The Islamists and their Drug Problem

Drug cultivation is one of Afghanistan's most important sources of income. Die WELT visited the fields and talked to the people who live from growing opium and marijuana. The Taliban banned the cultivation of these plants once before. But this time is different.

This article was originally published by Die Welt on October 13, 2021. The original can be found here.

By Alfred Hackensberger correspondent for WELT

In the full afternoon heat, they huddle together in the shade of the last remaining grave on the grounds of the dilapidated cemetery of Mazar-i-Sharif. Some smoke crystal meth from small glass pipes, others heroin on aluminum foil, or opium. The relaxed mood of the ten or so men are changes abruptly when an armed member of the Taliban appears.

He suddenly hits one of the drug users with the butt of his rifle and kicks him when he’s down. “The Taliban beat us all the time,” says the sturdy and tall Noorallah after the Taliban fighter with the conspicuous red scarf has left. “Look here,” says the 37-year-old construction worker. He points to his swollen hand and a thick left cheek. He rolls up one sleeve of his shirt. The arm is covered with red-blue stains. “More than a thousand people used to come here to the compound every day,” Noorallah says. “Since the Taliban have been in power, that’s over. Everyone is afraid of being beaten up and arrested.”

A Talib tries to scare away the drug addicts. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

The radical Islamists have nothing to do with modern drug therapies. Instead, they follow anachronistic beliefs that consider prohibitions and especially draconian punishments as a panacea. The immorality and the evil that discourages a God-fearing life must be combated. Alcohol and all other drugs are considered “haram” (forbidden).

It is therefore hardly surprising that Taliban spokesman Sabihulla Mujahid promised shortly after taking power to “bring poppy cultivation to zero”. Mujahid wanted to score points with Western countries in particular; after all, Afghanistan is the largest opium producer in the world and supplier of 95 per cent of the raw material for the heroin that goes to Europe.

International drug enforcers would certainly have less work if opium poppies no longer grew in the Hindu Kush. However, the issue is not that simple as opium is one of Afghanistan’s most important sources of income. According to U.N. figures, opium poppy cultivation accounts for 8 to 11 percent of the total Afghan economy. Depending on the crop yield, revenues vary between 1.2 and 2.1 billion dollars per year. Opium grows on a total of 224,000 hectares in the country, and between 120,000 and 400,000 people are estimated to live from growing poppies. It is big business.

The Taliban have already banned it once before during their first emirate (1996-2001) after the withdrawal of the Soviet Union and the end of the Afghan civil war. At the time, the prohibition fueled popular discontent and the Taliban do not want to repeat that mistake. Thus, the Islamists have a dilemma, because opium and heroin production is a highly profitable business while the revenues of the Afghan state have dwindled since the withdrawal of Coalition forces.

Source: Infographik WELT

This dilemma is highlighted further in a report by a U.S. government commission, which claims that 60 per cent of the Taliban’s annual income comes from illicit drug trade. Estimates range from $100 million to as much as $400 million per year. The Islamists may preach virtue and a godly life, but when it comes to money, morality no longer plays a role. Even the Taliban, who act so puritanical, will not simply throw away a lucrative business model. They nevertheless have announced an opium ban. It is unclear however, when it will come into force.

“Before we can stop poppy cultivation, we need alternative crops for the farmers,” says Mullah Noor Ahmad Sayed. He is the Taliban spokesman in Kandahar, the Islamists’ capital in the center of one of the most important regions for growing opium poppies. “For the transformation, we need help from abroad,” stresses the long bearded man with a black turban on his head.

Source: Infographic WELT

So far, however, it is still completely open as to whether and in what form the emirate will receive international support. The United Nations Security Council attaches conditions to any possible financial support. These include a representative government as well as guarantees for education, women’s rights, and human rights. The Taliban does not want to comply.

Thus, for the time being, everything remains in limbo, with Afghan farmers continuing to grow opium poppies and the Taliban skimming millions off the top. However, the Islamists do not allow cultivation everywhere and for everyone as they want to determine who is able to profit from the drug business.

A farmer shows the poppy pods that are slit open to harvest the opium juice. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

In Mazar-i-Sharif, for example, opium poppies are forbidden, a farmer tells us at his house in the countryside. “Anyone who plants poppies is punished by the Taliban,” he says, frightened. Why so… the man prefers not to say.

The province of Mazar-i-Sharif is predominantly inhabited by Tajiks, one of Afghanistan’s many ethnic minorities. Tajikistan, which borders to the north, supports the resistance against the new rulers. The capital Dushanbe is the new seat of the Afghan government-in-exile under former Vice President Amrullah Saleh. He comes from the Panjshir Valley, the only region of Afghanistan that still fights the Taliban.

A young farmer on a pile of harvested opium plants. In the background, lush marijuana fields in Panjwai province. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

In Kandahar, on the other hand, it’s business as usual. The region remains one of the central areas of drug cultivation. Here, the Taliban are certain that the profits will fall into the right hands. The organization was founded in Kandahar in 1994 and has ever since enjoyed unrestricted support from residents in the country’s second largest city.

The drive to the countryside takes only about two hours. On stony roads, we pass cotton and maize fields, but also huge marijuana plantations. What few people know is that Afghanistan is also one of the largest hashish producers in the world – known for its “Black Afghan”. The endless rows of reddish blossoms of the opium poppy are not yet visible, it is only grown in autumn.

In the village of Sangawat, local farmers sell their opium at the market. They are not very happy with the visit of German journalists. The metal blinds in front of the shop windows slam shut.

Picture 7: Raw opium market in Sangawat. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

Dozens of kilos of raw opium lie in the storage rooms, packed in transparent plastic sheets and tied together. They look like dark brown footballs. In Europe, they would be worth hundreds of thousands of euros.

Shortly afterwards, the street fills with angry people. “Get out of here. No photos,” yells village head Janan. “Get lost.” Only after long discussions and several glasses of green tea does the situation calm down. “We don’t want to draw any attention,” says Janan, who wears a black waistcoat over his long white shirt. “You do understand, right?” he adds with a wink.

A trader in his shop among plastic bags with the goods. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

For decades, the villagers have lived undisturbed from growing marijuana and opium. However, after the Taliban announced a ban, the opium poppy has suddenly become a sensitive issue. The farmers have always done good business with the Islamists, with the Taliban controlling the rural regions around Kandahar – and thus also the drug trade – for many years.

“Yes, the Taliban have always been here,” confirms the village headman, but he has no idea who really buys his opium. “Buyers come and they take the opium with them,” he says. “Where they come from, where they go, and what they do with it, I don’t know.” He winks again and grins.

Mr Janan, 45, pictured here on the right, is the village head of Sangawat, 40 km west of Kandahar. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

The 45-year-old’s dilemma quickly becomes clear. “We earn more than ten times as much from opium than from cotton, grain, and whatever else we grow,” he explains. “If we had alternatives, we would stop growing poppies, but that requires money.” Janan also calls for international help. “We can’t do it alone,” he says, taking a sip of tea.

Interest in an economic transformation away from opium will probably be rather low, especially nowadays. In the wake of the Taliban’s takeover and the announced opium ban, prices have exploded. Janan and the other farmers from Sangawat used to get about 40 euros per kilo of raw opium. Today it is around 120 euros, three times as much. Especially too because the harvest from Kandahar is known for its special quality.

The village headman leads us back to the marketplace, apologizes for the rude greeting, and gives orders to push the metal blinds back up. The sale continues.

Alfred Hackensberger in the village of Sangawat on a raw opium market. Source: Sebastian Backhaus

Alfred Hackensberger is correspondent for WELT. You can follow him via Twitter @hackensberger and on his blog.

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