Taliban’s advance in Afghanistan could fuel surge in global drug trade

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The Taliban’s aggressive expansion across Afghanistan following the US withdrawal from the country could fuel a surge in the export of heroin and other drugs — including methamphetamine — as the radical Islamic militants seize critical international trade routes.

Opium poppies, which grow wildly in the Afghan countryside, are the country’s biggest cash crop, with an export value of somewhere between $1.5 billion and $3 billion per year, according to a report from the US Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

While the Taliban have decried the use and production of opium, most of the poppy-growing farmland over the past couple of decades has been under Taliban control, and the crop “continues to represent the most significant source of income for the Taliban,” according to a recent UNODC report.

Now, as US forces withdraw and the Taliban quickly capture major cities that provide access to critical international trade routes, the Taliban could massively expand the production and export of heroin and other drugs, wrote Jonathan Goodhand, a professor in conflict and development studies at the SOAS University of London.

Taliban fighters in a vehicle of the Afghan National Directorate of Security on a street in Kandahar.
AFP via Getty Images

The Taliban now control some 10 international crossing points, Goodhand wrote in a piece for The Conversation, including Zaranj, which is near the border with Iran and has a history as a hub for the smuggling of fuel, drugs and people.

Other cities that the Taliban have captured in recent weeks have given them unfettered access to neighbors Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Pakistan, where goods can be moved onward to Europe, Asia, Australia and elsewhere.

Afghan security force members are seen near the burning drugs in Jalalabad, Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan.
Afghan security force members are seen near burning drugs in Jalalabad, Nangarhar province, Afghanistan.
ZUMA24.com

The ongoing conflict and the Taliban’s need for continued funding will “unfortunately drive the global heroin market, as well as feeding the growing drug problem within Afghanistan and neighboring countries,” Goodhand concluded.

Also troubling Afghanistan analysts, the Taliban are reportedly diversifying into the cultivation of ephedra, another plant that grows wild across the country and is used to make methamphetamine.

Afghanistan map
The Taliban have captured cities in recent weeks that give them unfettered access to neighbors Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Pakistan.
FDD

Foreign Policy reported last month that meth is much cheaper to produce than heroin and Taliban traffickers are now trying to ramp up the export of meth through their established heroin smuggling routes.

The Taliban’s capture of major cities that serve as trade hubs will only embolden the military group to export more illicit products, including heroin and other drugs, the report said.

“Obviously, Afghanistan being a landlocked country, the ones who dominate these border passes have more effective control of international trade and taxation, and of course a way to neutralize the authorities and allow further exports of illicit products like drugs, and also incoming controlled substances like chemical precursors” used for refining drugs, said Cesar Guedes-Ferreyros, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s representative in Kabul, according to Foreign Policy.

National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces stand guard along with a detained suspect (center) after bags containing Opium and Hashish were seized in an operation.
National Directorate of Security forces stand guard along with a detained suspect (center) after bags containing opium and hashish were seized in an operation.
NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP via Getty Images

At least 85 percent of the world’s heroin is sourced from Afghanistan, he added.

And already in 2020, the number of drug seizures carried out by Afghan law enforcement had fallen by more than 50 percent compared with the prior year, according to a recent UNODC report.

At the same time, another UNODC report says, the share of Afghan land being used to grow poppies spiked 37 percent in 2020.

An Afghan security official prepares to burn confiscated illegal opium or raw heroin and alcoholic drinks in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan.
An Afghan security official prepares to burn confiscated illegal opium or raw heroin and alcoholic drinks in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan.
Wali Sabawoon/NurPhoto via Getty Images

“Afghan authorities have attributed this at least in part to the gradual expansion of
Taliban-controlled territory in the country, particularly in key border provinces where
transhipments occur,” the report reads.

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