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The Taliban and the Double-Edged Sword of Drugs: Narco-Cash Paved the Path to Kabul, Now They’ve Inherited a Crystal Meth Crisis from the US

The Taliban funded its overthrow of Kabul mainly through drug money. 

Despite the fundamentalist organization’s public opposition to narcotics, opium and hashish were its main revenue sources in seizing power in Afghanistan. 


Taliban in Afghan poppy field


Afghanistan may become even more of a narco-state under the Taliban

There are now fears that the country could become even more of a narco-state than it already is.  In its first public interview, the Taliban said it would clamp down on the illegal cultivation of poppies and cannabis, but many expect it to continue to extract “rent” from the trade. Either way, drugs are likely to be one of the biggest issues the new regime will have to deal with.

That’s because it is also inheriting from the United States-backed government a severe drug addiction problem with the UN Drug Report 2020 estimating that one in 10 Afghan adults has a substance-dependence problem.


Om grass discovered as a cheap ingredient to make crystal meth

A lot of blame can be directed at what was formerly seen as an innocuous weed, Om grass (Ephedra sinica), which grows naturally in the wild across two thirds of Afghanistan. 

In 2017 it was discovered that the plant can be used as a key ingredient in the manufacture of crystal meth. Its production and abuse has since spread like wildfire, adding to the existing problem of heroin addiction.


Ephedra sinica, known as Om, grows wild in Afghanistan. Afghan Ministry of the Interior


Ali Latifer, writing in Business Insider, reports that drug abuse has flourished in the past few years. “Crystal meth, in particular, is suddenly everywhere in Afghanistan — fuelled by the discovery that Om, a weed that grows wild in the mountains, is an excellent source of of ephedrine and pseudoephedrine, the key ingredient in manufacturing the drug”.

Meth now rivals heroin as Afghanistan’s most lucrative illicit export. What isn’t sent abroad, mostly via Iran, is consumed locally, contributing to an epidemic of addiction fed by decades of war, displacement, and poverty.

Unlike opium, which requires months of care, Ephedra sinica grows free and requires just low-paid laborers capable of picking bushes.


Crystal meth has got its grip on Afghan addicts

As Om has flourished in high-altitude areas, so too has meth production. Much of it is smuggled into Iran, and then on to Turkey and Europe for sale. What isn’t exported is sold locally.

While meth production appears to be surging across Afghanistan, nowhere is it more apparent than in Herat, Afghanistan’s fourth-largest city.  Built in the 1400s by Queen Gowharshad, who envisioned Herat as a center for Islamic learning, the minarets were meant to guide students from as far away as Syria to study in this ancient city.


One of the main roads leading to Herat’s commercial center. Aref Karimi for Insider


These days, people gather in the shadows of those minarets, collecting trash and lighting up.

There are believed to be as many as 80,000 people addicted to drugs in this ancient city, and dozens of treatment centers have opened in the province. The vast majority of their patients are using meth, either alone or in conjunction with other drugs.


‘Ten percent for the Taliban’

Although the Taliban officially decry drugs, the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, estimated that, since 2008 the Taliban has taken a 10% cut at every point of the opium value chain, earning them US$416 million in the last year from this source alone.

According to the United Nation’s World Drug Report 2020  “quantities of heroin and morphine seized related to Afghan opiate production accounted for some 84 per cent of the global total in 2018, a slight decrease from 88 per cent in 2017, the year of the bumper harvest in the country.” 

In 2018, the UNODC estimated that the country’s opiate economy was “worth between 6 and 11 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and it exceeded the value of the country’s officially recorded licit exports of goods and services.” 

On 14 August 2021, a day before the Taliban took Kabul, the international financial website MoneyControl headlined: “A new narco-state is blossoming in Afghanistan under the Taliban.” 

As the capital Kabul fell to the insurgents this past weekend,  Reuters reported: “Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade a boon for Taliban.” According to the UNODC’s 2020 Afghanistan Opium Survey, the area under poppy cultivation expanded from 163,000 hectares to 224,000 hectares that year. This was overwhelmingly in areas under Taliban control. “The Taliban have counted on the Afghan opium trade as one of their main sources of income,” Cesar Gudes, head of UNODC’s Kabul office, told Reuters. “More production brings drugs with a cheaper and more attractive price, and therefore a wider accessibility.”


Poppy production underpins the global heroin market


A March 2021 report from the Pentagon’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan (SIGAR) quoted a U.S. military intelligence official who “estimated that between 40 to 60 percent of the Taliban’s revenue comes from narcotics trafficking.” 

Cannabis provides a secondary revenue stream for the fundamentalists. Afghanistan is well known as a primary producer, with an estimated 29,000 hectares under cannabis cultivation. The 2020 World Drug Report places Afghanistan second only to Morocco as the world’s top producer of “cannabis resin” (hashish). Pakistan and Lebanon were next in line. 


Cannabis writer Bill Weinberg sketches out the context: 

“Hashish and opium have fueled war in Afghanistan since the ‘80s, when the CIA-backed Mujahideen rebels turned to the drug trade to fund their insurgency against the Soviet forces then occupying the country.

In 1989, the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, and in 1992 a new government was established by Mujahideen warlords who continued to protect their drug empires, while also fighting each other. In 1994, the ultra-fundamentalist Taliban militia was born, pledging to restore order, portraying the warlords as corrupt drug dealers. After taking power in 1996, the Taliban made a great show of destroying opium and cannabis crops—for which it received praise and aid from the UN Office on Drugs & Crime (UNODC).

After Sept. 11, 2001, the U.S. invaded, backing the Mujahideen who were fighting the Taliban—and, again, funding their insurgency with opium and hash. But after the Taliban were driven from power in November 2001, the tables were turned. 

The new U.S.-backed Afghan government was now under pressure to eradicate—while the Taliban found the drug trade an irresistible means of funding their new insurgency. That trade has boomed as the Taliban has pursued their offensive this year.


Afghan troops and a drug haul before the Taliban takeover


The Taliban’s revenue-raising model is largely one of taxation, and narco-crops constitute the main economic activity to tax. Cultivators are made to pay a cut to local Taliban commanders in exchange for protection from government eradication efforts—a tactic guerillas have long resorted to in Colombia, Peru, Burma and elsewhere. 

And while opium for heroin production is the big-ticket item in terms of revenues, cannabis for hashish production is thoroughly a part of this system and constitutes a secondary revenue stream. 

In December 2017, a NATO Special Operations Command press release boasted of seizing and destroying a “Taliban drug cache” in the Logar province: 34 tons of “raw hashish” (cannabis plants, presumably) and 300 kilograms of “processed hashish.”

Hashish, as well as opium and processed heroin, were said to be among “13 tons of narcotic drugs” burned by Afghan security forces near Jalalabad this.   Aug. 11—just days before the city was taken by the Taliban.

As the world waits to see if the Taliban, restored to power, will return to their tyrannical ultra-fundamentalist rule, worse things still may be waiting in the wings. Over the past five years, fighters loyal to the Islamic State, or ISIS, have seized pieces of Afghanistan’s territory.  Posing themselves a yet more extremist, the ISIS presence in Afghanistan has been portraying the Taliban as corrupt drug dealers. Ironically, ISIS (calling itself the Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province”) has eradicated poppy and cannabis crops—putting fields to the flame, just like the government it claimed to oppose. ISIS similarly burned cannabis fields when it was in power in northern Syria.

The stage may be set for a Taliban narco-state fighting an insurgency by the anti-drug ISIS.”

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