not afraid to brandish giant bags of opium in plain sight — discussing prices, checking quality — they are aware the Taliban's current strategy is putting their future at risk.
Men check the quality and discuss the price of some opium in front of a store in Zheray district of Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan, on April 24, 2022.
“If we don’t grow poppy and foreign countries do not help us, we’ll have nothing, and we’ll be in danger,” said Najibullah, who we are not naming in full for security reasons, sitting on a bare mattress in his shop.
For now, traders, landowners and farmers are seeing a rise in opium prices as buyers expected a shortage of opium created by the ban.
Labourers have, however, benefitted much less from the price hike than landowners, as they end up with a lower share of the harvested opium, while bearing the brunt of the costs. What’s more, landowners can keep the opium they get from the harvest to sell later when prices are at their highest, while labourers, often very poor, have to sell quickly to pay off loans and feed their families. Prices across the South vary slightly, but sources agree they have almost tripled.
Taliban officials across the south have let opium markets function as usual. They told VICE World News that trade at the local level was still allowed. But Najibullah, like other traders, fears this could change without warning.
“We have no problems for now, but maybe in a week or two they’ll decide to ban our trade,” he said.
For now, the Taliban seem to be playing a game of wait-and-see.
They are making the clampdown as low-impact as possible, restricting themselves to spreading word of the ban, preventing some from planting new crops and arresting the occasional dealer.
That way the Taliban still have time to see if the ban brings in foreign cash without hurting farmers too much, and remaining able to reverse the ban if funds don’t come in.
The same can be said of the Taliban’s clampdown on ephedra, the plant used – as VICE World News first reported in 2019 and 2021 – in Afghanistan's rising methamphetamine industry, mainly in the western province of Farah. While officials have cracked down on storing and selling ephedra in the open, the labs that process it into meth are still running.
But opium is still the drug of the people in Afghanistan.
"The thing people don't want to confront is that the solution to poppy is a developmental one,” said Mansfield, the opium trade expert.
“There are no quick solutions to opium production, you’d hope we would have all learned that by now.”
All photos: Elise Blanchard