KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — For years, opium was the monster too big to kill. One Afghan government after another has pledged to eradicate opium production and trade, but have been unable to withstand billions of dollars in illicit profits.
The Taliban government of the 1990s finally succeeded in curbing opium cultivation. But after the US-led invasion in 2001, opium taxes and smuggling helped fuel the Taliban’s own 20-year insurgency.
With the Taliban back in power, insurgents turned politicians are once again struggling to eradicate opium cultivation and the rampant addiction problem that accompanies it. The Taliban announced on April 3 that poppy cultivation was banned and that violators would be punished under Sharia law.
But eradicating opium is becoming more difficult than ever with a shift from poppy farmers to green energy.
Water pumps powered by cheap and highly efficient solar panels can drill deep into rapidly dwindling desert aquifers. The solar panels have contributed to generating massive opium crops year after year since poppy farmers in southern Afghanistan started installing them around 2014.
Now solar energy is a defining feature of southern Afghan life. Tiny solar panels power light bulbs in mud huts, and solar-powered pumps irrigate cash crops like wheat and pomegranates, as well as the vegetable gardens of subsistence farmers.
The solar panels have played a pivotal role in ensuring Afghanistan’s status as a world leader in opium. Afghanistan produced 83 percent of the world’s opium between 2015 and 2020, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. Even with ongoing war and ongoing drought, opium cultivation in Afghanistan rose to 224,000 hectares in 2020, from 123,000 hectares in 2009, the UN reported.
The previous US-backed administration had spent $8.6 billion to eradicate the poppy, but top Afghan officials were deeply complicit in the opium trade, building ostentatious “pop palaces” in the capital’s Kabul, and buying ostentatious villas in Dubai. the United Arab Emirates. A 2018 report by the government’s Inspector General concluded that the campaign “had no lasting impact”.
Reporting from Afghanistan
The Taliban, for their part, have condemned opium as anti-Islamic, as the poppy crop in Afghanistan supports addicts in Europe and the Middle East, as well as a large number in Afghanistan. But given their own deep ties to opium smuggling during the insurgency, Taliban leaders walk a fine line between hypocrisy and holiness.
A widespread crackdown would exacerbate Afghanistan’s already devastating post-war economic collapse and antagonize the main Taliban constituency among Pashtun farmers, impoverishing families who depend on crops to pay for food. Extermination requires not only confiscating farmers’ solar panels, but also confronting Taliban commanders complicit in the trade — at a time when the movement faces internal discontent as money dries up.
The opium trade made about $1.8 billion to $2.7 billion last year, the United Nations estimates. Opium sales have supplied 9 to 14 percent of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product, compared to 9 percent through legal exports of goods and services.
“Opium cultivation and opiate exports are hugely important to the Afghan economy as a whole, and any implementation of the ban will have far-reaching consequences,” the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research group, wrote in a report last month. †
Opium farmers now rely on at least 67,000 solar-powered water reservoirs in the southwestern Afghan desert, according to a European Union-funded research project by David Mansfield, a consultant who has spent two decades studying illegal economies and rural livelihoods in Afghanistan. .
The panels, which supplanted more expensive and less reliable diesel to run water pumps, have helped make the desert greener. According to the research of Dr. Mansfield, the population of previously uninhabited desert areas in Kandahar, Helmand and Nimruz provinces has ballooned to at least 1.4 million people in recent years as solar-powered pumps helped expand arable land.
“For many opium farmers, abundant water is now a given,” he said. “Nobody sees it as a prize.”
The Taliban have targeted some solar-powered pumps. On May 13, the governor of Helmand Province, bordering Kandahar Province in the opium belt, ordered police to seize panels and pumps so newly planted poppies would die in parched fields.
“Do not destroy the fields, let the fields dry out,” Governor Maulave Talib Akhund said in a statement. He added: “We are committed to fulfilling the Opium Decree.”
The opium ban comes amid catastrophic levels of hunger, poverty and drought. The United Nations estimates that 23 million Afghans face acute food shortages. An economy once supported by Western aid has collapsed due to sanctions and a freeze on Afghan public funds abroad.
“It is unfortunate for Afghans because poppies are the wealth of the Afghan people,” Shah Agha, 35, a poppy farmer from Kandahar’s Zari district, said of the ban.
After investing about $500 in seeds, fertilizer, labor and other costs, Mr. Agha, he hoped to make about $5,000 after selling the 20 pounds of opium he expected to harvest this spring.
The opium ban was met with shrugs this spring by southern farmers, many of whom were already harvesting their spring crops. Opium prices rose almost immediately, several farmers said, from $60 per kilogram to about $180 per kilogram.
“I think they banned it for their own benefit because most of the smugglers and Taliban commanders have tons of opium and they may want to raise the prices,” Mr Agha said.
This spring, Taliban forces appeared unable or uninterested in launching a rapid eradication campaign. Taliban patrols leisurely drove past abundant opium fields where the spring crop was being harvested. Workers flanked by bright solar panels used curved blades to scrape sticky opium paste from poppy bulbs
The government has indicated that it will allow the spring harvest because it was already underway. But the Taliban have vowed to crack down on farmers trying to grow new crops.
As the United States did during its long presence in Afghanistan, the Taliban have proposed switching to alternative crops such as wheat, pomegranates, cumin and almonds. But even if poppy cultivation were eliminated, alternative crops would still be endangered as the desert aquifers are rapidly depleted.
dr. Mansfield said it was uncharted territory to determine how long the aquifers could continue to supply water, because no one had been able to conduct a thorough scientific study of the desert groundwater.
Amir Jan Armani, 45, who said he hoped to earn about $4,000 from 45 kilograms of opium he harvested this spring in Kandahar province, said he had seen water levels plummet since the solar panels arrived.
When farmers used diesel-powered pumps, groundwater levels dropped about three meters per year, said Mr. Armani. But since the advent of solar panels, they have sunk as much as nine meters a year. His well is 30 meters deep, he said, but his neighbor’s well across the river is 60 meters deep.
“We have to keep digging our wells deeper and deeper,” said Mr Armani.
He and other farmers saved money this spring by not paying Taliban-imposed opium taxes in previous years. No such taxes have been levied this year, said Noor Ahmad Saied, the Taliban’s information director in Kandahar.
Many farmers in Arghandab, a Kandahar district famous for its pomegranates, have cut down pomegranate trees that were killed by drought or fighting. Instead, they planted poppies.
Even if prices are high, many poppy farmers say, they only make about $2 a day for each member of the family. They are at the bottom of a drug trafficking system where profits are growing exponentially, from growers to middlemen, from processing labs to major cross-border smugglers.
Ehsanullah Shakir, 31, an opium smuggler in Helmand province, said Taliban enforcement of the ban had been uneven so far this year. Some farmers had planted almonds, cumin or basil after harvesting their spring poppies, he said, but others had ignored the ban and planted poppies for a second crop. And the opium markets continue to function as usual in many areas, Shakir said.
Farmers whose poppy fields had been plowed by the previous administration could send their sons to paid jobs as soldiers or police officers — or to the constellation of unskilled jobs offered by the United States and NATO. But those options are gone and unemployment has skyrocketed under the Taliban.
In the Maiwand district of Kandahar, Nek Nazar, 41, was working to install a new water pump on the edge of his poppy field. He started growing poppies five years ago, he said, because they yielded far more income than the wheat he had grown.
Mr. Nazar spoke as if the crop change was destined and not a matter of choice. For him, it was either planting poppies or starving.
“Growing poppies is the only option for survival right now,” he said.
Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar.