Afghanistan’s Drug Trade and How it Funds Taliban Operations

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 9

A Poppy Plant

The opium economy in Afghanistan is a key component of the counter-insurgency campaign, yet remains one of the most difficult issues to tackle. It is a critical problem facing international efforts to create a functional government in Kabul that can prosecute counter-terrorism on its own territory. A successful counter-narcotics intervention would have the added benefit of undermining an important terrorist funding source in arenas as diverse as Chechnya, Xinjiang and Central Asia. While coalition and Afghan officials regularly acknowledge the power that the narco-economy has over their ambitions, it has proven exceptionally challenging to turn this into a national strategy that incorporates counter-narcotics into counter-insurgency and provides the resources for its execution.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), opium production had a boom year in 2006, rising to 6,100 metric tons. This marked a 49% increase over 2005, yielding an estimated $755 million to farmers on the basis of a slightly decreased farm-gate price of $125 per kilogram of dry opium. With the national government’s revenues at less than $350 million for 2006, the opium economy is a formidable financial power base beyond the state’s control. Good weather conditions are expected in 2007, suggesting another huge harvest.

Any national counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan must begin with a preface noting the geographical variations of the country. In 2006, the southern province of Helmand accounted for 46% of Afghanistan’s opium production. To the east of Helmand, Kandahar produced eight percent. In other words, the majority of Afghanistan’s opium economy is built on production in two southern provinces. Of the remainder, 25% is produced in the northern belt close to the borders with Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, with lighter concentrations in the eastern and western provinces. Based on the UNODC’s observations of recent opium planting, southern pre-eminence is likely to intensify further in 2007 [1]. The distribution of production correlates strongly with areas of ongoing insurgency/terrorism and coalition fatalities. Using NATO’s divisions of Afghanistan, Regional Command South, which includes Helmand and Kandahar provinces, is where 62% of the country’s opium is produced and where the coalition has suffered close to two-thirds of its combat deaths [2]. Basically, people are dying where poppies are thriving.

The difference between the relatively calm north and west and the militarized south and east should be reflected in approaches to counter-narcotics. Opium is undoubtedly a governance problem across the country. In the south and east, however, it is also strongly related to the Kabul government’s most immediate existential threat—the Taliban-led insurgency—as well as to the funding of 139 suicide attacks in 2006 [3].

Farmers and Fighters

Out of Afghanistan’s total opium production, 21% is trafficked northward through Central Asia. Around 31% travels directly to Iran, which has suffered considerable human and financial costs in responding to both the direct drug traffic and the substantial opiate shipments arriving via Pakistan. The remaining majority of opiates leave Afghanistan across its 2,430 kilometer border with Pakistan. Harsh terrain, corruption and insecurity make it difficult or impossible to interdict opiate flows in most places.

In practice, it is challenging to differentiate between criminality, farmers’ economic needs, insurgency fundraising and state complicity. Separating these factors conceptually, however, helps to formulate effective counter-insurgency tactics, highlighting the interactions between the drug trade and the Taliban. According to officials from the United Nations who interviewed Afghan law enforcement and coalition agencies in 2007, a symbiosis between the opiate trade and the Taliban continues, to the extent that some Taliban units simultaneously organize drug production and insurgent activities. In some regions, there has been a methodical process of fighting for territory while establishing relationships with opium cultivators that vary from symbiotic to despotic. Insecurity reinforces these relationships and this in turn makes the territory easier to penetrate by insurgents.

The feedback loops are evident in southern labor markets. A survey by the Senlis Council, a drug policy advisory forum, suggested that $200-600 per month was offered to work for the Taliban [4]. Law enforcement officials corroborated this in their report stating that the Taliban successfully recruits young locals to fight for $20 a day. These are not hardcore, dedicated and ideological fighters—they are unemployed men, some of whom are accustomed to a mercenary life. Although generally inferior to coalition troops and seemingly deployed in many circumstances as cannon fodder, they can be effective in ambushes and arranging Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Taliban commanders have also used these “tier two” fighters to assist opium harvesting. Harvest time raises the stakes for insurgents in terms of maintaining territorial control. Traditional migrations for seasonal employment supply itinerant laborers who can be employed simultaneously as harvesters and protectors of opium. The Taliban can then take credit for providing local security and ensuring control of opium production.

With the government and coalition unwelcome and subject to active (ambush) and passive (IED) attacks, areas of intense opium cultivation are the most difficult in which to demonstrate any reconstruction and development benefits. Alternative employment for mercenaries and alternative livelihoods for farmer-fighters cannot be delivered and those who might be attracted to such alternatives fear Taliban retribution. For example, the Pajhwok News Agency reported on October 30, 2005 that farmers in the Khan Nishin District in Helmand province were being forced by the Taliban to cultivate poppies under threat of death.

Addicted to Poppy-Dollars

Law enforcement officers and UNODC officials interviewed by the authors in April 2007 believe that the “Taliban are completely dependent on the narco-economy for their financing.” Where the Taliban are able to enforce it—mostly in the south and some eastern districts—they are said to levy a 40% tax on opium cultivation and trafficking. A low estimate of the amount that the Taliban earn from the opium economy is $10 million, but considering the tradition of imposing tithes on cultivation and activities further up the value chain, the total is likely to be at least $20 million [5]. There are also regular reports of cooperation between political insurgents and profit-driven criminal groups. One example is their collusion to throw small farmers off their land or to indenture them under debts and threats in order to maintain opium production. More detailed information provided to the authors describes arrangements whereby drug traffickers provide money, vehicles and subsistence to Taliban units in return for protection [6].

The synergy between politically-motivated warfare and economic logic is starkly visible and should drive the integration of counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency strategies. Of course, not all violence is linked to transnational jihadis. Across Afghanistan, profit-driven criminality is more pervasive than sympathy for or cooperation with insurgents, even if both benefit from and contribute to general lawlessness. When it comes to the Taliban, however, the centrality of the opium economy in their funding model is both a strength and a weakness. Reducing their financial power would undermine an important component of their recruitment model. It suggests a potential for turning the vicious circle of insecurity and economic stagnation into a virtuous one of coalition military superiority and job creation.

Dimensions of Counter-Narcotics

The failure to reduce opium cultivation in the early post-invasion years has directly augmented the Taliban’s military strength. They have harvested the opium into weapons. The opiate trade and terrorism activity currently overlap to such an extent that some law enforcement actions fall under counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism simultaneously. So far, despite the millions spent and the various schemes that the coalition has attempted, opium production has increased, maintaining its importance as a source of terrorist funding domestically and internationally. As one Afghan diplomat lamented, “it makes no sense why the donors are blind to what they can see” [7]. An integrated approach to counter-terrorism and counter-narcotics is required, taking account of the problem’s three major dimensions.

First, proselytizing insurgent groups are treading a fine theological line in financing themselves through drug trafficking. Some drug barons linked with al-Qaeda, such as Badruddoza Chowdhury Momen, have argued that “it is a noble…responsibility to spoil Western society with drugs” (Asian Tribune, May 19, 2006). This line of thought has a long tradition: in 1981, heroin trafficker and mujahideen leader Nasim Akhunzada published a fatwa stating that “poppy has to be cultivated to finance holy war against Soviet troops and their puppets in Kabul” (Eastern Review, January 1989). The difficulty is that most Muslim communities are intolerant of drug use, and to claim that flooding the West with narcotics is a form of jihad glosses over the millions of Muslims addicted to heroin and the associated HIV/AIDS infections. Furthermore, despite the apparently clear religious prohibition on the consumption of intoxicants, the issue appears divisive in the insurgency—as in Chechnya, Algeria and Somalia—because some Taliban are drug users themselves (Dawn, March 21, 2006).

These contradictions should be exploited in approaches to counter-narcotics operations. Ironically, it was the Taliban who in 2001 produced a successful opium clampdown, justified by religion. The same leaders are now protecting poppy growers from eradication. More than a third of the farmers surveyed by the UNODC who had never planted poppies responded that religion guided their decision. Fear of eradication was a negligible concern [8]. Insurgent justifications depend on potential supporters agreeing that the ends of jihad justify the inherently sinful means. Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif summarized the difficult argument for his organization last year when he opposed the cultivation of opium, but was “happy with any means of combating Western societies,” including the production of heroin (RFE/RL, May 11, 2006).

Opium eradication is a promising counter-terrorism strategy if it can be executed without damaging the livelihood of the average opium farmer. For every leaflet and exhortation from the insurgents justifying opium, the Afghan government should be there to highlight the Taliban’s hypocrisy and advertise the damage done to other Muslims.

Second, development programs that offset farmers’ loss of income also need to provide some benefit to the pool of unemployed workers from which the Taliban recruit. Intervening in the opium economy means re-arranging a number of markets, including those for labor. At least, the under- or unemployed should not be left worse off, although, of course, the better outcome is a self-sustaining development trajectory.

Compensation to farmers is probably necessary. Options for delivering compensation are complicated by the tendency of some farmers to receive loans from traders and insurgents in anticipation of opium delivery, creating a debt burden that requires alleviation. A plan to pay at the end of the planting season is likely to be resisted more strongly. However, payment at the start of the season raises the risks of cheating and also the costs of monitoring since some crops may need to be checked twice. The United Kingdom’s payments for not planting in 2002 and 2003 were unsuccessful as farmers (and politicians) pocketed funds and still produced opium. UN officials report that micro-credit programs have often been considered as an alternative to direct subsidies. Essentially, donors would take over the position that money-lenders currently occupy, with lower interest rates and a prohibition on using funds for opium cultivation.

Whatever the offsetting option chosen, the amount pumped into rural economies would need to equal that generated by opium production minus the value of producing licit crops and adhering to socio-religious rules. An eradication program supported by compensation and religious justification would trap the legitimacy of insurgents in a pincer maneuver. President Karzai’s 2004 suggestion for a “jihad on drugs” showed the right intent, but the argument needs to be heard at the micro-level through anti-drug proselytizing by local religious leaders (AFP, March 7, 2004). With the precedent of the Taliban’s 2001 ban on opium cultivation and a strong effort by the Afghan government—with the help of foreign funds—to buffer the loss of income, incitements to rebellion will be weakened.

Finally, the geographical concentration of the insurgency indicates that counter-narcotics tactics need to vary with location. For example, eradication is difficult and possibly counter-productive in Helmand and Kandahar. Less than 10% of Helmand’s poppy cultivation was eradicated in 2006, a figure subject to question in light of frequent reports that bribes are successful in avoiding eradication, particularly where government control is weak. Where security is already poor, teams of eradicators are likely to increase support for local insurgents, who by responding violently can demonstrate that they are protecting communities’ interests. During counter-insurgency campaigns, policies of attraction are at least as important as those of attrition. This holds true for an integrated counter-narcotics component. In the north and west, there are relatively good prospects for reducing and holding down opium production through a comprehensive approach. Where Kabul and the coalition can exert a degree of effective governance, they can gain trust and promote credible programs. An additional angle that could be considered is a safe biological agent to eradicate and suppress poppy cultivation.

As of November 2006, Afghanistan’s Counter-Narcotics Trust Fund had approved only two projects across the south [9]. Where territorial control is hotly disputed or in the hands of the Taliban, the best counter-narcotics policy is benign neglect toward cultivators and attempting to interdict traffickers. Priority districts for implementing comprehensive programs should be those that have a relatively strong coalition/government presence and adjoin to insecure or Taliban-controlled opium-producing areas. Where successful, these demonstrate to others nearby the intent and benefit of government efforts. Perhaps the best way to spread this news is to take participants from one district into adjacent non-compliant or less secure districts to share their experience.


A three-year commitment that integrates secured eradication and economic offsets is a promising alternative to the medium-term uncertainty of facing off against insurgents without attacking their local sources of funding. The current consensus that a decades-long project is required to turn farmers away from opium needs to be challenged by a strategy that views continuing production as a paramount security problem. The economic implications of opium eradication are huge for Afghanistan, but if the country can be secured then the development challenges of the national economy are no greater (or smaller) than those in other destitute states around the world. The difference is that Afghanistan will have removed the primary additional burden it faces: violent terrorist/insurgency activities funded by illicit narcotics.


1. UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Winter Rapid Assessment Survey, Kabul: February 2007.

2. UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Survey, October 2006. For information on coalition combat deaths, see

3. Anthony Cordesman, Center for Strategic and International Studies, Testimony to the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, January 2007.

4. Senlis Afghanistan, Countering the Insurgency in Afghanistan: Losing Friends and Making Enemies, London: MF Publishing, February 2007.

5. Unofficial comments by international staff working in the region, April 2007.

6. Unofficial comments by international staff working in the region, September 2006.

7. Author interview, March 2007.

8. UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Survey, October 2006.

9. UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Winter Rapid Assessment Survey, Kabul: February 2007.