Afghanistan has long been one of the world’s biggest producers of opium, which is used to make heroin, and the Taliban has made a lucrative business from taxing and providing security to producers and smugglers in the region.
But the militant group has expanded its role in that drug trade considerably, boosting its profits at a time when it is making decisive gains against the Afghan government and its US backers.
According to a New York Times report, the Taliban has gotten involved in every stage of the drug business. Afghan police and their US advisers find heroin-refining labs with increasingly frequency, but the labs are easy to replace.
The country has produced the majority of the world’s opium for some time, despite billions of dollars spent by the US to fight it during the 16-year-long war there. Afghan and Western officials now say that rather than getting smuggled out of Afghanistan in the form of opium syrup, at least half of the crop is getting processed domestically, before leaving the country as morphine or heroin.
Those forms are easier to smuggle, and they are much more valuable for the Taliban, which reportedly draws at least 60% of its income from the drug trade. With its increasing focus on trafficking drugs, the Taliban has taken on more of the functions a drug cartel.
“They receive more revenues if they process it before it has left the country,” William Brownfield, former US Assistant Secretary for Drugs and Law Enforcement, told reporters in the Afghan capital Kabul earlier this year. “Obviously we are dealing with very loose figures, but drug trafficking amounts to billions of dollars every year from which the Taliban is taking a substantial percentage.”
An Afghan farmer can be paid about $163 for a kilo of raw opium, which is like a black sap. Once it is refined into heroin, it can be sold for $2,300 to $3,500 a kilo at regional markets. In Europe it has a wholesale value of about $45,000.
Opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has been consistently high since the US invasion in 2001. In 2016, there was a 10% jump in the area under cultivation, making it one of the three highest years on record. Initial data indicated 2017 was another record year, according to The Times, with government eradication efforts continue to be stymied throughout the country.
Seizures of chemical precursors, which are needed to process opium, have spiked, and the amount of processed morphine and heroin seized has risen considerably, now outstripping that of opium.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said that without drugs, the war in Afghanistan “would have been long over,” and a senior Afghan official told The Times that, “If an illiterate local Taliban commander in Helmand makes a million dollars a month now, what does he gain in time of peace?”
The Trump administration has said its new strategy in Afghanistan is aimed at convincing the group there is no way to win on the battlefield, but its growing role in the drug trade is likely to make some elements of the Taliban less disposed to negotiations with the Kabul.
“This trend has real consequences for peace and security in Afghanistan, as it encourages those within the Taliban movement who have the greatest economic incentives to oppose any meaningful process of reconciliation with the new government,” the UN has said.
The Taliban’s move into heroin processing comes as it gains ground against the government, particularly in areas where the drug is produced.
A unit of several hundred Afghan commandos, working with US special-forces advisers, is tasked with interdicting the flow of drugs. But their work is often undermined by Afghan officials (including ones from their own unit) complicit in the drug trade or hindered by insecurity that persists in much of the country.
“In Helmand, we were targeting to do more than 2,000 to 3,000 hectares of eradication,” Javid Qaem, Afghanistan’s deputy minister of narcotics, told The Times. “We couldn’t do anything there, none at all, because Helmand was almost an active battlefield, the entire province.”
Helmand, home to an estimated 80% of Afghanistan’s opium poppies, is a “big drug factory,” a Western official told AFP earlier this year. “Helmand is all about drugs, poppy and Taliban,” he said.
While the US Drug Enforcement Administration has said that a minuscule portion of the heroin seized in the US is from Southwest Asia, heroin sourced to Afghanistan makes up a significant amount of what is found on the street in Europe.
The State Department has said 90% of the heroin found in Canada and 85% of that found in the UK can be tracked back to Afghanistan.
According to the 2017 European Drug Report, “most heroin found in Europe is thought to be manufactured [in Afghanistan] or in neighbouring Iran or Pakistan.” (Drug addiction has exploded in Iran, with opium making up two-thirds of consumption.)
Heroin is Europe’s most common opioid, with an estimated retail value between 6 billion and 7.8 billion euros, according to the report, produced by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction.