As the newly triumphant Taliban leadership gave its first official press conference since taking power in Kabul, spokesperson Zabihullah Mujihad promised to stop heroin and opium production and trafficking from a country that provides about 80 percent of the world’s heroin, as well as large amounts of methamphetamine and hashish.
"We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community, we will not have any narcotics produced," Mujahid told reporters in Kabul.
"From now on, nobody's going to get involved [in the heroin trade], nobody can be involved in drug smuggling."
However, there appeared to be a “but” in that statement, as Mujihad explained the need for “international assistance" to help one of the world’s poorest nations transition away from the easy-to-grow poppy plants that provide the resin used to manufacture heroin.
With hundreds of millions of dollars in revenues from sales of opium and heroin each year – the UN estimated the local value of the annual poppy harvests were worth about $350 million to farmers annually based on a $55 per kilogram of the poppy sap price offered by heroin manufacturers – the crop is king. In a country where most people live on less than $600 a year, the growing of poppy is the difference between mass starvation and making a living from the land.
The UN estimates the crop becomes worth $1.4 billion once it's processed into heroin and is shipped abroad: at each stage wildly increasing in value before arriving in Europe at more than 10 times the price, making it a critical part of the cash flow to all levels of the Afghan economy.
That economic pressure will force the Taliban to make a choice, as Afghanistan’s new leaders cannot afford to crush the drug trade without offering replacement income for Afghanistan’s farmers.
“The Taliban don’t particularly like the heroin trade – they consider using drugs to be completely forbidden etc – but its such a deeply ingrained part of rural Afghan culture that they know they cannot attack it without providing significant replacements,” said a former British special forces soldier who served repeated tours in Helmand Province, one of the main heroin producing areas of the country.
“Heroin kept the mujahideen fed and equipped against the Soviets and after the civil war broke out, it funded all the warlords and ethnic militias that opposed the Taliban in the 90s,” said the former soldier, who returned as a contractor to the Afghan government’s counter-narcotics strategy on multiple occasions since 2008. “And the Taliban were happy to tax it for their own benefits, particularly after we entered Helmand in 2006. They knew our anti-heroin efforts would infuriate the farmers so they became the authorities that would tax and protect the fields from the occupation.”
“They’re not going to stop anything unless the international community pays them to do it,” concluded the soldier-turned-consultant. “They can’t afford to halt the trade without help – the entire country would starve, it's basically their only viable export – and will want to enter into immediate negotiations with the international community. But if they make a deal, they’ll stop the exports for at least a period of time, we saw them more or less keep their word in 2000.”
This is a reference to the Taliban decision to agree to end heroin exports in exchange for hundreds of millions in anti-drug aid from the United States several years before the 9/11 attacks led to the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and the Taliban being toppled.
But during the period from 2000 to 2001, when the Taliban did in fact reduce exports from the territory they controlled to nearly zero, the collapse of the rural economy happened faster than the Taliban could distribute the limited aid money to farmers, sending tens of thousands fleeing for Pakistan as famine struck some communities.
“They can do it,’ said the consultant. “But they know what happened last time – famine and it didn’t help ties a year later when the US invaded – so they will want a very good deal to end the production. But let’s face it, they’re great negotiators.”