On April 3rd, 2022 the Taliban government decreed the cultivation of opium poppy would no longer be allowed. Afghanistan has a long history with the opium poppy flower and it’s one that has resurfaced in force as thousands of desperate farmers turn towards the illicit plant expecting a high return of profits after the harvest.
“Opium is a highly addictive non-synthetic narcotic that is extracted from the poppy plant, Papaver somniferum. The opium poppy is the key source for many narcotics, including morphine, codeine, and heroin” (Drug Fact Sheet). Afghanistan is responsible for eighty percent of the world’s opium production. A whopping statistic, the crop alone contributes anywhere from nine to fourteen percent of the nation’s total gross domestic product or GDP (Gibbons-Neff).
After the collapse of the People’s Republic of Afghanistan and the transfer of power to the new Taliban lead government, the nation fell into dire economic straits. Afghanistan’s economy was heavily reliant on foreign aid and investment, all of which were severed completely, leaving the economy to collapse. Without enough cash flow to keep things running, food shortages quickly erupted, leaving the people of Afghanistan to starve. The result is one of the greatest humanitarian crises in recent history, as an estimated twenty-three million Afghans are suffering from acute food deprivation (Denton). Farmers have turned to the opium poppy as financial life support to simply feed their families.
The timing of the decree, however, is flawed as the current opium crop is ready to be harvested and sold off. As a result, the government will allow the current season’s crop of opium poppy to be harvested, providing farmers do not replant the crop and continue production. Compliance is questionable as some have readily uprooted the poppy and returned to the production of other major crops such as pomegranates and almonds. Others though are willing to risk the wrath of the new government and peruse the profits. There is some speculation that high-ranking Taliban officials would still profit greatly from the continued cultivation of opium poppy, generating some questions about future enforcement (Denton).
The Taliban itself has a checkered history with opium poppy. During its brief rule in the 1990s, it was similarly against the cultivation of the crop, citing it violated Islamic values. However, after their removal from power by the United States government in 2002, the organization turned to the cash crop to fund its terror operations (Padshah). They relied on the profits from illicit cultivation and sale of opium poppy for almost twenty years, but now that they are back in power, have decided to abandon the crop once again.
One tactic the Taliban is using to stop the opium crops is the confiscation of solar-powered water pumps. In the hot and tumultuous climate that is the Afghan desert, skilled farmers rely on clever techniques and old knowledge to grow their crops. Recently they have been aided by the deployment of solar-powered water pumps, allowing them to dig wells deep into underground water stores and pump the water up to their crops at a much more reliable pace. In the past, pumps would run on a diesel gas which was prone to breakage and was poor for the environment. This green solution has helped farmers greatly but has also resulted in a sharp decrease in underground water stores. Underground water usage is measured in how far the water line drops from its average. In the past, farmers would usually average around a one-meter fall in water levels, but this season it has increased greatly with an almost three-meter drop in average water store levels. The solar-powered pumps are wonderful for crop production but could result in a costly impact of future water deprivation if they are continued to be utilized at such a pace. There is some irony to be found in a green solar solution, potentially causing an even bigger environmental problem. Beginning in May 2022, many provincial governors have ordered the confiscation of such solar pumps in an attempt to dry out the illegal fields and remove the opium crops (Denton).
With the Taliban targeting opium production, a major illicit trade and top problem for most European countries, perhaps there is a window for the new Afghan government to cooperate with foreign nations once again. Since the Taliban is considered to be an illegitimate governing force, the global community refuses to engage in aid or negations. The Afghan people, however, may not have time for this foolish dance. Half of the country is starving, and short of a miracle, they will likely need foreign aid to survive. Unless the United States or some other major military power wants to once again challenge Taliban rule within the next coming months, what is the point of starving the Afghan people for principle?
The opium poppy is an economic powerhouse for the Afghan economy. Without its consistency, Afghanistan will need time for new sources of revenue to be established and take hold.
Denton, Bryan, et al. “Green Energy Complicates the Taliban’s New Battle Against Opium.” The New York Times, 29 May 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/05/29/world/asia/afghanistan-opium-taliban.html?searchResultPosition=7. Accessed 5 June 2022.
Drug Fact Sheet. Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Agency, 2020. Drug Enforcement Administration, www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2020-06/Opium-2020.pdf. Accessed 5 June 2022.
Gibbons-Neff, Thomas, and Taimoor Shah. “In Hard Times, Afghan Farmers Are Turning to Opium for Security.” The New York Times, 21 Nov. 2021, www.nytimes.com/2021/11/21/world/asia/afghanistan-crops-opium-taliban.html. Accessed 5 June 2022.
Padshah, Safiullah, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff. “Taliban Outlaw Opium Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan.” The New York Times, 3 Apr. 2022, www.nytimes.com/2022/04/03/world/asia/taliban-opium-poppy-afghanistan.html?searchResultPosition=1. Accessed 5 June 2022.
Photo: Huylebroek, Jim. Opium Poppy Field. The New York Times, 3 Apr. 2022, static01.nyt.com/images/2022/04/03/world/03afghanistan-poppy/merlin_197765496_f56e0339-1992-4f8c-b0ef-1a57237c987b-superJumbo.jpg?quality=75&auto=webp. Accessed 5 June 2022.