Will the Taliban’s Opium Ban Last?

Economic and Political Forces Derailed Afghanistan’s Past Attempts at Prohibition. Today the Future of the Cash Crop Is Uncertain

Will the Taliban’s Opium Ban Last? | Zocalo Public Square • Arizona State University • Smithsonian

For the last 30 years, Afghanistan has been the largest global producer of illicit heroin. Now, the Taliban has banned opium—even though its farmers brought them to power. Berklee College of Music historian James Bradford considers what this means for the country and the world. AP Photo

Do prohibitions ever work?

The 1919 Volstead Act prohibiting the production and sale of alcohol across the United States failed to stop people from drinking, and instead fostered an economy of smuggling and home-brewing. Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” didn’t stop drug addiction; on the contrary, since the 1971 Controlled Substances Act, drug use has increased and both illicit and legal drugs have become more available and diverse in the U.S. than they were 50 years ago.

And as far as I know, the ban on Big Gulps in New York City has failed to curb the intake of large quantities of unhealthy sugary drinks.

But in 2022, the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Haibatullah Akhunzada, announced a religious edict banning the production of all drugs, to be put into effect in spring 2023. As of August 2023, the Taliban have reduced Afghanistan’s opium supply by nearly 80%, and possibly more.

Their prohibition may be the most successful ban of drugs in history.

Afghanistan has tried to ban opium many times before, but was never so successful. For the last 30 years, the country has been the world’s largest producer of illicit heroin. The Taliban themselves have played a critical role in nurturing the trade, helping protect farmers and stoking political resistance when the Afghan government sought to prohibit it.

Opium didn’t play a major role in Afghanistan until the early 20th century. It started out as a quasi-legal crop, bought by various pharmaceutical companies in Europe and the United States. But in 1945, in exchange for diplomatic recognition and economic aid, the U.S. convinced Afghanistan to prohibit opium. For the next 20 years, the Afghan government enacted and tried to enforce a series of prohibitions of the drug.

None of them successfully deterred the growth of the opium trade. By the 1970s, opium had gained traction as a critical cash crop for rural Afghan farmers, building off of networks created by traffickers bringing Afghan hashish to markets west. It became even more important to the rural economy in the following decades, and when the Afghan government collapsed in the late 1970s and the Afghan–Soviet war broke out in the ’80s, opium was entrenched as arguably the only viable commodity for rural farmers.

What is happening today is unprecedented not so much because the Taliban have banned opium—they did that before—but because the ban undermines the economic livelihoods of the political constituency that brought them back to power: rural farmers.

The Taliban, a group of Islamic fundamentalists and Pashtun nationalists, came to power in 1994, led by Mullah Mohammad Omar. Throughout the 1990s, opium flourished under Taliban rule. Even though Mullah Omar spoke out against the drug he never made it illegal. He knew that his main political constituency—rural Afghans—depended on it economically.

However, that changed in 2000, when the Taliban, claiming opium to be immoral, banned opium for the first time. At the time, the ban was considered the most successful opium ban in world history, because the area dedicated to opium cultivation fell from more than 82,000 hectares in 2000 to less than 8,000 the following year.

In hindsight, the ban came with significant unforeseen consequences. Most farmers agreed to the ban because the market had become oversaturated by product, leading to a dramatic decrease in price. Other farmers, particularly in more rural parts of the country, openly defied the ban, knowing it would significantly undermine their annual income.

The political consequences of the ban were significant too. Thousands of rural Afghans lost vital seasonal employment from the opium harvest. This sparked various uprisings against the Taliban and local elites, most notably in the eastern district of Achin in April 2001.

The Taliban were ousted later that year following the attacks of 9/11.  But while it didn’t last long, the ban signaled that the Taliban were willing to risk their political future to ban opium.

So why did they do it? The Taliban’s moral claims about opium bans tend to mask the political reality.  Throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, prohibitions were often used by governments to garner international credibility, and in turn, monetary aid. In this way, the Taliban were no different: The ban was an attempt to garner international credibility.

Similarly, when the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001 the subsequent Hamid Karzai regime also maintained opium’s illegality to conform to the standards of the international drug control system. Under immense pressure from the United States, efforts to curb opium production became a mainstay of Afghan drug politics. Between 2002–2018, the U.S. contributed nearly $8.78 billion in counter-narcotics aid aimed at helping support eradication campaigns throughout the country.

But the Karzai regime’s eradication campaigns were ineffective and politically detrimental. Opium production grew almost every year; by 2007, production had quadrupled and Afghan opium was feeding nearly 93% of the global heroin supply. And as the anti-drug policies alienated many rural Afghan farmers who depended on the opium trade for survival, the Taliban took it as an opportunity to build a base of support among them. It wasn’t surprising, then, that the Taliban took power back in 2021.

What is happening today is unprecedented not so much because the Taliban have banned opium—they did that before—but because the ban undermines the economic livelihoods of the political constituency that brought them back to power: rural farmers.

The ban will likely have significant and unforeseen consequences in Afghanistan and beyond. For now, though, it raises more questions than answers. How much will the ban strain the rural Afghan economy? For the past three decades, opium has been a lifeline for rural farmers in an otherwise moribund economy. If farmers struggle economically and revert back to opium production, what will the Taliban do?

One area to keep an eye on is northeastern Afghanistan, which is largely populated by ethnic minorities, many of whom resisted Taliban rule in the 1990s. So far, evidence indicates that some areas of the north (and in the eastern province of Nangarhar) have not complied with the Taliban ban—opium is still being grown and traded. The possible explanations for this are both economic and political. Economically, the sudden absence of competition presents an opportunity for farmers and traders to garner additional market share. Politically, growing in contravention to Taliban policy carries massive weight as a form of resistance. In other words, the opium ban could stoke the embers of resistance, as it did in ways that benefited the Taliban under the previous political regimes.

There are global implications to the ban as well. The American opioid epidemic, which originated largely from pharmaceutical opioids, has shifted to the more fatal Fentanyl, which in turn has devastated communities. But Europe, Asia, and Africa’s opioid trades have been fed largely by the Afghan heroin supply. Some fear that the Taliban’s new ban will facilitate the rise of fentanyl in those regions and that they will face similar consequences as has the U.S. The Taliban ban has also led to the resurgence in production in other parts of the world: Myanmar has possibly taken over Afghanistan as the world’s largest supplier of illicit opium.

Whether the Taliban can, and remain willing, to maintain its ban on opium remains to be seen. 2024 will likely reveal, possibly in dramatic ways, the political and economic consequences of this ban.

James Bradford is a historian at the Berklee College of Music, and the author of Poppies, Politics, and Power: Afghanistan and the Global History of Drugs and Diplomacy. His work on the history of drugs and drug policy has appeared in, most notably, The Oxford Handbook of Global Drug History, The War on Drugs: A History, and Cannabis: Global Histories.
PRIMARY EDITOR: Caroline Tracey | SECONDARY EDITOR: Talib Jabbar
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