The Taliban Story: High on Drugs Economy (Part 9)
Photo Source:

By Arun Anand-

The Taliban Story: High on Drugs Economy (Part 9)
Photo Source:

This is the ninth part of the 30-part series that brings to our readers ‘The Taliban Story’. The readers can share their feedback at [email protected]. Here is the ninth part

Opium production and smuggling of narcotics especially Heroin has been the key stone of Taliban’s economic model.

Recounting what happened in Afghanistan after 1996, a detailed research paper by US Institute for Peace wrote,1 “Once in control of Kabul, the Taliban began issuing archaic decrees—banning girls from school and forcing men to pray five times a day—focusing the world’s media on their exacting interpretation of Islam. In addition to Western outrage over their treatment of women and anxiety about their ties to Arab and Pakistani terrorist groups, the Taliban immediately came under international pressure to crack down on the poppy trade. On September 10, 1997, the Taliban’s Foreign Ministry responded with the following declaration:

The Islamic State of Afghanistan informs all compatriots that, as the use of heroin and hashish is not permitted in Islam, they are reminded once again that they should strictly refrain from growing, using, and trading in hashish and heroin. Anyone who violates this order shall be meted out a punishment in line with the lofty Mohammad and sharia law and thus shall not be entitled to launch a complaint.”

‘The ruling was amended ten days later with a note outlawing cultivation and trafficking of opium as well. Few paid heeds. A year earlier, Afghanistan had produced 2,250 metric tons of opium, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). That number climbed to 2,800 tons in 1997, dipped slightly the next year due to widespread drought, and then soared in 1999 to 4,580 metric tons. The Taliban controlled most of the country by 1999, including all of the Pashto south.

Afghanistan’s poppy crop represented about 75 percent of global production. Ninety-seven percent of it was grown in Taliban-held areas. Rather than combat the opium trade, the Taliban allowed local mullahs to collect a 10 percent agricultural tithe (known as ushr and derived from the Arabic ashr meaning ten) from farmers growing poppy as well as other produce. Ushr was generally collected in kind at the local level (as it is today) and then spent locally, according to Bernard Frahi, a UNODC official.

In the southern provinces, the Taliban began collecting 20 percent zakat, an Islamic levy, on truckloads of opium as they left farm areas. Following a law enforcement crackdown in neighbouring Pakistan, heroin refineries previously based in the FATA shifted across the border. The Taliban swiftly began taxing their output—charging $50–70 a kilo depending on whether the final product was morphine base or crystal heroin. According to a recently declassified 1998 CIA report, Haji Bashar Noorzai (nicknamed the Pablo Escobar of the Middle East, Noorzai funnelled money, arms and men to the Taliban as they rose to power, allowing him to ship heroin to the US. He was arrested and given life imprisonment in 2009 in US. Taliban negotiated for his release in 2020.) forged a deal with the Taliban to pay $230 for each kilo of heroin flown out. The Taliban also apparently taxed road exports; the DEA has posted on its Web site samples of the receipts handed out to truckers crossing the border into Pakistan or Iran.’2

According to various estimates, Taliban were raking in at least US$20 million in taxes and even more on the side through the smuggling of opium and drugs.3

Ever since, 1980, the Mujahedeen warlords had used drug money to help fund their military campaigns and their own pockets. They had bought houses and businesses in Peshawar, new jeeps and kept bank accounts abroad. Publicly they refused to admit that they indulged in drug trafficking, but always blamed their Mujahedeen rivals for doing so. But none had been so brazen, or honest, in declaring their lack of intention to control drugs as the Taliban. By 1997, the United Nations Drug Control Programme (UNDCP) and the Unites States estimated that 96 per cent of Afghan heroin came from areas under Taliban control.4

The Taliban had done more than just expand the area available for opium production. Their conquests had also expanded trade and transport routes significantly. Several times a month heavily armed convoys in Toyota land cruisers left Helmand province, where 50 per cent of Afghan opium is grown, for a long, dusty journey. Some convoys travelled south across the deserts of Baluchistan to ports on Pakistan’s Makran coast, others entered western Iran, skirted Tehran and travelled on to eastern Turkey. Other convoys went north-west to Herat and Turkmenistan. By 1997 dealers began flying out opium on cargo planes from Kandahar and Jalalabad to Gulf ports such as Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.5

In a nutshell, Opium has long played a supporting role in the Afghan conflict, and today the drug trade has moved to centre stage. Not only have narcotics corrupted the Afghan government, they have also begun to transform—through deepening ties between insurgents and drug traffickers along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border—the nature of the insurgency from one based on ideology to one increasingly driven by profit. Insurgent commanders from the district level up to the top leadership have expanded their involvement vertically through the drug trade, and it is important to recognize how this creates both challenges for the international community as well as opportunities to weaken the insurgency. Key challenges include the fact that the insurgency is now better funded than ever, and it would appear to be less reliant for financial support from neighbouring Pakistan or donations from the Gulf. It will be complex to try and regulate regional trade and the hawala network, let alone the clan-based drug trafficking networks. As the core Taliban in the south and other extremist groups such as al-Qaeda have become more closely tied to crime along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, levels of violence have increased. Additionally, insurgents have diversified into other criminal activities, including kidnapping for ransom, extortion, and, in some areas, human trafficking. The more complex the criminal networks become, the more difficult it will be for the coalition of foreign forces in Afghanistan to fight them.6

  3. Taliban: The Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan Books (Pp119)
  1. Taliban: The Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan Books (Pp120)
  2. Taliban: The Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, Pan Books (Pp120)