Opium remains the country's most valuable cash crop (Photo by David Bathgate/Corbis via Getty Images)

September 14, 2021   6 mins

In his 2015 documentary Bitter Lake, the filmmaker Adam Curtis observes that Afghanistan’s opium poppies grow in a “wonderland of vegetation and power”. Amid the conspiratorial hyperbole that characterises much of his work, it is a striking phrase — but also a perceptive one. The poppy is integral to modern Afghanistan because of its relationship to both vegetation (and the communities it sustains) and the exercise of raw power: two of the main forces which drive Afghan politics.

Understand this imperishable fact and it becomes clear how the country fell so quickly to the Taliban over recent weeks.

The Afghan poppy has been an economic and political force for almost 150 years. As James Tharin Bradford explains in Poppies, Politics, and Power, its modern state was built in the late 1800s “in the shadow of poppy production”. But the emergence of the international drug control regime in the early 20th century saw opium production banned. Afghanistan could no longer legally sell drugs, and as a result it lost a major source of state income as well as control over many of its rural areas, which relied on opium to survive and just carried on producing it regardless of the prohibition that Kabul was now obliged to enforce. For the first time the poppy came between the peripheries and central authority.

But then in 1979, the Soviets invaded — and opium production spiralled. The mujahedin that resisted Moscow needed cash to fight, and their make-up and available options meant they relied on two things: the rural economy and the global drug trade. Drug production may have remained illegal until 1992, but that didn’t stop Afghanistan becoming one of the most valuable opium suppliers in the world during the 1990s.

Indeed, by 1999 the country produced 79% of the world’s illicit opium. Even when, a year later, the Taliban banned its production, it still accounted for 70%. Today, it remains the country’s most valuable cash crop worth $863 million, and the “industry” is the largest national employer with more than 500,000 people in the equivalent of full-time work.

Now that the Taliban are back, there are fears that Afghanistan’s drug production — which now also includes marijuana and increasingly methamphetamine — will explode. People are worried. “Taliban mulls flooding the West with heroin to shore up Afghan economy,” according to The Telegraph. What next?

Children smoke opium in Kabul (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

It is important to understand what the Taliban is not: it is not a drug cartel and Afghanistan was never the narco-insurgency or state of popular imagination. The group’s views on opium are almost as variegated as the Talibs themselves. Some will tell you that Opium is haram, forbidden. The Taliban banned its production in 2000 on the grounds that it was not Islamic (though political motives were probably more important). But Islam can be flexible, if necessary. Even its most ardent commandants have a surprising amount of wiggle room; for example, if you’re starving, you can even permissibly consume the “donkey you cannot eat” (the pig).

Similarly for the Taliban, matters of religion — though never the fundamentals — can be shaped according to the economic and political realities on the ground. It is this ability that informs how they deal with opium, and, therefore, what is likely to come to Afghanistan, its neighbours and perhaps the West. It also explains how the group took control so quickly and what will characterise their rule if they are to hold on.

In Afghanistan, power does not automatically stem from the state — it is negotiated and bargained for. The nature of these negotiations is complex because they differ depending on the social, geographical and economic terrain of Afghanistan, which is incredibly varied. To rule there you must manage this problem by negotiating effectively. While former President Ashraf Ghani sat in Kabul trying to nation-build by spreadsheet and hanging out on Google Meets, the Talibs were out in the villages talking to who mattered and ladling out cash. It is this that enabled them to charge through Afghanistan without much resistance. They didn’t really defeat the Afghan army; they just made lots of deals.

The mountains and rural areas — especially in the poppy-growing southwest of the country — are the constituencies that anyone who wants to govern must get on-side. It is not an easy task. As David Mansfield, an international expert on opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan and the author of A State Built on Sand, points out: these are tough people who will resist the interference of outsiders — including those in government in Kabul. “They do not like being told what to do,” he tells me. “Push them too hard and they will react. The Taliban has had to consolidate their position within those rural communities over time — which means respecting their economic interests” — integral to which is the poppy. Given the choice, there is no choice: opium farming is their default setting.

This had egregious consequences for effective central governance over the past 20 years. Take the case of the southern district of Nangarhar. Both Washington and Kabul were obsessed with building the Afghan National Army (ANA) as a means of securing the state and promoting national unity. Salaries were good, recruitment was aggressive. Mansfield explained to me that for every year that poppy production was banned from 2001 to the present day, more sons from the poppy-growing southern districts swelled the ranks of the ANA and the police.

The local Talibs were upset; they hassled people. But they always got the same response: “We have no love for the army or the state. My son will gladly leave the ANA tomorrow, but you will need to pay his salary — it supports our family.” It’s not that the farmers were especially loyal to the Taliban. They just disliked a government that wouldn’t let them farm and had no interest in dialogue or respecting their way of life — which, of course, left the path clear for someone who would do both.

So what did the Taliban do? They couldn’t kill everyone. Once again, they made deals. Sons could come back from the army to visit their towns and villages — but not in uniform and only at night. And, yes, ok: the villagers could grow poppies once again to earn money that way instead. This is what has been happening all these years. Negotiations and compromises like these — in a variety of forms — took place across the country and is just one reason why the ANA collapsed so quickly, and why the provinces did not resist the Taliban.

An Afghan security guard patrols the area as illegal drugs are destroyed (Paula Bronstein/Getty Images)

Now they are back in power. It seems unlikely the Taliban will risk alienating an important community based around an industry that some of their commanders have healthy financial interests in to boot. And even if the Talibs wanted to ban opium production they know it would not work. “Theoretically they can prohibit it, but that doesn’t mean they can control it,” says Mansfield. Then there are the political considerations: start your reign by giving orders that people ignore and watch the veneer of power crumble.

But what about after they have consolidated their hold on things? Once again, it depends. Right now, the price of opium is low. It doesn’t make much economic sense to start wide-scale production in the face of international opposition. Right now, the Taliban is still consolidating its power and — rhetorically at least — seeking relations with as many countries (Israel excepted) as possible. At the very least it makes sense not to alienate everyone immediately. But of course, if the economy collapses, if job in cities disappear and government jobs become fewer, not to mention the end of the multiplier effects of the aid economy as NGOs flee alongside Western powers, then things might look very different.

And there is something else, too. An ODI report last month found that funding from international donors to Afghanistan’s remote provinces has been small, compared with the trade in legal and illegal goods that happens mostly off-the-books. In the southwestern Nimroz province, for example, money from Kabul amounts to about $20 million annually, whereas informal “taxation” from smuggling and other illegal activities raises about $235 million annually.

Crucially, as the authors note, “after the withdrawal of US and allied troops, money becomes the main instrument available to international partners during negotiations”. Simply put, cash is the only leverage we might have over the Taliban in future. But with so many hidden sources of it circulating, it could turn out to be not very much leverage at all. The Taliban could well prove to be beyond Western influence. If the group decides to sanction opium production once more, who will stop them?

Whatever happens, it will be informed not by international opinion but what the Afghans negotiate — or fail to — among themselves. Whether in the 1800s or the 1990s or the last 20 years of Western occupation, those who control Kabul do not control the periphery. As Mansfield concludes, “those in Kabul have to tread carefully. The provinces may be unruly, but they have their own way of doing things as everyone who has tried to govern over the last 40 years has discovered to their cost.”

Almost 20 years ago, Tony Blair told the Labour Party conference that 90% of the drugs sold on British streets came from Afghanistan. He was looking for an excuse to invade, of course — but Afghan heroin had been a problem for Britain, and the world, for decades. We have reversed into the future. Once again it is not only the Taliban the West must now worry about in Afghanistan, but also the poppy — and the power it wields across the world.

David Patrikarakos is UnHerd‘s foreign correspondent. His latest book is War in 140 characters: how social media is reshaping conflict in the 21st century. (Hachette)