The Taliban’s Drug Ban Is Off to a Slow Start

In April, the Taliban announced a blanket ban on drug production and use in Afghanistan. There are a number of potential reasons for the move, which would cause considerable financial pain to many of the group’s core constituencies, as well as to the Taliban itself. But the timing of the announcement suggests that the ban will not go into effect immediately, and even if the Taliban are serious about implementing it, they will face obstacles in doing so.

One reason for announcing the ban could be to portray the Taliban as being in a position to control the lucrative opium trade, estimated by the U.N. to be worth up to $2.7 billion annually. The reality is more complicated. It’s true that the Taliban no longer have to compete with officials from the ousted government of Afghanistan or the various militias aligned with them over drug production and smuggling. But sources among opium smugglers—and within the Taliban—confide that this has not allowed the Taliban to establish complete control over the trade.

Since August 2021, the Taliban have reached understandings over taxation and other forms of payoffs with the main gangs that are the key players in the drug trade. According to the smugglers themselves, they are taxed at an official rate of 10 percent, which goes to the Taliban. On top of this, however, are the “extras” that many Taliban commanders charge for transport or escort services—money these commanders then keep for themselves.

Although Afghan heroin production and smuggling have become increasingly concentrated over the past 20 years since the Taliban were previously in power, there are still thousands of small-time operators who do not want to pay taxes to the group. Those that do, however, find the current arrangements preferable to having to pay multiple actors—the Taliban, police, militias and others—as they did prior to the Taliban’s return to power.

Indeed, since August 2021, no other armed group has been able to extract significant levels of revenue from the drug trade, as the smugglers do not have much interest in paying outfits that have little or no territorial control. Doing so would also risk angering the Taliban. There are still a modest number of small smugglers who pay such fees to the Islamic State-Khorasan as well as to Jamaat Ansarullah, one of the foreign jihadist groups still hosted by the Taliban that, because it is deployed along the Tajikistan border, is well-positioned to extract some rent. But overall, the level of revenue accruing to these other groups seems minimal.

For the smugglers, trafficking drugs into Central Asia has become harder since August 2021, in part due to neighboring states’ reaction to the Taliban’s return to power. Tajikistan, which used to be the easiest exit route thanks to the mountainous border that separates it from Afghanistan, has now substantially tightened security at the border. According to one smuggler who operates in Khwahan district, in northeastern Badakhshan province, alternative routes through the mountains are still available. But the cost of doing business has gone up, and smaller smugglers are at a particular disadvantage, as they do not have the same solid contacts the big gangs have on the Tajikistan side of the border. As a result, these independent smugglers now often have to wait for months for a favorable opportunity to attempt a crossing.

In this context, the Taliban decree banning the drug trade in April was met with mixed reactions.

A ban was not totally unexpected, as the Taliban had enacted one when they were previously in power and they faced significant pressure from the international community to curb opium production after they retook control of the country. Foreign governments unsurprisingly approved of the ban, sometimes with reservations about the viability and likelihood of implementation.

Perhaps the best explanation for the drug ban is that the Taliban are testing the waters, by announcing it but holding off on systematically enforcing it until they receive something substantial from foreign countries in return.

But within Afghanistan, many expressed concerns that the economy, already struggling under heavily imposed sanctions, would take a further hit as a result. Some traders reacted preemptively when they got wind of the ban and bought up opium stocks from farmers in the weeks preceding it, driving up prices despite the expectation of a bumper crop this year due to expanded cultivation.

However, others, both inside and outside Afghanistan, have been more skeptical that the Taliban would genuinely implement and enforce the ban, at least in the immediate term. First, the fact that the decree was issued during harvest season in the south—the Taliban’s core region of support—rather than at planting time suggests that quick implementation was not in the cards. A ban that comes into effect during planting season for next year will cause much less damage to farmers in terms of time and money invested, and therefore result in much less resentment, than one enforced this year, with the seeds in the ground and cultivation having taken place. Moreover, the Taliban did not try to prevent this year’s harvest, as they did in 2000, in order to avoid generating huge opposition.

Additionally, smugglers aligned with the Taliban do not appear to be the least bit worried by the decree, and none reported any initial attempts to implement it. By contrast, smugglers who are not aligned with the Taliban report having been targeted even before the decree was announced, suggesting the ban might similarly be applied selectively, if ever.

Even Taliban commanders initially did not take the decree seriously, and many around the country still do not seem to have been given instructions on how to implement the ban in the months since the announcement. A common view among them, and perhaps the best rationale for explaining the ban, is that the Taliban government is testing the waters by announcing it but holding off on systematically enforcing it until they receive something substantial in return from foreign countries in terms of aid, diplomatic recognition or both. As a result, the Taliban and the Afghan economy will suffer little in the short term, and any real decision about the fate of the drug trade will only become apparent in the coming months and even years.

Recently, however, top Taliban leaders from the southwest, where most of the poppies used to produce opium are grown, have begun to express their fears that the ban might be a cover to allow members of the central leadership in Kabul to sideline them. Whether or not this is the case, the ban has opened new avenues for intra-Taliban rivalries to play out, even within Helmand province. The only poppy field to have been eradicated so far appears to be one in Helmand’s Marjah district, where one commander’s field was targeted for eradication under orders of a more senior local Talib who bore a grudge against him. An armed skirmish between the two followed.

Everybody, from Afghans involved in the drug trade to international observers, are now watching the Taliban’s next moves, which will give a hint of whether they are serious about the ban or not. But even if they are, implementing it will not be easy. Many members of the Taliban grow poppies on their land, while others are involved in the trade either directly or through their families. Moreover, because many members of the Taliban—especially those who have not yet been incorporated into the Taliban’s structure as salaried officials or as members of the security forces—are currently suffering financially due to the country’s dire economic straits, the extra “taxes” they raise from smugglers are an important source of revenue for them. The Taliban will therefore have to handle the ban carefully, lest it worsens the factions appearing within their own ranks.

The Taliban’s ban on the opium trade was directed at a number of different audiences, with a different meaning perceived by each. For now, it is too early to tell how serious the group is about implementing the ban, and the Taliban themselves probably do not know yet what their next step will be. But for all the uncertainty, it is already having an indirect impact on the drug trade, with prices rising as traders and farmers stockpile reserves, as well as on the Taliban’s internal cohesion, in ways that could prove significant moving forward.