After the spectacular scenes of the fall of Kabul on the weekend, the Taliban’s spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid held a press conference where — along with complaining about being kicked off Facebook (the Taliban cancelled for their problematic beliefs? Somebody call Toby Young!) — he declared that Afghanistan was going to be drug-free.
“There will be no drug production, no drug smuggling. We saw today that our young people were on drugs near the walls; this was making me very, very sad that our youth are addicted,” he said. “Afghanistan will not be a country of cultivation of opium anymore…. We will bring opium cultivation to zero again.”
Zabihullah’s referring to the Taliban’s opium ban in the early 2000s, seemingly one of the few successful wars on drugs. During that time, the total area used to cultivate opium poppy (the flower from which the narcotic is extracted) fell from 82,000 hectares to only 8,000 (mostly under the control of dissident warlords). The opium gum from those flowers was then refined and processed first into morphine, then into heroin.
Afghanistan’s been a heroin hotspot since the Soviet invasion of 1979, when the mujahideen fighters, supported by American and Pakistani intelligence, began running dope to help them fight back against the occupation. Since the American-led invasion in 2001, both pro- and anti-Taliban factions have protected the poppy fields, and the poor, mountainous country now produces over 80 percent of the world’s heroin, which ends up shooting through the veins of addicts in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Asia (the American market is mainly supplied by Mexico).
The Taliban’s opium ban then, as now, came as they tried to legitimize themselves in the eyes of the world as not just a bunch of scruffy, bearded jihadis, but the rightful rulers of the land. But the last time they tried, it was an act of economic suicide. So much of the Afghan economy revolved around opium — from the farmers, to the smugglers, to the Taliban’s own taxes — that they practically shot themselves in the foot, allowing the Americans and their allies to overrun the country in a little over a month.
Watch: Afghanistan: Money and power drive Afghanistan's opium production - but how will the Taliban wean themselves off the profitable trade?
The British and Americans partly repeated the same mistakes. In 2001, Tony Blair said that stopping Afghan heroin from reaching British shores was one of the main reasons for sending troops to oust the Taliban. Shockingly, sending those troops on counternarcotics missions to destroy the farmers’ only chance of earning a living didn’t endear them to the local population.
Having said that, the British and Americans backed their own smack-dealing warlords against the Taliban, and in certain areas poppy cultivation was tolerated. Recent years brought new innovations: as well as opium, drug markers developed a new way of creating crystal meth using the naturally growing ephedra plants, while poppy farmers have even reduced their carbon footprint by using solar power (Greta Thunberg will be pleased).
So fears that the new Afghanistan will become a narco-state are unfounded: it is one, already. Seeing as the poppy in Afghanistan has become the country’s most important cash crop whose value far outweighs its legit exports, and the chief subsistence for the farmers who grow it, the Taliban would have to think long and hard whether they really want to alienate the poor, rural peasants on whose behalf they claim to act.
However, let’s say the Taliban make good on cleaning up their act and do force out the heroin business. What then?
The opium industry itself came to Afghanistan partly because of the Soviet invasion and the CIA/Pakistani-backed mujahideen’s need to source cash, but also partly because of crackdowns in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan. Farmers grew opium legally in the hills of Anatolia until 1971, when the American government pressed Turkey into pushing the plantations east, into Iran, until the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Then, for a while, poppies flourished on the lawless Afghan-Pakistani border dominated by Pashtun tribes, until there, too, it was driven out by Pakistani authorities in the mid-90s.
This is what’s known as the “balloon effect” — if you squeeze the drug business on one end, it simply reappears on another.
That’s what happened with cocaine in Latin America: after the fall of top mafiosi like Pablo Escobar and government forces advanced on rebel-held territory, coca plantations moved from Colombia to Peru, while the actual trafficking was handled by Mexicans (where a narco-war is raging on a horrific scale).
Watch: Taliban revenge fears grow in Afghanistan
According to the latest data, the UK has the worst level of drug-induced deaths on the continent. Over 4,500 Brits died of drug-related poisonings last year alone, more than during the entire 30-year conflict in Northern Ireland. Just Say No clearly hasn’t worked. If the poppy fields vanish from Afghanistan, junkies will still need their medicine. It’s hard to say where from, exactly, but Myanmar (formerly the world’s chief heroin producer in the 1980s) has just witnessed a military coup that threatens to send it back to the bad old days, while Lebanon’s Bekaa valley benefits from lying closer to Europe and already being a major exporter of hash (as well as a heroin producer back in the ‘80s).
The other scenario is hellishly worse. The United States is now enduring a fentanyl crisis. Fentanyl, an artificial opioid far more potent than heroin, is often sold as or mixed into the latter. This creates an overdose crisis since customers don’t know the strength they’re getting, which their bodies might not be used to. By 2019, nearly three-quarters of all opioid deaths in America (already suffering a record drug holocaust) were from synthetics such as fentanyl. Meanwhile in Mexico, poppy farmers are being pushed out of business by fentanyl makers — this is because from a trafficker’s point of view, fentanyl doesn’t need a large, brightly-coloured poppy field (it can be made discreetly, in a hidden lab), and its higher potency means it’s easier to smuggle since you don’t need to squeeze as much under the seat of your car.
After the Taliban’s opium ban in the early 2000s, a heroin drought in Estonia led underworld chemists to start manufacturing fentanyl, which has all but replaced heroin in drug dealers’ repertoires. Outside the small Baltic country, Europe’s largely managed to avoid the fentanyl crisis, partly because we’re well-supplied with Afghan heroin. But if that supply dries up, it won’t be long before someone finds a substitute.
Afghanistan’s a complex situation but at least one thing is clear: no matter what happens, the drug business will not stop.