A blanket ban on poppy cultivation by the Taliban emir is exacerbating Afghanistan’s already dire economic situation and could lead to armed uprisings against the Islamist regime, experts say.
“This is a crazy policy at the worst possible time,” said William Byrd, senior Afghanistan expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in response to a VOA question at an event on Wednesday.
If implemented, the policy would “put hundreds of thousands of Afghan rural households out of business,” Byrd warned.
The Taliban’s ban follows almost two decades of international efforts to wean the landlocked country from opium production, which accounts for more than 80% of the global supply. Counternarcotics policies of the previous Afghan government, which were bankrolled by Western donors, were largely considered a failure as opium production increased year after year.
The illicit opium economy feeds organized crimes, corruption and militancy inside Afghanistan and in other parts of the world, the United Nations and other organizations say.
But with the Afghan economy collapsing following the withdrawal of most international aid and much of the population at risk of starvation, experts fear that the Taliban’s move to crack down at this time will do more harm than good.
This year’s harvest, which is anticipated to be higher than last year’s 6,800 tons, represents one of the few remaining sources of income for Afghan farmers and of seasonal job opportunities for tens of thousands of young Afghan men.
The vast poppy fields, which covered 177,000 hectares of land in 2021, created the equivalent of 190,700 full-time jobs in 2019, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“Small-scale poppy cultivation is an important source of income and income stability for many Afghan farmers. The ban on poppy cultivation will make their livelihoods all the more precarious,” Jeffrey Clemens, associate professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, told VOA.
The Taliban’s terse poppy ban does not say what alternative livelihood and means of income will be provided to poppy farmers, laborers and traders.
“If anyone cultivates poppy, his crops will be destroyed and he will be dealt with according to Sharia,” the Taliban order reads.
Known for their harsh law enforcement tactics, the Taliban are expected to implement the poppy ban only through coercive means. The Taliban had enforced an effective ban on poppy cultivation in 2001, just before a U.S.-led international military intervention toppled the regime.
From 2002 to 2021, the U.S. government spent almost $9 billion on counternarcotics as it fought Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
The Taliban were widely reported to be sponsoring their insurgency with proceeds from Afghanistan’s illicit drug economy. In 2018 and 2019, the Taliban earned about $400 million from the drug trade, U.N. officials reported.
Last year, the country produced some 6,800 tons of opium — which produced 320 tons of heroin — yielding between $1.8 billion and $2.7 billion to the farmers, according to UNDOC. The total value of Afghanistan’s opium in the international markets has been estimated at several billion dollars.
The Taliban ban, while immediately hurting farmers and laborers, will prompt a rise in opium and heroin prices, said Javid Ahmad Qaem, a former deputy minister for counternarcotics in Afghanistan.
“(The) Taliban will capitalize on it,” he told VOA.
By banning the poppy cultivation, the Taliban regime, which faces growing international condemnations for closing secondary schools for girls and censoring media, might be seeking some kind of international understanding, others suggest.
“My best guess is that the ban is intended to either be temporary or that it will be selectively enforced. It creates a mechanism through which Taliban loyalists can be rewarded, while dissenters can be punished and pushed out of the market,” Clemens said, meaning that the Taliban could look the other way and allow their supporters to continue cultivating poppy as before.
A crippled economy
Standing in the middle of his poppy field in southern Kandahar province, Juma Gul, a farmer, told VOA he cultivated the high cash crop out of desperation.
“Neither wheat nor vegetables can make us this much income,” he said.
In 2021, revenues from the poppy fields made up to 11% of Afghanistan’s GDP, UNDOC reported.
Eliminating the poppy economy in an environment with no viable alternatives and no foreign assistance will further cripple the Afghan economy, which is already suffering under strict international financial sanctions imposed on the Taliban regime.
Foreign development assistance, which accounted for 22% of the Afghan GDP in 2021, has been cut off since the Taliban returned to power. This has led to massive economic and humanitarian problems.
Over the past eight months, Afghanistan has suffered a 34% decline in per capita income, and public spending has plummeted by about 60%, the World Bank said in a report on Wednesday.
While foreign donors have pledged about $2.4 billion of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan, the Taliban’s controversial policies will likely cause further harm to the Afghan economy.
Byrd, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the poppy ban is “a sign of the Taliban administration’s lack of savvy on some of these economic policy issues and the macroeconomy.”