Taliban and the Drug Trade

08 Oct, 1999    ·   270

Surya Gangadharan doubts the Taliban declaration on cutting opium production

International narcotics control experts are intrigued by recent reports from Afghanistan , which quotes Taliban officials as claiming that the opium poppy crop will be reduced by two-thirds from next year. The Taliban deputy minister for mines Abdul Salaam Zaeef, said in Kabul that local investors had set up a joint stock company to process cotton. He claimed the investors were putting in $10 million into the project. “This will definitely encourage the locals to stop cultivating narcotics which is harmful to the world and has put us in trouble with our neighbours,” Zaeef said.



The declaration could be intended to temper international criticism because the opium poppy harvest this year has surpassed all previous records. At 6,400 metric tonnes, Afghanistan now holds the dubious title of the world’s largest producer of opium. Of the total production, 75 per cent has come from Helmand province and eastern Nangarhar. In comparison, production in previous years could easily come under the category of “peanuts” since the output in 1997 was 2,804 metric tonnes and 2,102 tonnes in 1998. 



Increased production means higher revenues for the Taliban which levies a 10 percent tax on opium, their only source of income. Opium is reported to have brought in $15 million into Taliban coffers last year. It will be substantially more this year.



The area under opium poppy cultivation has also been steadily rising. According to the UN Drug Control Programme, which has been carrying out an annual opium survey in Afghanistan since 1994, it was 58,416 hectares in 1997 and 63,612 hectares in 1998. In fact, the Taliban is known to favour opium farmers, when it comes to distributing fertiliser, over those growing food crops.



There’s also been a distinct shift in the pattern of opium poppy cultivation. New districts in the north and eastern parts of Afghanistan are now under poppy cultivation, while areas in the west have seen a move away from poppy. This shift could be linked to the emergence or closure of new trafficking routes. 



Areas in the north now being cultivated, for instance, are close to the Central Asian republics where lax border controls and corrupt law enforcement makes it less risky to transport drug consignments. Similarly, the Wakhan Corridor in the north-east offers convenient ingress into China ’s Xinjiang province. Officials in Beijing have admitted that trafficking is taking place and fear that the profits are going to fund Uighur separatists in Xinjiang. The Wakhan is controlled by Ahmed Shah Masood, military chief of the Northern Alliance , and its possible that his commanders in the field connive in the drug traffic for a profit. 



The decline of poppy cultivation in western Afghanistan can be linked to Iran ’s crackdown on drug trafficking and the harsh penalties for traffickers. Unlike the Taliban who have justified poppy cultivation as Islamic (because the end product heroin is consumed largely in the West), Iran has been consistent in its policy of no compromise with the drug trade.



There are other aspects that deepen doubts about the Taliban declaration on cutting opium production by two-thirds. The declaration was made in Kabul , the administrative capital. It’s not clear whether it has been endorsed in Kandahar , the spiritual capital where Mullah Mohammad Omar, the Taliban’s Amir sits. In the past, decisions, even foreign agreements signed in Kabul , have been rejected in Kandahar .



The fact is nobody in Kabul really knows Mullah Omar’s mind. His inclination to govern apparently on the basis of “divine guidance”, makes it impossible to introduce rules or any predictability in the system of government. The 30-man Taliban Shoora, over which Mullah Omar presides, meets in secret. There is suspicion that Mullah Omar and the Shoora have close links with the drug trade. It’s important to note that Kandahar although the seat of orthodox Afghan Islam, is a province where opium growing is fairly widespread.



So Kabul and Kandahar could be on two different tracks here. Ministers and officials in Kabul who interact with foregn delegations and have to answer uncomfortable questions, maybe sensitive to international criticism and keen to temper their country’s negative image. But in the spiritual climate of Kandahar with the paradise of opium in their backyard, Mohammad Omar and his fellow mullahs may have little interest in what the world thinks of them.