Governments and regimes throughout the world have been no strangers to using narcotics as a major revenue source. More recently, during this era of sanctions, that practice has been an effective tactic to circumvent such measures.
Entities and figures in isolated states such as Venezuela and Iran represent key examples of this phenomenon, utilising some level of direct government or military connection to the narcotics trade from their territories.
Syria has become the most recent addition, amid the Assad regime’s mass production and trafficking of captagon throughout the Middle East region, effectively turning the country into the world’s foremost narco-state.
Rarely has a country and its government willingly and effectively – especially without pressure from Western nations, rights organisations, and NGOs – managed to wholesale abolish the production of narcotics within its territory and stem its widespread trade beyond its borders, though. That is until Afghanistan’s Taliban government set itself on the path to achieving just that.
In early June, satellite images released by Alcis, an organisation which specialises in geospatial data collection and analysis, revealed that Afghanistan’s cultivation of opium had reduced by 80 per cent across the country and 99 per cent in the main cultivation area – Helmand – since last year.
Unprecedented reduction of opium poppies growing in Afghanistan. Using satellite imagery and machine learning we see an 80% reduction across the country and 99% in Helmand. https://t.co/tHk9my8wg8 pic.twitter.com/oeU2F4thXM
— AlcisGeo (@AlcisGeo) June 6, 2023
The imagery showed the extent to which poppy growth had been replaced by wheat and other crops, representing the success of the Taliban’s ban of opium and its derivative heroin, as well as the effectiveness of its campaign to suppress its formerly booming cultivation which had supplied 80 per cent of the world’s total opium output.
That development was confirmed by Hafiz Zia Ahmad, the deputy spokesman of Afghanistan’s Foreign Ministry, who praised the Taliban supreme leader’s decree and said that “56.2% of land in Helmand province was poppy cultivated in 2020 whereas it has reduced to 0.4% by 2023; in reality, it is much lesser.”
Despite that success, a number of institutions, think tanks and media outlets in the West have not echoed any praise and instead published reports of condemnation. In an article published by the United States Institute of Peace, it referred to the Taliban’s successful opium ban as “bad for Afghans and the world”, and another article by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) stated that the crackdown “piles pressure on [the] spiraling Afghan economy.”
Looking beyond the provocative and exaggerating titles, the points put forward in those articles by their respective authors – the economist and former World Bank adviser William Byrd, and correspondent Sune Engel Rasmussen – are largely understandable and correct in their concerns up to an extent. The “huge economic and humanitarian costs on Afghans” who have relied on poppy cultivation for their primary source of livelihood are very real, and the potential result in a new outflow of refugees from the country may take place on an unknown scale.
The potential for internal resentment within the Taliban was also a point put forward, as the movement and its members have been reported to – like all groups and factions in Afghanistan over the decades – utilise opium production and trafficking as a source of necessary revenue, and the idea of the opium crackdown having a long-lasting counter-narcotics impact is also subject to scepticism.
The reasoning for such concerns is the fact that Afghanistan is currently undergoing a major economic crisis which the Taliban had the misfortune to inherit when it took over two years ago. Drought also continues to inflict the country with a food crisis, which is barely alleviated by humanitarian aid.
And most importantly, there are few alternatives available and offered to Afghan farmers who have long relied on the growth of opium – a hardy crop which just so conveniently happens to be resistant to drought and easy to upkeep. The few alternatives that do exist mainly consist of wheat, fruit orchards, vegetables and vineyards.
What those articles and reports by Western media outlets and think tanks fail to do, however, is offer viable solutions to the Taliban administration, as well as to call on US and European governments to provide assistance to Afghanistan’s new rulers. It seems they forget, after all, that at least $3.5 billion of the country’s Central Bank reserves remain frozen by Western powers – a wound that any humanitarian aid hardly patches up.
Instead of hailing the development as a positive step in Afghanistan’s crackdown on narcotics, Western media remains mired in a muffled disdain for the Taliban. Old enmities are difficult to overcome, and the crimes and human rights violations committed by each side over the past few decades is not easy to forget, but such a development should be lauded nonetheless.
And so it has by some in the West, admittedly, such as the US State Department’s Special Representative and Deputy Assistant Secretary for Afghanistan, Thomas West, who stated that the reports of the Taliban’s opium reduction are “credible and important. Every country in the region and beyond has a shared interest in an Afghanistan free of drugs.”
Despite that official’s acknowledgement of the development, the Western media and institutions’ negative attitude towards it is overwhelmingly prevalent. Those same forces had, ironically, only recently blamed the Taliban for not doing enough to combat the ‘booming’ narcotics trade.
At the same time, any efforts by the group to counter the trade and rehabilitate the drug addicts found on city streets were targeted by those media outlets, which accused the Taliban of being too heavy-handed by giving the addicts “a heavy dose of prison” and having “forcibly detained” them.
A look at the institutions’ reactions, it is hardly absurd to come to the conclusion that they would be content – or even gleefully desirous – seeing Afghanistan with an intoxicated and inebriated populace, and with an economy almost wholly reliant on opium revenue.
That seems to be their preferred situation, while possessing the facade of interest groups propagating concern surrounding the livelihood of Afghan farmers and the further plummeting of the Afghan economy.
What Western states and organisations – along with others in the international community – should instead do is assist Afghanistan’s new government in suppressing the narcotics trade, provide the country with new agricultural opportunities, revive and enhance the growth of other viable and fruitful crops, and help get the Afghan economy on its feet without the need for opium.
Sending advisers to the government, deploying experts in agricultural industries and irrigation to the country, transferring funds to finance such projects, and encouraging NGOs and organisations to assess and assist those efforts are just a few examples of actions that can be taken.
Western nations were more than comfortable taking such initiatives for the purpose of war and encouraging NGOs to teach the Afghan populace about issues regarding gender and sexuality, they should be equally willing to employ these initiatives for the sake of peace and reconstruction.
Two decades of the US-led coalition’s presence in Afghanistan and its prop-up of the former government were seemingly not enough for them to stamp out narcotics cultivation and trafficking, yet the Taliban has apparently achieved that within less than two years.
Western powers’ former foes are doing the job which coalition forces could not, and the least the US and European states could do is support them in that. Instead, they are withholding frozen assets, ignoring Afghanistan’s economic and humanitarian crises, and blaming the government for even a positive step.
The Taliban’s deputy spokesperson, Bilal Karimi, was within his rights when he told Turkiye’s Anadolu Agency that “We fulfilled our promise to the world and now it is their return to support us in providing alternative employment to local people” calling on the international community to “come forward, fulfil their promises and help our people.”
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.