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LONDON — The Taliban have pledged to kick the habit in Afghanistan and end its reliance on the illegal drugs trade. But success — assuming the unscrupulous Islamists are true to their word — could be down to the nations now struggling to evacuate their citizens from a Taliban-ruled nightmare.
Ending the Afghan reliance on drug income will be no mean feat. The opium trade is a vital chunk of gross domestic product, with poppy farming sustaining lives and livelihoods across most provinces.
For Britain and its Western allies, it is a challenge that weighs the benefits of stopping a flood of illegal drugs coming into their own countries with the problems of dealing with a potentially brutal de facto government with an appalling track record on human rights. What’s more, failure to effectively stem the flow of drugs could see countries such as China, Russia and Iran stepping in.
In 2020, Afghan farmers produced some 2,300 tons of opium, according to United Nations estimates. It accounts for more than 90 percent of illicit global supply and 95 percent of the U.K. market. Despite the Western presence that ended this month, and despite dropping prices, latest estimates show production at record levels. Meanwhile, bigger profit margins on crystal meth are driving an Afghan boom in the cultivation of its origin ephedra plant too.
This is not the first time the Taliban and Western governments have faced this conundrum. The Taliban did manage to crack down on drug production between 2000 and 2001, during their previous reign — reducing the opium harvest by more than 90 percent, according to a U.N. survey. But it came with stark consequences for the Islamist group’s grip on power.
For starters, hopes that the move would usher in diplomatic recognition from global nations came to nothing when the U.N. imposed fresh sanctions over the Taliban’s protection of Osama bin Laden after 9/11.
Even more problematic for the Taliban, removing the livelihoods of countless farmers slashed their domestic backing. The militants faced a peasant revolt, and a subsequent lack of support when Western allies invaded in 2001, ousted them from control.
Some argue the Taliban fell in 2001 because the crackdown on drugs hit their own tax revenues. But Jonathan Goodhand, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, said that was misguided. “It was the politics around it,” he explained. “It was the growing stress and pressure it created amongst the peasantry.”
This time, the Islamists appear to have learned their lesson. “Afghanistan will not be a country of cultivation of opium anymore,” said Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid at his first press conference after the group took control of Kabul. But his pledge came with a kicker: “The international community needs to help us.”
Translation: Foreign investment and lots of it.
Damned if you dope
The Taliban themselves do not rely on opium income to operate, although it is a supplement to their revenue. The extent of Taliban involvement in the drugs trade is contested, but according to research, the group relies more on taxes from legal trading than those from the black market.
Instead, funds from Western governments will be needed to help impoverished Afghan communities wean off the drug as a reliable source of income.
The need might never have been more urgent. The current chaos in the nation is a recipe for a further boom in the drugs trade, since an unstable political situation is prime breeding ground for black markets to fester.
Cracking down on the drugs trade “is not going to be a priority for anyone” in the near future, Goodhand argued. “So it’s going to grow.”
The possibility has led to fears that even more heroin could end up surging across Europe, causing prices of the dangerous drug to plunge and further exacerbating the health spending crisis in the U.K.
“That would be the most unintended of a long list of unintended consequences arising from this disastrous decision [to withdraw from Afghanistan],” said Jeremy Hunt, former Cabinet minister and chair of the House of Commons health committee.
A possible drug import surge will be even harder to deal with after Brexit, because the U.K. gave up its direct access to EU crime data resources.
“Opium cultivation in Afghanistan [has] been on an upward trajectory and the likely destabilization of the country in the coming months and years following the withdrawal of Western forces is likely to impact on production levels,” a National Crime Agency spokesperson said. “Through our international liaison network, we will continue to work with partners in the region to tackle serious and organized crime threats, including the class A drugs trade.”
Previous international attempts at counternarcotics in Afghanistan failed. Western nations tried the destruction of opium crops and processing labs, but it made little impact. Britain also attempted to help recultivate land, but via a structure that helped wealthier landowners rather than the farmers working for them, while funds were never reliable enough.
Julia Buxton, professor in drugs policy at the University of Manchester, said past efforts to curb drug production had been a “catastrophic failure,” adding: “We’ve got a lot of experience in doing development in drugs economies badly.”
Aid already accounts for a big part of the Afghan income, with the U.K. among nations and organizations pledging to boost aid spending in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover — although the cash from Britain is reducing overall after across-the-board aid cuts were agreed last month.
The scale of change needed to transform the Afghan economy away from narcotics and towards other agriculture or industries is so vast that only a nationwide aid plan including land reform and massive infrastructure building will do, according to observers.
“The big lesson we learned from U.K. development projects in Afghanistan is that you can’t treat the opium economy in isolation,” said Buxton. “It has to be a national economic recovery strategy.” She said attempting to counter the opium trade via aid agencies without dealing with the Taliban as the de facto rulers of Afghanistan could “cause more harm than good.”
Downing Street has so far said aid will be given via humanitarian organizations and not to the Taliban unless the group is willing to protect human rights and crack down on drugs and terror.
“If those huge funds are going to be unfrozen eventually for use by the government and people of Afghanistan, then what we’re saying is Afghanistan can’t lurch back into becoming a breeding ground of terror,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said following a G7 call last week. “Afghanistan can’t become a narco state, girls have to be educated up to the age of 18, and so on.”
Pro-aid Conservatives accept that working with the Taliban will be inevitable, although they remain cautious.
Andrew Mitchell, a Conservative MP and former international development secretary, said dealing with the new “de facto government” was the only option to avoid losing 20 years of development gains. “The international community needs to approach the issue with the Taliban on a contractual basis,” he said. “It needs to be a carrot and stick approach.”
And there might be simpler — and therefore cheaper — routes to reform. Crispin Blunt, another Conservative former minister and current chair of a Westminster committee on drug policy reform, said Afghan farmers should be allowed to produce legal opium — maintaining valuable infrastructure and know-how.
“These poor buggers in Helmand aren’t allowed to grow it for the legal market,” he said, noting that the U.K. helped criminalize Afghan growers and producers while growing its own legal opium for medical use. But Buxton argued legal poppy cultivation wouldn’t be financially sustainable for farmers under current land ownership structures.
Western nations are not the only ones weighing this dilemma.
Afghanistan’s drug problem is also a concern for China. Responding to the Taliban’s vow to crack down on the drug trade, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said earlier this month: “The Taliban’s spokespeople mentioned … that Afghanistan would cease to be a hub for growing opium and trading drugs — this is indicative of a right way forward.”
“The key game-changer will be China,” said Goodhand, noting that the economic giant wants to connect its “Belt and Road” trade plan through the Afghan Wakhan Corridor. “You could see that being a level of investment which would dwarf anything the West would be entertaining.”
Stuart Lau contributed reporting.
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