Pipe dreams: The Taliban and drugs from the 1990s into its new regime

EDITORIAL USE ONLY - Two taliban fighters in charge of the security in Darullaman Palace in Kabul. Kabul, Afghanistan, September 15, 2021. Photo by Oriane Zerah/ABACAPRESS.COM
Editor's note:

Vanda Felbab-Brown explains the Taliban’s drug policy since the 1990s through the current period, and the ground realities and policy implications of its recent poppy ban. This piece was originally published by Small Wars Journal.

The research reported here was funded in part by the Minerva Research Initiative (OUSD(R&E)) and the Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory via grant #W911-NF-17-1-0569 to George Mason University. Any errors and opinions are not those of the Department of Defense and are attributable solely to the author.

Perhaps nowhere in the world has a country and the international community faced an illicit drug economy as deeply entrenched as in Afghanistan. In 2020, opium poppy was cultivated on some 224,000 hectares in Afghanistan, one of the highest levels of cultivation in the country. In 2017, the drug economy in Afghanistan reached levels even higher—unprecedented anywhere in the world at least since World War II. Very high levels of opium production, though, had characterized Afghanistan’s opium poppy economy since 2002. But neither opium poppy cultivation nor heroin production was only a post-2001 phenomenon in Afghanistan; each was robust and steadily expanding during the Taliban era. The Taliban’s 2000 ban on opium poppy cultivation was an isolated and likely unsustainable policy move by the Islamist regime.

In the post-Taliban era decreases in poppy cultivation and opiate production that periodically took place over the previous two decades have largely been the result of the saturation of global and local drug markets, poppy crop disease, inauspicious weather such as drought, or temporary coercive measures in certain parts of Afghanistan that could not be sustained economically or politically, and rapidly broke down. Several structural factors determined the shape of the Afghan poppy economy during this period: insecurity, political power arrangements, and a lack of ready economic alternatives.

After toppling the Ashraf Ghani government in August of this year, the Taliban has announced its intention to rid Afghanistan of drugs. Taliban interlocutors stated that same objective in conversations with me in winter 2019. Yet implementing and maintaining any kind of poppy ban will be wickedly difficult for the Taliban. Even if à la the 1990s, the Taliban seeks to use poppy suppression to obtain international legitimacy (such as with Russia and Iran) and recognition, any lasting suppression would face the same structural and political obstacles that poppy bans and eradication faced in Afghanistan since the mid-1990s. The Taliban regime could ram through temporary poppy bans, but it will struggle to maintain the bans even more than it had to three decades ago. In fact, any effort to maintain them could critically internally destabilize the Taliban. But unlike in the 1990s, it is a new drug world out there—replete with synthetic opioids.

The Taliban and Drugs and Other Trade in the 1990s

In the 1990s, the Taliban did not originally exploit the drug economy out of a need for financial profits, nor did it need the drug profits to expand its military capabilities and intensify the conflict. When the movement first emerged in Kandahar in 1994 and started expanding in southern Afghanistan, its financial resources and operational capacities, such as weapons, came from other sources—namely, external sponsors, such as Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, and from the successful exploitation of the illicit traffic with legal goods with undeclared legal goods under the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement (ATTA). Moreover, the Taliban’s expansion through the country also came mainly prior to its exploitation of the illicit narcotics economy. It was the need to consolidate its political power once its military expansion had taken place that drove the Taliban to embrace the drug economy.

By October 1996 the Taliban fielded at least 25,000 men and was armed with tanks, armored vehicles, helicopters, and fighter aircraft. Through Pakistan’s ISI, the Taliban was also able to recruit former Afghan personnel in Pakistan refugee camps who were veteran pilots, tank drivers, and technicians by offering high salaries paid in US dollars.

The second source of the Taliban’s physical resources was its exploitation of the illicit traffic with legal goods that existed between Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under the Afghan Transit Trade Agreement, negotiated in the 1950s, landlocked Afghanistan secured a deal from Islamabad that allowed goods to pass from the port of Karachi through Pakistan and over the border to Afghanistan duty-free.  Yet, the subsequent U-turn scheme that emerged benefited the smugglers above all and worked like this: a buyer in Afghanistan issued a letter of credit to import some goods, say refrigerators, through the port of Karachi. The appliances were then driven through Pakistan into Afghanistan duty-free. The trucks unloaded their cargo on the Afghan side and returned to Pakistan empty. Meanwhile, the tax-free goods were carried back to Pakistan illegally, for example, by camels and donkeys. The goods, which sold for far less than the goods imported into Afghanistan legally, were then distributed via a trucking industry to a large extent controlled by Afghan refugees in Pakistan. According to the World Bank, this illicit traffic amounted to $2.5 billion in 1997.

Local warlords charged tolls for the smugglers’ use of the roads and passes under their control. The growing chaos of the early 1990s and the increasingly higher and higher tolls and taxes charged by the local warlords severely threatened the interests of the transport mafia. On any route a transport could have been stopped as many as twenty times and forced to pay tolls, and occasionally the local warlords even robbed the transported goods.

Although, purported to be long incensed with the excesses of the predatory warlords on the highways and by their arbitrary taxation and extortion, the Taliban provided protection to the smuggling enterprise. The Taliban set up a one-toll system for trucks entering Afghanistan at Spin Boldak, patrolled the highway against other warlords, and, crucially, declared that the Taliban would not allow goods bound for Afghanistan to be carried out by Pakistani trucks, thus satisfying a key demand of the Afghan transport mafia. The transport mafia was ecstatic, and the Taliban got paid handsomely by the traffickers. In March 1995, for example, the Taliban reportedly collected 6 million rupees ($150,000) from transporters in Chaman in a single day and twice that amount next day in Quetta. In 1997, for example, the Taliban was estimated to have received $75 million from the illegal smuggling with licit goods. Apart from facilitating procurement, logistics, and salaries, the money obtained from the illicit traffic also allowed the Taliban to buy off some of its opponents. This bribe approach was, in fact, a key feature of the Taliban’s military tactics.

Compared to the greedy and unpredictable local powerbrokers who had controlled and taxed the trafficking routes prior to the Taliban, the Taliban significantly lowered many transaction costs for the traffickers, preventing constant power shifts and bringing stability to the industry and helping to streamline it.

Seeing drug production as anti-Islamic, the Taliban’s original impulse was to prohibit it. When in late 1994 and early 1995 the Taliban moved out of Kandahar west to the Helmand Valley, the main poppy growing region in Afghanistan at the time, it banned the drug trade. In a series of communiqués about the Taliban goals, its leaders made a commitment to end opium poppy cultivation. The emergence of the Taliban on the political and military scene in the poppy growing regions halved the acreage allocated for poppy for the following growing season, a trend that farmers attributed to the fear of reprisals from the Taliban. But wheat prices were also booming that year and there was a significant carry-over of raw opium from the bumper opium harvest in 1994. In fact, both the United Nations and the United States were hopeful that should the Taliban succeed in taking over the country, it would stem Afghanistan’s opium and heroin production. The Taliban also cracked down harshly on hashish addicts, imprisoning them, beating them, and submerging them in cold water for several hours at a time.

But the Taliban’s prohibition did not last. By 1996, the Taliban adopted a laissez-faire approach to drug cultivation, that progressively evolved into taxing the farmers as well as providing security for and taxing the traffickers. The new edicts the Taliban issued now read: “The cultivation of, and trading in chers(cannabis, used for hashish) is forbidden absolutely. The consumption of opiates is forbidden, as is the manufacture of heroin, but the production and trading in opium is not forbidden.” In practice, however, heroin labs or trade were not dismantled. The 10% zakat on opium, formerly paid to the village mullahs, was now directed to the Taliban’s treasury, earning an estimated $9 million in 1996-7, from the south’s regular output of 1,500 tons of opium. A 10% zakat was also levied on the traffickers. As the 1990s progressed, these taxes were increased to 20%, bringing in between $45 million to $200 million a year. By 1999, the Taliban also taxed heroin labs. The Taliban also sought to expand and regulate the narcotics economy by providing official government licenses for opium cultivation, by setting up model farms teaching the farmers how to grow poppy more efficiently, and by distributing fertilizers for the cultivation of poppy.

Thus, poppy cultivation continued increasing throughout the 1990s. In 1980, the total production of opium in Afghanistan consisted of 200 metric tons. By 1990, it had climbed to 1,600 metric tons in 1990, by 1994 to 3,400 metric tons in 1994 and 4,600 in 1999.

The illicit narcotics industry boosted the Taliban’s legitimacy because it provided a reliable source of livelihood to a vast segment of the population. Not only was this livelihood fairly lucrative, it was frequently the only source of livelihood available to the population in an otherwise devastated economy. Ruined by the war against the USSR in the 1980s, Afghanistan’s economy continued being in a critical condition throughout the 1990s. All economic activity, short of subsistence production and the microeconomic spillover from illicit activities came to a halt.

Moreover, as in the case of illicit smuggling of legal goods, the illicit narcotics economy also allowed other forms of microeconomic activity to develop in areas where there was previously only limited agricultural production. Services, such as rest stops, teashops, and fuel stations sprung up in connection with the smuggling of narcotics. Many people thus developed a stake in the illicit narcotics economy: the traders, the smugglers, the shopkeepers, and the local warlords and religious elites whom the Taliban tolerated and allowed to cut in on the narcotics economy. But unlike the smuggling of legal goods under ATTA, the illicit narcotics economy, being highly labor intensive, also provided a reliable, and frequently sole source of livelihood to the vast segments of the rural population.

Farmers themselves emphasized the Taliban’s sponsorship of the illicit economy as a crucial source of the movement’s political power. Ahmed Rashid’s 1997 interview with Wali Jan, an elderly farmer near Kandahar, illustrates the reaction of the peasants: “We cannot be more grateful to the Taliban. The Taliban have brought us security so we can grow our poppy in peace. I need to grow poppy crop to support my 14 family members.” He earned around $1,300 a year, a small fortune by the standards of Afghan farmers.

The Taliban’s statements themselves, even if only partially genuine, also attest to the political salience of the illicit narcotics economy and to the social (and political) costs the movement associated with crop eradication. In 1997, for example, Abdul Rashid, the head of the Taliban’s anti-drug control force in Kandahar, explained: “We let people cultivate poppies because farmers get good prices. We cannot push the people to grow wheat as there would be an uprising against the Taliban if we forced them to stop poppy cultivation. So we grow opium and get our wheat from Pakistan.” Similarly, elsewhere, the director maintained:

Yet in late 1999, the Taliban did issue a ban on poppy cultivation that resulted in the largest reduction of opium poppy cultivation in a country in any single year. Cultivation fell from an estimated 82, 172 hectares in 2000 to less than 8,000 in 2001. Globally, this reduction contributed to a 75% fall in the global supply of heroin for that year.

The ban severely affected the prospects for economic survival for vast segments of Afghanistan’s rural population. In the words of one DEA official, the ban was “bringing their country—or certain regions of their country—to economic ruin.” Absence of viable alternative means of subsistence and income drove the majority of landowners and sharecroppers heavily into debt, with many sharecroppers ending up essentially in bonded labor. Unable to repay their debts, others were driven to borrow even further or abscond into Pakistan.

While banning opium cultivation in 2000, the Taliban did not ban or otherwise interfere with the sale and trafficking of opium and poppy during that period. In choosing to curb the production, the Taliban risked its domestic political capital, based crucially on its sponsorship of the poppy economy, in the hope of obtaining international legitimacy. Most of the international community was treating the Taliban regime as a pariah—with Russia, China, Iran, and Iran actively supporting the Taliban’s weakening armed opponent, the Northern Alliance. By 2000, only Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban regime.

Through the ban, the Taliban might have also sought to boost the price of opium and consolidate its control over the heroin trade. As cultivation exploded during the 1990s, the farmgate prices for opium plummeted. The 2000 ban by the Taliban and the resulting supply contraction of 75% did in fact substantially increase prices for opium. The total farmgate value of opium went from $56 million in 2001 to $1,200 million in 2002.

The political costs to the Taliban, however, were substantial.

Moreover, the ban was not sustainable. By the summer of 2001, with the ban still in place, some farmers started seeding poppy once again. The Taliban rescinded the ban on poppy cultivation in September 2001. Some analysts have attempted to explain the reversal of the Taliban’s policy by arguing that the Taliban needed greater financial resources in order to fight against the United States after 9-11. For several reasons, however, this explanation is likely not accurate. First, as already mentioned, the temporary ban on poppy cultivation vastly increased the price of heroin, thus significantly increasing the Taliban’s financial profits. Moreover, the Taliban’s stockpile and the stockpile of Afghanistan’s major traffickers in 2001 were believed to amount to 3,000 tons.

The Taliban’s sensitivity to the political costs associated with eradication, especially in anticipation of the upcoming war with the United States, is much more likely what drove the Taliban’s decision. In fact, in 2002, after the United States toppled the Taliban regime and Hamid Karzai became the new president, farmers in southern Afghanistan complained that Karzai had promised to let them grow poppy in exchange for their help in toppling the Taliban regime, and that they now felt betrayed.

In short, the popular myth that if the Taliban remained in power the drug economy would not have emerged and expanded in Afghanistan is incorrect. The domestic economic conditions in Afghanistan—grinding poverty and underdevelopment—resulted in the drug economy spreading its roots deeply throughout Afghanistan prior to the Taliban’s takeover of the country, and the Taliban’s 1990s policies strengthened this trend. The political costs of destroying the sole source of livelihood for large segments of the population were too great even for the Taliban to ignore, and it became a willing sponsor of the drug economy. Like the mujahadeen warlords before and after its reign, the Taliban never succeeded in kicking Afghanistan’s opium habit, it became hooked on it.

The Drug Trade and Counternarcotics Policies in Afghanistan between 2002 and 2021

Over the past 20 years, opium poppy cultivation continued to underlie much of Afghanistan’s economic and political life throughout the country. Poppy is deeply entwined in the socio-economic fabric of the country, and hence, inescapably, in its political arrangements and power relations.

The Taliban has been profiting from the drug trade, as were various criminal gangs (sometimes connected to the government), the Afghan police, various militias, tribal elites, and many ex-warlords-cum-government officials at various levels of the Afghan government. Sometimes the involved individuals and groups, including of those nominally on the opposite sides of the violent conflict, strongly overlap, and multiple intersections and connections exist among them. During the past 20 years, police units, often highly abusive and criminalized, taxed the drug economy. Local commanders and powerbrokers equally taxed it as well as owned or sponsored poppy fields. They also rented land to poppy farmers and provided microcredit for cultivation. Border officials, such as at Kabul airport or at the Spin Boldak or Zaranj crossings, let trafficking pass for a cut of drug profits.

With its widespread territorial influence and reach throughout the country, the Taliban has taxed cultivation, processing, and smuggling of drugs; and units and members of the Taliban have been deeply involved in all these elements. In various years, the Taliban allowed its fighters to disengage from fighting in order to collect the drug harvest. The Taliban also collects taxes from independent drug traders and various criminal groups, while suppressing others.

Over the past twenty years, the Taliban has been able to obtain tens to hundreds of millions of dollars from the Afghan poppy economy per year. 2020 upper-range estimates put that number at $416 million.

However, like the vast majority of militant groups, the Taliban has simply taxed any kind of economic activity in areas where it operated—from legal trade in goods (hundreds of millions annually) to illegal mining ($464 million in 2020), sheep herds (not profitable effectively taxing them is an expression of effective authority), logging, NATO trucks, and wildlife contraband and donations from abroad ($240 million). In 2020, this combined income was estimated to amount to as much as $1.6 billion. Similarly, at the peak of NATO’s surge in Afghanistan in 2011 (when 150,000 NATO soldiers were fighting the Taliban), the Taliban’s “taxes” on truckers supplying NATO likely surpassed the Taliban’s income from drugs.

In contrast, the attitude of the Islamic State in Khorasan toward the drug economy has been varied. Its western branch in Herat, now largely moribund, was deeply implicated in the drug trade. Its eastern branch in Nangarhar, surprisingly, sought to suppress opium poppy cultivation there, despite the highly negative economic impact on local populations.

Unfortunately, many of the counternarcotics policies adopted during most of the 2000s not only failed to reduce the size and scope of the illicit economy in Afghanistan, but also had serious counterproductive effects on the other objectives of peace, state-building, and economic reconstruction.

The initial objective of the US intervention in 2001 was to degrade al Qaeda capabilities and institute a regime change in Afghanistan. Dealing with the illicit economy was not considered to be integral with the military objectives. Thus until 2003, US counternarcotics policy in Afghanistan was essentially laissez-faire. The US military understood that it would not be able to obtain intelligence on the Taliban and al Qaeda if it tried to eradicate poppy. Meanwhile, it relied on key warlords who were often deeply involved in the drug economy since the 1980s, not simply to provide intelligence on the Taliban, but also to carry out direct military operations against the Taliban and al Qaeda.

Under a concept of “lead nations” for the international assistance mission in Afghanistan, with a specific country being responsible for reconstruction in a specific sector, Britain was tasked in 2002 with counternarcotics. Sensitive to the political problems of eliminating the rural population’s livelihood, Britain at first deployed a compensated eradication program. Thus, during the 2002-03 poppy growing season, Britain promised to pay $350 to the farmers for each jerib (unit of area) of poppy they themselves eradicated, with $71.75 million committed for the program. But from the outset, the policy was plagued by numerous problems, including corruption and moral hazard, and thus the policy was aborted in less than a year.

By 2004, increased interdiction was undertaken instead. Its goal was to target large traffickers and processing laboratories. Immediately, however, the effort was manipulated by local Afghan strongmen to eliminate drug competition and ethnic, tribal, and other political rivals. Instead of targeting top echelons of the drug economy, many of whom had considerable political clout, interdiction operations were largely conducted against small vulnerable traders who could neither sufficiently bribe nor adequately intimidate the interdiction teams and their supervisors within the Afghan government. The result was a significant vertical integration of the drug industry in Afghanistan.

The other—again undesirable—effect of how interdiction was carried out was that it allowed the Taliban to integrate itself back into the Afghan drug trade. Having recouped in Pakistan, the Taliban was once again needed to provide protection to traffickers targeted by interdiction.

Alarmed by the spread of opium poppy cultivation, some public officials in the United States in 2004 and 2005 also started calling for a strong poppy eradication campaign, including aerial spraying. Thus, between 2004 and 2009, manual eradication was carried out by central Afghan units trained by Dyncorp as well as by regional governors and their forces. Immediately, the scheme generated violent strikes and social protests against it. Another wave of eradication took place in 2005 when reduction in poppy cultivation was achieved. Most of the reduction was due to cultivation suppression in Nangarhar province where, through promises of alternative development and threats of imprisonment, production was slashed by 90 percent.

However, alternative livelihoods never materialized for many. The Cash-for-Work programs reached only a small percentage of the population, mainly those living close to cities. The overall pauperization of the population there was devastating. Unable to repay debts, many farmers were forced to sell their daughters as young as three years old as brides, or abscond to Pakistan. In Pakistan, the refugees frequently have ended up in the radical Deobandi madrasas and have begun refilling the ranks of the Taliban. Apart from incorporating the displaced farmers into their ranks, the Taliban also began to protect the opium fields of the farmers, in addition to protecting the drug traffic. In fact, the antagonized poppy farmers came to constitute a strong and key base of support for the Taliban, denying intelligence to ISAF and providing it to the Taliban. Just like interdiction, eradication has been plagued by massive corruption problems, with powerful elites able to bribe or coerce their way out of having their opium poppy fields destroyed or to direct eradication against their political opponents, with the poorest farmers, most vulnerable to Taliban’s mobilization, bearing the brunt of eradication.

Moreover, the reductions in opium poppy cultivation due to eradication were not sustained.

To recap, eradication and opium poppy bans had the following effects:

  • First, they did not bankrupt the Taliban. In fact, the Taliban reconstituted itself in Pakistan between 2002 and 2004 without access to large profits from drugs, rebuilding its material base largely from donations from Pakistan and the Middle East and from profits from another illicit economy, the illegal traffic with licit goods between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • Second, eradication strengthened the Taliban physically by driving economic refugees into its hands.
  • Third, eradication alienated the local population from the national government as well as from local tribal elites who agreed to eradication, thus creating a key opening for Taliban mobilization.
  • Fourth, and crucially, eradication critically undermined the motivation of the local population to provide intelligence on the Taliban to the counterinsurgents while it motivated the population to provide intelligence to the Taliban.
  • Fifth, the local eradicators themselves were in the position to best profit from counternarcotics policies, being able to eliminate competition – business and political alike – and alter market concentration and prices at least in the short term within their region of operations.

In a courageous break with a previous counterproductive policy, the US administration of President Barack Obama wisely decided in 2009 to scale back poppy eradication in Afghanistan, but it struggled to implement its new strategy effectively.

The interdiction policy adopted in 2008 by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) International Security Assistance Force for Afghanistan (ISAF) and then Resolute Support (RS) neither bankrupted and weakened the Taliban, nor systematically altered the structural drivers or political dynamics of the poppy economy and the strength of organized crime, and corruption in the region. Between 2016 and 2020, the United States dedicated significant assets to aerial bombing of presumed Taliban drug depots, but this effort neither weakened the Taliban’s operational structures nor significantly affected its financial inflows.

The US-Taliban Doha deal of February 2020 precludes the United States from mounting such aerial bombing of opium/ heroin and ephedra/ ephedrine depots, labs, and transportation trucks. Rural development policies similarly failed to address the structural drivers of poppy cultivation and many were not sustainable. Most have withered with the significant intensification of insecurity in the country and the Taliban’s ever expanding territorial influence.

Indeed, no supply side suppression measures—whether eradication, interdiction, or alternative livelihoods—have ever been effective and lasting anywhere in the world in the context of an on-going war. Peace and security and extensive government presence are inescapable preconditions for successful supply reduction measures.

Under conditions of intense and growing insecurity, demand reduction measures in Afghanistan, such as treatment and prevention, have for years been the most promising and highly beneficial venue for drug policy interventions. Yet they were never adequately funded or prioritized either by international donors or the Afghan government.

The Taliban’s Poppy-Ban Promise and Ground Realities

Delivering on its stated promise to rid Afghanistan of poppy will be extremely difficult for the Taliban.

Already, the Taliban regime faces the loss of many billions dollars that had been allocated to Afghanistan—from the IMF, the World Bank, the United States, and the European Union; and the country’s central bank reserves are frozen in the United States.

The country’s illegal and informal economies can only offset a part of those losses. The Taliban cannot simply double its poppy economy—the global market being already saturated with opioids, including synthetic ones.[52] Banning poppy cultivation, to deliver on its promise to make Afghanistan drug free, would be enormously socially explosive. Maintaining any such ban would require extensive and lasting repression.

Beyond immiserating already desperately poor people hit by COVID-19, drought, and large economic contractions in a country where 90 percent of people live in poverty and at least 12 million in condition of malnutrition, such a ban would also eliminate income and employment for its middle-layer commanders and rank-and-file fighters.

Growing unhappiness of the Taliban’s powerful middle-layer commanders and their networks would pose a major threat to the Taliban regime’s survival.

The Taliban’s success as an insurgency reflected the fact that despite consistent NATO efforts to set off internal fragmentation the group remained cohesive. But the challenge of maintaining cohesiveness across its many different groups and factions having varied ideological intensity and materials interests is very different in war than it is now that the Taliban is in power. The various factions have highly disparate views about how the new regime should rule across just about all dimensions of governance: from inclusiveness, to dealing with foreign fighters, to the economy, to external relations. Many of the middle-level battlefield commanders—younger, more plugged into global jihadi networks, and without the same personal experience of the Taliban mismanaging its 1990s rule—are more hardline than some older top Taliban leaders and shadow governors.

To survive as a regime, the Taliban will not only need to bridge and manage their different views on ruling but it will also have to assure that key commanders and their rank-and-file soldiers retain enough income not to be tempted to defect.

A poppy ban would significantly constrain the pool of resources to keep the various Taliban elements happy.

Indeed, a key to the Taliban’s successful blitzkrieg this summer was its bargaining with and promising to local and national level powerbrokers and militias that the Taliban would allow them to maintain some rents from some local economies, such as mining in Badakhshan and logging in Kunar and the drug trade across the country.

It yet remains to be seen whether the Taliban top or local leadership will get greedy and renege on those promises, seeking instead to displace non-Taliban political and criminal structures from the drug trade and other local economies. A Taliban move to exclude others from local rents would be a replay of the behavior of anti-Taliban warlords after 2001, but it would once again generate new sources of frictions amidst a tanking Afghan economy and potential bases of armed opposition.

Even without a ban, the Taliban will struggle to find jobs for the many now unemployed soldiers of the Afghan security forces whom the United States paid. Even if half of the nominal force were ghost soldiers or are dead, and say only 150,000 soldiers actually fought, they are now a loose force without income for themselves and their families. They melted before the Taliban, but in time may resort to banditry or be tempted to join old or new militias, even if only to get economic rents.

And preserving the Taliban’s income from trade with Iran, China, Central Asia, and Pakistan, which has brought the Taliban hundreds of millions in informal taxes, depends on whether the Taliban can assure Iran’s, Russia’s, and China’s principal counterterrorism interests and prevent leakage of terrorism to those countries and Central Asia. Those interests trump for those countries any economic opportunities Afghanistan offers. And with the exception of China and the Gulf countries, their aid pockets are shallow.

Policy Implications

What those complexities likely means is that the Taliban will likely repeat some of the script of its 1990s policy playbook. It is likely to bargain with the international community that it will implement a comprehensive poppy ban after or in conjunction with the international community’s recognition of the Taliban regime and after the international community delivers robust alternative livelihoods assistance to Afghanistan. Until then, the Taliban will likely argue it cannot starve the Afghan people by implementing a ban.

And if and when the Taliban decides to risk the political—and potentially armed—backlash to enforcing a ban, it will struggle to sustain it. Even if the Taliban were able to maintain adequate security, and international donors did agree to deliver alternative livelihoods aid, it would take decades of extremely auspicious policies and circumstances for rural development to effectively compensate for poppy suppression.

Moreover, unlike in Myanmar where the various ethno-nationalist groups compensated income losses due to poppy eradication by expanding methamphetamine production, the Taliban cannot easily do so. The existing meth production in Afghanistan is nowhere as established as the one in Myanmar which dominates East Asia and Australian markets, while Europe is supplied from United States out of robust production in Mexico. The Taliban would struggle to compete with the East Asian, Mexican, and European producers. The only places where a market for Afghan meth could expand significantly are Africa and the Middle East where meth consumption is still relatively small. But a lot of other drugs, such as tramadol and captagon, dominate in those areas. Moreover, if meth use did start taking off there Chinese and Myanmar-based meth producers could also seek to expand their operations there and thus compete with either meth—or heroin—produced in Afghanistan.

And the 21st drug century is fundamentally different from the 1990s: it abounds with cheap and potent synthetic opioids. So, if the Taliban did enforce a ban in Afghanistan for a year or two, it could find that its lucrative European drug markets has been snatched from underneath it by Chinese and Indian fentanyl producers. Thus, even after it rescinded a ban, it may not be able to recover its financial losses or restore employment to oppressed and impoverished Afghans, restive militias and powerbrokers, and its own disaffected factions.