Fueling the Taliban: Poppies, Guns and Insurgents

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 14

Afghanistan has rarely been absent recently from the international press, but developments in the country have once more brought it to the world’s attention. According to tallies based on military statements, June was the second month in a row in which casualties of foreign troops in Afghanistan exceeded those in Iraq, with the loss of 49 soldiers in combat, attacks or accidents. Meanwhile, a report released by the UN’s Office on Drug and Crimes (UNODC) on June 26 indicated that in 2007 Afghanistan broke all of its previous records for the production of opium—the raw material for heroin—since the ouster of the Taliban regime in 2001.

What was alarming in this report was the connection between the increasing insurgency and massive poppy cultivation—Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UNODC, estimated the total income of the 2007 opium harvest at around $4 billion, more than half of Afghanistan’s national annual income (Dawn [Karachi], June 30).

The UN’s World Drug Report for 2008 also indicates that more than 80 percent of the total 8,200-ton opium harvest was produced in an area controlled by the Taliban, which helps smugglers and farmers protect their laboratories, trade opium up to the borders and fight back against anti-drug campaigners. This, some sources say, brings millions of dollars in additional income for the Taliban.

As a result, the Taliban has made areas under their control virtual no-go zones for local security agencies as well as for international counter-narcotics forces. They thus provide a safe haven and source of funding not only for themselves, but also for the farmers who, by cultivating opium, usually earn tens of times more than they would by planting wheat or cotton (Daily Cheragh, February 15).

Background of Opium Production in Afghanistan

Opium has always been grown in the southern and eastern belts of Afghanistan, but the region did not become the world’s main exporter of heroin until after the Soviet invasion of 1979, which led to near-anarchy in Afghanistan. Production and refining exploded as the Afghan mujahideen began trading in drugs to finance their war against Russia. Narcotics, guns and criminality took a terrible toll on the region.

When in 1989 the Red Army was forced to withdraw, and following the collapse of Dr. Najibullah’s government in 1992, a power vacuum was created in the country and various mujahideen factions started vying with each other for power. In the absence of western support, they increasingly financed their military operations through poppy cultivation.

Opium, therefore, cultivated in 1990 on only 41,000 hectares of land, showed a sharp increase during the following years of instability, reaching 71,000 hectares in 1994, the year the Taliban emerged as a strong force and easily overran the already war-weary mujahideen groups (UNODC, 2008). Despite capturing almost the entire country, the Taliban could garner no international recognition; their isolated regime therefore remained dependent on the opium-based economy to finance their day-to-day administrative work.

In July 2000, the Taliban prohibited its cultivation, reportedly to gain international credibility, bringing the amount of opium-producing land down from 82,000 hectares in 2000 to 8,000 in 2001 (Daily Mashriq [Peshawar], June 28). This move proved of little help to the Taliban, as following the events of 9/11 they were the first group to be targeted and brought down, accused by Washington of sponsoring terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda.

The revitalization of the Taliban movement once more created conditions which helped anti-government forces to emerge and as a result opium cultivation once again flourished side-by-side with the insurgency. Today the total amount of opium-cultivated land in Afghanistan has increased from the 2001 level of 8,000 hectares to 193,000 hectares. Afghanistan produces 93 percent of the world’s opium, while May and June became the deadliest months for foreign forces since the fall of Taliban (Daily Hewad [Kabul], March 11; AFP, July 1; UNODC, 2008).

Terrorism and Drugs

The history of Afghanistan shows that poppy production has always had a very close connection with instability and insecurity. When, for example, Afghanistan emerged for the first time as an opium-exporting country in 1980, thousands of mujahideen were engaged in fighting against the invading Red Army. As fighting intensified, opium production flourished, since by then it was one of the main sources of income for rebel groups.

While fighting continues in Afghanistan today, the Taliban is in opposition and uses the same opium money as a source of finance, leading some sources to suggest that these two elements have an inevitable link with each other’s survival (Daily Afghanistan [Kabul], March 27). Meanwhile, the director of UNODC, Antonio Maria Costa, clarified this link by suggesting that the Taliban earned around $100 million through a 10 percent tax on farmers in 2007 alone.

If this amount is augmented by additional services provided to smugglers by Taliban fighters, such as protection of laboratories and convoys to the borders, it reaches somewhere between $200-400 million (Daily Afghanistan, June 26; Washington Post, June 26). This amount not only addresses their financial needs in continuing resistance against the government, but also helps them find new recruits, buy weaponry, increase their influence in the region and make government ineffective.

For example, the central government recently failed to destroy poppy lands in the Marja province of Helmand because when police forces arrived, the Taliban mounted their own campaign by distributing guns to the farmers, who voluntarily took the Taliban’s side rather than lose their crops, while the poorly-paid and badly-equipped police forces returned empty-handed (IWPR, May 19).

Local sources suggest that in many cases when police forces cannot touch a Taliban-control area, in order to be able to demonstrate some kind of success, police forces eradicate crops on lands where the Taliban has less influence, pushing the farmers of those areas closer to the Taliban, who are ready to protect them (Arman-e-Milli [Kabul], February 27).

Is the Situation Out of Control?

As the Taliban’s connection with the narco-business is more deeply analyzed, serious security challenges are revealed. A local newspaper, Weesa, recently suggested that the list of beneficiaries from opium goes beyond the Taliban and Helmand, all the way from Kabul to neighboring countries:

“It’s a multi-dimensional game involving all the authorities from Helmand to the Russian border in one way or other. The Taliban are promoting poppy cultivation in the south because it’s their major source of income and if the foreign forces aren’t involved in this game, they are at least indifferent to it. Then the question is: who helps the convoys of narcotics reach to Tajikistan from Helmand? Who enjoys power in Badaghshan and Kunduz, where the notorious trade in heroin and arms takes place between Russian smugglers and the Taliban?” (Weesa, May 7).

Not so long ago, Assadullah Wafa, the governor of Helmand—the province responsible for half of the world’s current opium production—was quoted as saying that some officials not only collect taxes from opium growers together with the Taliban, but also help them to smuggle the opium to the border in their own vehicles. There is no accountability for officials who are found to be involved in this business. In his comment, Wafa claims that he personally gave a list of smugglers to high level officials in Kabul but the government took no action against them (Daily Hewad, September 3, 2007).

There is no evidence that those people were arrested later, but following his comment it was not long before the government removed Wafa from his position as governor of Helmand and appointed him director of the Complaints Department, a position with no practical role (Afghan Islamic Press, February 29).

This situation raises many questions about the ability of the government to tackle this problem, as it seems that those who are supposed to be implementing the law are somehow, directly or indirectly, benefiting from the business of narcotics, which poses a serious challenge not only to the future of Afghan government, but to the entire region (IWPR, June 30).


In the midst of this bad news is the good news brought by the effect of commodity prices on the opium cultivation forecast for next year. According to the former commander of British forces in Helmand province, Brigadier Andrew MacKay, production is expected to shrink because farmers in the southern province are switching from poppies to legal crops. According to MacKay, the reason is “a lot of farmers have calculated that, with wheat prices being what they are, they can make money out of planting it” (Financial Times, June 24). A growing grain shortage in Afghanistan and a drop in the market value of opium due to Afghan overproduction will also encourage farmers to switch crops.

However, this forecast cannot be expected to be repeated every year, leaving a need for a permanent solution to the problem. At this stage there are relatively few options remaining, particularly with the current administration in Kabul, which is not only weak, but harbors tens of thousands of administrators who are part of the problem.

While the situation requires urgent and tough action to defeat the insurgency and eradicate opium cultivation, it also requires a strong leadership capable of carrying through the decision to bring to justice those officials involved in the business. Afghanistan’s leaders need strong backing from the international community, who need to commit themselves to defeating the insurgents and helping clean up the administration. Unless this “mafia”—limited not only to the Taliban, but including warlords, some tribal chiefs and corrupt officials—is crushed, it is unlikely that any sort of strategy will work in the country which could benefit ordinary people and bring law and order and peace and stability.

Besides military options, poverty eradication is a key step in eliminating the narcotics trade. Since Afghanistan has an agricultural economy, farmers could be supported by providing them seeds, by regulating irrigation canals and most importantly by purchasing their harvest at favorable prices. Helmand, for example, produces top-quality agricultural commodities including cotton, but at present the Cotton Enterprises Department reportedly purchases cotton from the farmers at 17 Afghans ($0.30) per kilogram, selling it at 67 Afghans ($1.25) (Daily Hewad, September 3, 2007). Other elements of economic reform include the creation of an employment-rich industrial base and an environment open to private investment.

The continuation of the current chaotic situation not only helps insurgents to increase their influence and warlords to maintain their forces, but also extends an open invitation to criminally minded people from around the world, giving serious reason to believe that Afghanistan could turn into the headquarters of the world’s narcotics trade.