A Reexamination of the Role of the Taliban in the Afghan Opium Trade

by Apr 15, 2012Foreign Policy0 comments

An Afghan man harvests opium in a poppy field while US soldiers look on in a village in Golestan district, Farah province, Afghanistan (Caption: The Telegraph; Photo: Reuters)

A look at the very sources the New York Times cites in its article characterizing the Taliban as a driving force behind opium production illustrate clearly how this is a false narrative.
An Afghan man harvests opium in a poppy field while US soldiers look on in a village in Golestan district, Farah province, Afghanistan (Caption: The Telegraph; Photo: Reuters)

An Afghan man harvests opium in a poppy field while US soldiers look on in a village in Golestan district, Farah province, Afghanistan (Caption: The Telegraph; Photo: Reuters)

The New York Times is up to its old tricks in misleading readers on the role of the Taliban in the Afghan opium trade. Under the headline “In Poppy War, Taliban Aim to Protect a Cash Crop”, the Times states:

So focused are the Taliban on securing this year’s opium poppy crop — and the support of the farmers tending it — that in the early days of their spring offensive in the south, they are targeting not only the officials trying to eradicate the plants, but also the tractors they use.

This year’s poppy crop, the Times continues, is

the product of the increased cooperation between poppy farmers and the militants they see as protectors of their economic interests, government officials say.

“This year there is more poppy cultivation in Helmand, especially in places where people have confiscated the government lands and in places that were desert,” said Daoud Ahmadi, the spokesman for the governor in Helmand Province. “The reason is that the Taliban promised and persuaded farmers to grow poppy and told them they would protect them.”

“In Helmand,” the Times explains, “the government has embraced eradication”, but

The program has been met with hostility by many local residents who say they are reduced to poverty without the income from the poppy crop. A study by the sociologist David Mansfeld [sic, ‘Mansfield’], a researcher for Tufts University, noted that families who grow poppies eat meat more frequently and are more likely to be able to afford to marry off their children — weddings often come with crippling costs in Afghanistan, where relatives far and near must be hosted and fed.

“No one wants to see his poppy field destroyed. A farmer is even ready to fight for his poppy field”, a merchant in Musa Qala told the Times. Further into the article, the Times states:

Complicating matters is the hold that poppy profits have on government officials. Local farmers say that eradication is selective, meaning that officials often exempt the fields of relatives or of people who bribe them sufficiently.

In Musa Qala, the police chief — who is known locally only as Koka — has a reputation as a ruthless fighter against the Taliban. He has made it a cause to destroy their poppy fields, but not necessarily those of others, like the policemen who work for him, said several local residents.

While only a small part of the total income from poppies goes to the Taliban — roughly 10 percent, according to estimates by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — but that adds up to a lot in a $4 billion-plus harvest.

The article concludes by quoting Mr. Ahmadi, the spokesperson for the governor in Helmand, saying, “I do not think it will be possible for the eradication campaign to destroy all the poppy fields in Helmand…. And any person whose fields are destroyed, he is becoming Taliban.”

So, to review, the Times tells readers that the Taliban are “focused … on securing this year’s opium poppy crop”, and the reason “there is more poppy cultivation in Helmand”, according to Mr. Ahmadi, “is that the Taliban promised and persuaded farmers to grow poppy”, since the Taliban collects “roughly 10 percent” of “the total income from poppies”, which “adds up to a lot in a $4 billion-plus harvest.”

The problem with this narrative is that the characterization of the Taliban as a key driving force behind poppy cultivation is intentionally misleading, which can be shown by drawing on the Times’ own sources, which belie that characterization. Moreover, the Times does not only mislead by omission of key facts, but also lies outright about the amount of revenue the UNODC estimated the Taliban receives from the opium trade.

The first problem is that we are given contradictory information, which the Times makes no effort to reconcile. Are farmers growing poppy because the Taliban encouraged them to in order to profit from the trade, or are they just taking advantage of the protection the Taliban offers them? There is a disconnect between Mr. Ahmadi’s assertion that farmers had to be persuaded by the Taliban to grow poppies and other information in the article, including the merchant’s remark that farmers would be willing to take up arms to protect their crops, and Mr. Ahmadi’s own comment that farmers whose poppies are eradicated are “becoming Taliban.”

Mansfield’s Report

Let’s first turn to the report the Times cites by David Mansfield, which was funded by the U.K. government and published by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit in August 2011. The report notes that there has actually been a significant decline in the amount of land cultivated with poppies since 2008 in Helmand Province. The most important factors in this reduction were “the dramatic increase in wheat prices, and the governor’s counter-narcotics stance backed by an increased national and international security presence.” Farmers turned to wheat production, Mansfield explains, due to “concerns over food security” and “to meet household food requirements.” The government’s coercion and eradication program “can undermine support for the government and the presence of international forces”, which presence “has not led to an improvement in physical security.”

While the Times paints a caricature of the Taliban going to farmers to encourage them to grow so it can reap profits, Mansfield’s study suggests an essentially opposite relationship (emphasis added): “If the government and international community seek to prevent a return to cultivation through continued coercion, there is a real risk that the rural population in these areas will reach out to anti-government elements for protection.”

Eradication has a “detrimental impact” on the local population, the report states, and “Eradication campaigns in Helmand have been subject to allegations of corruption and patronage, and government officials have often been accused of using crop destruction for extracting rent from rural communities.” The corruption stems in large part from the fact that the same warlords who ruled the country before the Taliban rose to power were put back into power following the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban regime:

The rise of the former jihadi commanders that were ejected during the Taliban period into formal positions of authority within the provincial administration in 2001 alienated much of the rural population. They were already associated with corruption, violence and involvement in the drugs trade; their return to power was a surprise to the population, who remembered the role they had played in the collapse of the mujahidin government and the rise of the Taliban movement in response.

The Taliban had banned poppy cultivation in 2000-01, which helped lead “to heightened levels of economic distress and deprivation among many rural households. These conditions did little to win the Taliban favor with the rural population”.

Mansfield notes that “there was a dramatic increase in the presence of both government and international forces” in Helmand, particularly in Nad-i-Ali and Marjeh districts, but fieldwork suggests that

the vast majority of farmers in these districts did not believe that the increase in presence of ANSF [Afghan National Security Forces] and ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] forces had resulted in an improvement in the security situation. To the contrary, there was an overwhelming view that the security situation had deteriorated between November 2009 and November 2010…. ISAF’s records of the reported number of violent acts including assassinations, murders and mines for the period would seem to support this.

Inhabitants of districts north of the Boghra Canal area “attribute stable security conditions to the presence of the Taliban. They blame the government and international forces for the conflict in the canal command area.” It is not the Taliban, but Afghan National Police (ANP) who are “accused of intimidation, assault and demands for bribes”.

In fact, respondents north of the Boghra Canal appear quite content to remain there. Although they are aware of the absence of health or education facilities in the area, they are keen to limit their exposure to both the conflict and to government authorities attempting to impose an opium ban.

Additionally, “Seizures of opium by the ANP are typically seen as theft, and farmers believe they are sold rather than destroyed.”

Farmers in Helmand need no encouragement from the Taliban to grow poppies. As Mansfield’s report notes, the opium trade benefits all farmers in the region, even if they do not themselves grow poppies.

The cash generated by opium has also given farmers in central Helmand better access to tractors to tackle the problem of soil quality. Farmers with larger tracts of land and a surplus of opium have been able to purchase tractors, which they then lease to smaller farmers as an important source of cash income. For smaller farmers, opium production has provided them with the means to rent tractors and prepare their land for agricultural production….

In addition, soil salinization is a problem in the agriculturally dependent province of Helmand, and opium poppies are “relatively salt-tolerant”, with some research suggesting “that applying salt can actually increase morphine production.”

[O]pium production has been well-suited as a risk mitigation strategy for many farmers across central Helmand. It has helped finance soil improvements in areas that suffer from salinity, high water tables and poor soils; it has funded the installation and running costs of shallow wells in areas that lack access [to] consistent irrigation; and it has allowed for the repair of property, the care of the injured and the burial of the dead in areas most affected by violent conflict. Opium production has also provided a cushion against both idiosyncratic risks such as illness and death, and life-cycle events including marriage.

The benefits of poppy cultivation extend beyond the farmers.

Other businesses also reported enjoying the continued multiplier effect of the opium economy despite the negligible levels of cultivation nearby. Shop owners and wheat and vegetable traders all gained from increased sales, in part due to the disposable income generated by the opium economy in the province.

Afghans “anticipated a rise in their income and quality of life during 2011 due to the dramatic rise in opium prices.” For Afghans north of the Boghra Canal living in areas under Taliban control: “In sum, livelihoods in this zone are resilient as long as there is opium production. Were opium poppy to fail or be destroyed, the population would lose both its primary source of income and its capacity to irrigate the land to produce the food crops.”

The purchase of land, its improvement, and consequently all agricultural production in this former desert area has been largely financed by opium production. Moreover, it has allowed a large and growing group of previously landless farmers to become landowners, build houses, and improve their quality of life. Given the terrain, the expensive method of irrigation, and the lack of viable agricultural alternatives in this area, the population north of the Boghra Canal has the most to lose from a ban on opium production, including their houses, land and villages.

Mansfield does write that “the Taliban have reportedly encouraged opium production in the area”, but nowhere suggests that this is a significant driving force influencing farmers to grow poppies. The report includes quotes from Afghan survey respondents that also suggest such encouragement, if it exists, is a negligible factor, including the following:

“Last year [2008] they destroyed half a jerib of my land. I contacted a relative in the government and the rest was left.”

“We are against the government. If the government collapses it will be good.”

“They only eradicate those areas near to the road—it is only for show.”

“They announced the ban five years ago, but those that pay money never face this problem.”

“If the situation continues I will take a gun against the government.”

“Because of the poppy ban the government has lost the support of the people.”

“I lost my poppy, I don’t have food, I don’t have bread for my children, I don’t have money. This government is my enemy.”

“I am very poor. If I had money I would have paid the eradication team. I asked them and they wanted $120.”

“For whom will they destroy this crop? There are a lot of government people who grow poppy in this area.”

“By the eradication of poppy the government has lost the support of the people.”

“Allah will beat the government and remove them. The Taliban was better than the government as they allowed me to cultivate poppy.”

“If the government continues the ban on poppy maybe a lot of people will join the Taliban.”

One respondent explained how he went to a neighboring village to sell his opium, and related a conversation he had with the merchant who purchased it from him:

“In our village we are all afraid to have opium but here you are not.” He said, “Don’t ask about this Haji Sahib! Here each shopkeeper pays the police 3,000 afs ($60) each month and when the Americans come to the bazaar the police tell us to hide the opium and ban it from the bazaar.”

The report offers other information that belies the suggestion that Taliban encouragement is a driving force behind poppy cultivation. In one research site in Helmand, Doh Bandi, where “there was no eradication in either 2008 or in 2009,” and where “the Taliban were considered very much entrenched in the 2008-09 growing season”, “opium cultivation fell by almost 17 percent and wheat production rose by over 50 percent. Both research sites in Marjeh saw a similar pattern, despite the Taliban’s dominance in the area.”

Among Mansfield’s conclusions is that, “If the government and international community seek to prevent a return to cultivation through continued coercion, there is a real risk that the rural population in these areas will reach out to antigovernment elements for protection.”

The UNODC Report

It’s clear using one of the article’s own sources that the picture the Times paints of a Taliban encouraging farmers to grow poppies in order to profit is a misleading characterization, to put it mildly, but then we come to the claim:

While only a small part of the total income from poppies goes to the Taliban — roughly 10 percent, according to estimates by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime — but that adds up to a lot in a $4 billion-plus harvest.

That is a lie. Do the math, and you’ll see that the Times is here claiming that the Taliban earn $400 million annually from the opium trade. The UNODC report cited, from 2009, emphatically does not say what the Times tells readers it says. In fact, it gives an estimated range of $200-$400 million for “drug related funds accruing to insurgents and warlords” (emphasis added). The UNODC estimated that the Taliban, for its part, had annual revenue of $90-160 million from the Afghan opium trade, or about $125 million on average. That’s about 3% of a $4 billion harvest.

As the UNODC notes, insurgency groups “gain access to only a fraction of the value of Afghan opiate exports”, which is itself a mere fraction of the $65 billion global market. It is not the Taliban, but transnational organized crime groups who “are the main beneficiaries of this trade”.

The principle means by which the Taliban reaps revenues from the opium trade is by a 10% tax (“Ushr”) on all agricultural products. As the report notes, the total income of Afghan farmers from opium was $700 million in 2008, “very small in comparison” to the $3.4 billion Afghan trade (much less the $65 billion global trade). Even if the Taliban collected Ushr from every one of those farmers, its revenues would amount to only $70 million, a mere 2% of the total Afghan trade. Yet the report estimates that the Taliban receives 30-50% of total Ushr levies. The total amount paid by farmers as Ushr from 2005 to 2008 was $200 million (10% of the total estimated farm-gate value of opium, $2 billion). That means the Taliban earned an estimated $60-100 million in revenues from Ushr over that three year period, or $20-33 million annually, a mere 0.8% of the “$4 billion-plus” Afghan opium trade.

The Taliban also collects another tax, Zakat, which is a 2.5% wealth tax applied to traders. The UNODC notes that, “Traffickers moving cargo through insurgent-controlled areas pass checkpoints that charge them. Functionally, this is no different from bribes extorted by police officers in areas of government control” (emphasis added).

In sum, again, the UNODC estimates that the Taliban likely collected between $350-650 million between 2005 and 2008 through taxation of farmers and traffickers, or about $125 million annually—again, a mere 3% of the Afghan opium trade, not the “roughly 10 percent” the New York Times falsely claims.

The UNODC report also cites a previous study from 2006 in which farmers were asked their main motivations for cultivating poppies. While “External pressure from traffickers and traders” was cited lower down on the list, after “Lack of rule of law”, “Insecurity”, “Lack of off farm employment”, “Lack of water and agricultural infrastructure”, and “Survival—provision of basic needs”, nowhere did appear the explanation that the Taliban had pressured or encouraged them to grow.

The UNODC report also makes clear in other ways that the Taliban is not a significant driving force behind opium production in Afghanistan. It states, for example, that the Taliban are at least “tolerant of the opium trade”, but nowhere suggests they are a driving force behind it. They are involved in the trade “by providing security to the drug traffickers”, but the report does not indicate that the Taliban themselves are trafficking in opium to any significant extent.

On the contrary, it notes that the market has been “consolidating”, transforming “from essentially a relatively fragmented and open market to one where a limited number of operators have begun to dominate.” A joint UNODC-World Bank report in 2006 noted that the trade “was becoming increasingly consolidated. At the top, ‘around 25-30 key traffickers, the majority of them in southern Afghanistan, control major transactions and transfers, working closely with sponsors in top government and political positions” (emphasis added).

The report also notes how the same warlords who were put back into power following the U.S. overthrow of the Taliban were many of the same Mujahedin who “were heavily involved in the drug trade”. Many warlords “enjoy a degree of influence within government structures” or themselves “enter the political process”, such as by being “appointed to key government posts, such as by becoming governors, ministers, police chiefs or military officers.” Additionally, “According to high-level officials in the Afghan Security Council, many warlords still have connections to drug trafficking networks”.

Turning to more recent UNODC reports, the Afghanistan Opium Survey 2010 notes that farm-gate prices of dry opium increased 164% from 2009, which it describes as “a market response to the drastic reduction of the opium production which is due to the spreading of the opium disease in the major growing areas.”  Although there was “considerably lower” opium production in 2010, “the increase in opium price made overall the opium business more productive”, with “farmers not affected by the disease or affected only marginally” experiencing “a large increase in their profits.” It was not Taliban influence that drove farmers to grow poppies; “The high sale price was the most important reason cited by farmers (47%) for cultivating opium poppy in 2010. Provision of basic food and shelter for the family, improving living condition and high income from little land were other important reasons given.” The report provides a graph listing the different reasons for growing given by farmers, and being encouraged by the Taliban to do so is not listed among them.

The Afghanistan Opium Survey 2011 similarly notes: “The high sale price continued to be the most important reason for cultivating opium poppy cited by farmers in 2011 (59%) and 2010 (47%). Provision of basic food and shelter for the family, improving living condition and high income from little land were other important reasons given.” Once again, having been influenced by the Taliban to do so didn’t make the list.

Conclusion

A look at the very sources the New York Times cites in its article characterizing the Taliban as a driving force behind opium production illustrate clearly how this is a false narrative, in addition to the article’s claim that the Taliban reap 10% of the total profits of the Afghan drug trade being a lie. The truth is that the opium trade is dominated not by insurgent groups, but by international organized crime groups, including the participation of corrupt government officials who may use the policy of eradication to eliminate competition and help the major drug lords to consolidate their control over the market.

***

For more information on the Afghan opium trade, please also read:

New York Times Misleads on Taliban Role in Opium Trade,” Foreign Policy Journal, November 29, 2008.

Ex-ISI Chief Says Purpose of New Afghan Intelligence Agency RAMA Is ‘to destabilize Pakistan’,” Foreign Policy Journal, August 12, 2009.

The Afghan Drug Trade and the Elephant in the Room,” Foreign Policy Journal, April 9, 2011.

And from my blog:

On U.S. Drug Policy in Afghanistan (June 28, 2009)

Examining Obama’s Rationale for Escalating the War in Afghanistan (December 3, 2009)

Afghanistan: Minister who headed ‘most corrupt’ gov’t dept appointed to ‘anti-drug’ role (January 17, 2010)

Turning “a Blind Eye” to the Afghan Opium Problem (March 22, 2010)

Turkey’s Role in the Afghan Drug Trade (April 30, 2008)

Also read Peter Dale Scott’s book (in which he cites some of my research), American War Machine: Deep Politics, the CIA Global Drug Connection, and the Road to Afghanistan.

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About Jeremy R. Hammond

About Jeremy R. Hammond

I am an independent journalist, political analyst, publisher and editor of Foreign Policy Journal, book author, and writing coach.

My writings empower readers with the knowledge they need to see through state propaganda intended to manufacture their consent for criminal government policies.

By recognizing when we are being lied to and why, we can fight effectively for liberty, peace, and justice, in order to create a better world for ourselves, our children, and future generations of humanity.

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