The Taliban’s Opium Trade: Why anti-opium programs in Afghanistan are failing

Blake Moss

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Institute of Health (NIH), heroin causes 175 deaths per day in the United States, a number that is nearly five times larger than the daily number of gun deaths. According to the World Health Organization, 13.5 million people use opium or heroin internationally. In Europe, heroin injectors face a risk of death that is twenty or thirty times greater than non-drug users of the same age. Heroin and opium pose a massive threat to domestic and international public health, but even more startling is the fact that it may also threaten American national security. Typically, when Americans imagine threats to national security, they think of acts of terrorism or threats posed by countries like Russia or China. These images may fit the stereotype of national security risks, but what about the international drug trade? Just like a business or government, the Taliban must also have a source of revenue to fund its operations. The Taliban relies on the Opium trade for this purpose.

The opium economy in Afghanistan is estimated to be worth $2.9 billion, give or take a few, accounting for around 16 percent of Afghanistan’s total GDP. The Taliban receives $400 million a year in revenue from opium cultivation acquired through taxes on cultivators, manufacturers, and distributors. Even the most conservative estimates suggest that this revenue accounts for over 60 percent of the Taliban’s total funds. It is difficult to know the exact yearly budget for the Taliban, but $400 million a year is undoubtedly a massive source of revenue for the Taliban. So, in a way, international drug habits are helping to fund threats against their national security.

According to the 2017 UNODC Afghan Opium Cultivation Survey, from 2016 to 2017 opium production in Afghanistan increased by 87 percent. During that same time frame, death from heroin overdoses in the U.S. rose 19.5 percent and average street prices have decreased, falling from $10 to $15 a dose to less than $5 depending on location.

The prevalence of this problem is apparent. Heroin and opioids are not only ravaging communities and families directly but are also funneling revenue to the Taliban. This problem has recently grown at an exponential pace. It may seem as if Washington is not doing anything, but the government is just promoting the wrong policies. President Donald Trump has recently declared the opioid crisis in America as an “emergency” and has proposed legislation to prosecute dealers with penalties like life-sentences and lethal injection. Policies of the past did not work because they did not target the causes of this growing problem: production. Trump’s policies will have little long-term benefits because they only address the symptoms of the crisis, rather than international opium markets.

A Harper’s magazine article written by Andrew Cockburn addresses the recent attempts by members of the U.S. military to eradicate opioid production in Afghanistan through the burning of poppy fields and the destruction of production facilities. The article identifies the strategies used by military officials in areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban is still in control. In 2017, the U.S. Air Force was authorized to perform strikes on large non-human targets like production facilities and poppy fields.

According to David Mansfield, the world’s leading expert in the opium economy, these operations cost the U.S. military countless hours of manpower and tens of millions of dollars but inflicted the Taliban with no more than $3 million of lost revenue. In one case, an F-22 Raptor, which costs upwards of $400 million to produce and millions more to operate, was deployed to destroy a production facility worth $500. Furthermore, during such operations, civilian casualties have been frequent and such events have spurred widespread outrage within areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban.

This alone shows that military operations of this sort are not smart nor economically feasible to sustain.

Before military action was authorized, the United States and the United Kingdom attempted to solve this issue in a more economically feasible way by helping farmers sustainably grow wheat, supplementing their incomes and giving them a financial alternative from poppy farming. This operation was named the Helmand Food Zone. This effort was ineffective for two main reasons. Firstly, wheat did not produce revenues anywhere close to the very profitable opium, leading farmers back to the illicit crop after a short period. Secondly, growing and producing opium is ten times more labor intensive than wheat; this meant that farm hands were being laid off in high amounts leading them to grow opium elsewhere, making counter narcotic efforts even more complicated.

Contrary to the goals of this program, this period of wheat subsidies and government aid to divert farmers away from poppy cultivation made cultivation easier and more attractive because it implemented a makeshift form of crop rotation. In 2014, Operation Helmand Food Zone was discontinued and troops were removed from Afghanistan. As a result, farmers no longer had an incentive to grow wheat. Furthermore, their fields were better prepared to cultivate poppies than they have been for decades because of the small toll wheat takes on soil and water supply compared to poppies. As a result, poppy cultivation skyrocketed during this period due to the absence of outside forces and a corrupt, inefficient Afghani legal system.

Outside powers would not again intervene until 2017 giving the Taliban a three-year period to ramp up poppy cultivation with weak opposition from the underprepared Afghan forces. This was done very effectively, contributing to the global heroin trade and strengthening the Taliban.

The United States and Afghan governments have made a conservative effort to halt poppy cultivation and opioid production, spending billions of dollars and millions of hours to find solutions, but none have been found. It seems that these approaches have relied upon both economic and military strategies. Why have these efforts been ineffective?

It’s All About the Farmers

There is a relatively simple explanation for this complicated question. Farmers in 8 provinces of Afghanistan produce 95% of all Afghan opium, and these farmers have no viable alternatives. The Taliban controls these areas and uses the immense political capital they have gained among the locals through subsidies, social programs, and fear to coerce farmers to continue producing opium. The farmers have no reason to stop the cultivation. Poppies bring farmers a large amount of revenue and put them in good graces with the Taliban. The Taliban provides farmers with the capabilities to cultivate and transport this labor-intensive crop, therefore producing political capital for the Taliban. Without the Taliban, it is unlikely that these rural farmers would be able to make any income due to impassable roads and rough growing conditions.

As a result, farmers have a favorable view of working for the Taliban, partly because they fear the insurgent group but mostly because it is, by far, the best option they have. This relationship truly benefits both parties. If farmers did find a better more profitable alternative, they would have no way of selling or trading their goods due to subpar roadways. The last reason actions and policies have not been effective is the overall control of the Taliban. Although the Taliban has been pushed out of many areas of Afghanistan, they still control a substantial portion of rural Afghanistan. The Taliban can be brutal towards the communities they govern, so the incentive for farmers to cooperate with the Taliban is strong. With so many complexities and failed attempts at solving these problems, what is the solution?

Possible Solutions

The only way to conquer this growing problem is a simultaneous, multifaceted approach involving international cooperation among the world’s most significant actors. Farmers must be educated about their current situation. They need to know that their work provides the Taliban with 60% of its total revenue and that if they stop opium cultivation, the insurgents will lose $400 million a year. Farmers are the Taliban’s primary source of income, and it is vital that they understand this financial relationship. Farmers must also trust the government so that they genuinely believe they can make money without the Taliban. Farmers must also adapt to grow perennial crops like saffron, grapes, and almonds which are safer and more profitable than opium cultivation.

Along with education regarding licit perennial crops, farmers should be offered subsidies and assistance to get the cultivation of these crops started quickly and efficiently. In addition to educating farmers on the Taliban’s political capital, Afghan economics, and agricultural practices, these farmers need to know that they will be protected from the Taliban if they choose to convert to licit farming. This message should be reinforced by a visible troop presence from NATO and Afghan forces. Infrastructure projects and military action against the Taliban would also need to coincide with farmer education and agricultural subsidies. Farmers must be provided with safe passages to Kabul and other areas where they can sell or trade their goods on the domestic and international markets.

Many roads outside of Kabul do not promote safe passage due to inground explosives, dangerous conditions, and Taliban control. If effective and sustainable routes of passage for farmers can be established, then farmers will start to believe there are alternatives to opium cultivation.

This multifaceted approach also includes increased military pressure on the Taliban. At first, this may be difficult and costly, but it is likely that a campaign of enough scale would end quickly and effectively. If farmers are persuaded away from cultivating opium, and towards growing profitable licit crops the Taliban would lose over half of their revenue making it difficult or impossible to fight NATO and Afghan troops over a lengthy time frame. Although this process would likely take an estimated 10-15 years, with costs reaching billions of dollars, it has the potential to eradicate poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. This would improve the national security and economy of Afghanistan, and rid Afghanistan of Taliban control. Such an outcome would also permanently enhance international security, drive up black market opioid prices, and effectively lessen the opioid epidemic plaguing America and Europe.

These benefits would undoubtedly be worth the estimated costs, but skeptics may wonder if it is worth the risk of a full scale economic, military, and infrastructure project. Thailand’s Royal Development project of the 1960’s proves it would be worth the risk. In the 1950’s opium production in Thailand soared to extreme amounts due to communist insurgents who controlled isolated, mountainous land in northern Thailand that is perfect for poppy cultivation. The Royal Development Program, initiated in 1969, was a coordinated effort by Thailand’s government that simultaneously utilized study centers, farmer education, provided subsidies, fought the insurgency, and built up infrastructure. Study centers were set up throughout the area educating farmers on safer and more profitable alternatives to opium production, and about local, seasonal farming conditions so that conversion to licit crops could remain sustainable. Simultaneously, government forces battled the communist insurgents who controlled the area, while the Royal police worked the borders to disrupt opium exports and arm flows. This effectively weakened the insurgents by removing their revenue via the stoppage of poppy production and by reducing their military capabilities through disruption of arms shipments. This left the insurgents with no tools to coerce or protect farmers. The Royal Development Program was so successful that in 2002 the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes declared Thailand as a “poppy-free” nation.


The international community is facing a severe heroin and opioid problem and has directed little policy attention to the root of this growing problem: the farming practices in countries like Afghanistan. If the Taliban can manipulate poor farmers in isolated areas of Afghanistan, the opioid crisis will continue to get worse. These farmers must feel confident in their ability to sustainably make profits from licit crops and stay safe from the Taliban. If Afghan farmers and Taliban insurgents continue to find the opium market profitable, this crisis will continue to get worse. Future policymakers need to know that consumer addictions are pumping money into the Taliban’s pocket and the only way to stop this trend is by directing payment to the farmers through agriculture subsidies and education programs, while simultaneously performing counter-terrorism and infrastructure improvement efforts.

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