Over the past several weeks, the country of Afghanistan has been plunged into chaos. As the United States and its allies withdrew their troops, the Taliban, a designated terrorist organization, has now regained control. Governments around the world are now scratching their heads attempting to decide whether to establish formal relations with the Taliban. In the meantime, reports suggest that the Taliban is considering expanding the country’s robust narcotics industry to generate severely needed revenue. Although the group has promised to eradicate the illicit narcotics industry, it is currently cash-strapped. If Afghanistan becomes a narco-state, there will be numerous consequences for security in the country, region, and around the world. Now, governments must invest more resources in combating the illicit drug industry in Afghanistan and relevant drug trafficking channels around the world. If such efforts fail, terrorist organizations will only grow stronger.
Last February, former U.S. President Donald Trump announced he had signed a peace deal with the Taliban to end America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. Under the peace deal, the U.S. and its NATO allies would withdraw from the country. In return, the Taliban promised to cut back on violence and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for extremist groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The news of the U.S. withdrawal encouraged the Taliban to flex its muscles, and the group rapidly began capturing new territory in the country. On August 15, the militant group invaded Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Shortly after, they announced they had formed a government of their own.
Although the Taliban has established its government, many experts noted that few nations are ready to recognize and establish formal relations with the militant group. If governments continue to give the Taliban the cold shoulder, it could have significant political and financial ramifications for Afghanistan, especially considering the weak Afghan economy. Given the ongoing period of chaos and transition, the country does not have a functioning Central Bank. Additionally, most of the country’s economic activity is occurring in the informal sector, augmenting monetary and fiscal ambiguity. As a result, some have flagged that the Taliban may seek to expand Afghanistan’s narcotics trade to generate revenue if this financial crisis continues.
Afghanistan is the global capital of opium and heroin production, accounting for more than 80% of the global supply. Last year, poppy cultivation spiked by 37%, indicating the industry is only growing. Indeed, opium poppy cultivation, heroin production, and the illegal drug trade have been critical segments of the Afghan economy for decades. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, opium production contributed 7% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2017, generating $1.4 billion in sales.
Afghanistan also produces a large amount of cannabis and the ephedra plant, used to create methamphetamine. While there is some contention about how much narcotics-related operations contribute to the Taliban, experts generally agree that the industry contributes a significant amount to the Taliban’s yearly revenue. UN findings indicate that the Taliban controls the entire drug trafficking industry in the country, including planting, extraction, taxing, trade, and the construction and operation of drug labs. While the U.S. had a presence in Afghanistan, it spent more than $8 billion on poppy eradication airstrikes and raids on drug labs to undermine the drug trade and prevent the Taliban from generating profits. Therefore, the narcotics industry is recognized as a significant source of financial support for the group and its activities.
When the Taliban rose to power last month, the group promised global powers that it would not transform Afghanistan into a narco-state. The group even requested international support in combating the illicit drug trade. However, when the Taliban banned poppy cultivation in 2000, they received significant backlash from Afghan citizens. Experts cite this decision as one that significantly undermined domestic support for the group. However, given that Afghans have suffered through decades of violence, war, underdevelopment, displacement, a decline in foreign aid, and a weak economy, the militant group may be forced to turn to the narcotics industry to support the country and itself.
The potential expansion of the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan could have major repercussions for safety and security in the country, region, and around the world. Domestically, the expansion of the narcotics industry would give rise to numerous armed groups, warlords, and corrupt government officials, all clamoring to profit from the illicit sector. This will contribute heavily to instability and violence in the country. As Afghanistan’s narcotics trade expands, this conflict and instability could spill over into other countries. Additionally, if the narcotics industry continues to grow, the Taliban and other terrorist groups could skirt ongoing sanction regimes and obtain significant funding for their operations. This could embolden these groups to carry out large-scale terrorist attacks in the region and around the world. The expansion of the drug trade will also severely undermine decades of anti-narcotics work in the region. For example, recently, Indian anti-smuggling intelligence officials seized almost three tonnes of heroin, worth approximately $2.7 billion, originating in Afghanistan.
Since the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan, the country has been in a critical period of transition. As governments around the world weigh whether to establish official relations with the militant group, the Taliban is struggling to support their operations and the country financially. If the group expands Afghanistan’s already robust narcotics industry, it will have numerous implications for stability and security in the country, region, and around the world. International governments must do more to tackle the illicit drug industry in Afghanistan and subsequent drug flows if they wish to maintain stability and peace.