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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

How opium resurrected the Taliban in Afghanistan

The Afghan war has been a prolonged resource war riding on the back of illicit abundant opium cultivation in the hinterland by the local warlords. Opium has shaped the nature and course of the war over the years.

August 23, 2021 7:27:38 pm
A Taliban fighter stands guard at a checkpoint in the Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood in the city of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Aug. 22, 2021. (AP)

Written by Anubha Gupta

Occupying the presidential palace in Kabul, the triumphant Taliban leaders with bazookas in their hands proclaimed that “War has ended in Afghanistan”. Yet, from all around Afghanistan, we see images of anxiety, desperation, chaos, and fear. Winter has finally arrived in Afghanistan.

The situation demands grappling with some serious questions: How has the Taliban regained territorial control over Afghanistan? How has the Taliban managed to be so strong, notwithstanding efforts by America to bring it down? What has made this possible? Among many causal explanations, the geopolitical economy of opium can be traced as a plausible factor that led to the Taliban’s victory.

Post industrialisation, many political geographers including Mackinder and Spykman established the relationship among space, resources, and politics. There is an interrelationship between resources and war. A resource war is “an armed conflict in which the control and revenue of natural resources are significantly involved in the economy of the conflict or the motivations of the belligerents”. In the 1990s, there were many key resources involved in the war economy — cocaine in Columbia, diamond in DR Congo, oil in Algeria, etc. A variety of actors, from local entrepreneurs and international brokers to global contraband networks and major transnational corporations are involved in the resource war.

At every stage in the tragic history of wars in Afghanistan — the Great Game, the covert war of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s, and the protracted war post-9/11 — opium has played a central role in shaping the country’s destiny. Opium cultivation was minimal in Afghanistan before the Great Game. The commercialisation of opium started with the coming of the British. It was during the Cold War that a full-blown impetus was provided to the cultivation of opium by the US, which backed the mujahideen to expel the Soviet Union. The Central Intelligence Agency, for the next 10 years, provided the mujahid guerrillas with an estimated $3 billion in arms.

The reason most cited for the success of the US in expelling the USSR from Afghanistan is the willy-nilly continuation of drug trafficking by US-backed mujahids. During the 1980s, the Afghan-Pakistan border was converted into a springboard for the international heroin trade. The US state department reported in 1986 that in tribal areas “there is no police force. There are no courts. There is no taxation. No weapon is illegal, hashish and opium are often on display.” Soon, the region became the world’s largest heroin producer.

Today, Afghanistan has become the world’s first true narco-state – a country where illicit drugs define political choices, dominate the economy, and determine the fate of foreign interventions. After capturing Kabul in 1996, the Taliban encouraged local opium cultivation by offering government protection to the export trade and also collecting much-needed taxes. The United Nations’ opium surveys showed that during the Taliban’s first three years in power, Afghanistan’s opium crop accounted for 75 per cent of world production. In a war-ravaged Afghanistan, opium fields were a blessing in disguise for the poor as its cultivation required nine times more labour than Afghanistan’s staple crop, wheat. Thus, opium has been intricately woven into the fabric of conflict in Afghanistan. Being a distant decentralised resource, it became an essential part of the local economy, which was then controlled by a new class of warlords. Post 9/11, America only targeted the guerrillas and not the drugs, thus sowing the seeds for the revival of the Taliban.

Afghan heroin is trafficked to many destinations worldwide. Europe is the largest market for Afghan heroin. South-East Asia has also become a significant destination. In the past few years, Africa has also received Afghan heroin flows and is becoming a cost-effective trafficking route to North America, Europe and island countries. The opium trade has a network of people from farmers and makeshift lab operators to businessmen working through intermediaries and MNCs.

Helmand is the biggest opium-producing province in Afghanistan. In a map released by the UN in October 2015, the revived Taliban was reported to be most active and threatening in Helmand province. A UN Security Council investigation found that the Taliban had systematically tapped “into the supply chain at each stage of the narcotics trade”. According to the New York Times, it “has become difficult to distinguish the group from a dedicated drug cartel”. It was also reported that opium is supplying 60 per cent of the Taliban’s funds for weapons and wages. This significant illegal commodity was then accorded secrecy from fields to foreign markets, inducing corruption.

The Afghan war has been a prolonged resource war riding on the back of illicit abundant opium cultivation in the hinterland by the local warlords. Opium has shaped the nature and course of the war over the years. Thus, the future of Afghanistan and its transition to peace will be decided by the very same opium.

The writer is a research scholar at the Centre for International Politics, Organisations and Disarmament at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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