Sources in Afghanistan have told IranWire that so far, the Taliban has failed to implement any restrictions on drug trafficking out of the country and the drug trade is now operating more freely than ever before. Farmers in the border regions are laying the groundwork to grow many times more poppies than before when the planting season gets under way next month.
In response Molavi Shirahmad Ammar, the Taliban's deputy governor in Herat, told IranWire that a document banning the transit and trafficking of narcotics would be issued in the coming days.
Drug trafficking has been a lucrative business in Afghanistan for decades as the world’s main opium-producing country. Refugees in Iran are often arrested and even hanged for having a role in the trade, although they are a million miles from being the main players.
Decades of instability in Afghanistan have made room for the drug trade to thrive, often with the complicity of law enforcement officials on the ground. IranWire recently spoke to Ahmad Farshad Saleh, the former head of news for the country’s 24-hour outlet Ariana, who was named the country’s Reporter of the Year in 2016 for an investigation into the drug trade in Kabul apparently taking place in full view of authorities.
Like thousands of his colleagues, Saleh fled the country after the Taliban takeover last month. With the sudden gulf in journalistic scrutiny, the country in disarray and the new government still establishing itself, the drug market is understood to be experiencing a new lease of life.
Herat governor Seyed Vahid Qatali previously told IranWire that part of the Taliban's war budget came from drug trafficking. At the time, he accused the Taliban of directly and knowingly facilitating the trade. During the Taliban’s previous period in power in the late 1990s, the cultivation and transit of narcotics was free and unfettered by legal restrictions as a core part of the Taliban’s various income streams.
This week IranWire spoke to a drug dealer named Mohammad, also in Herat. He was jubilant about the recent regime change: “Before the Taliban took control, we had to pay huge bribes to government officials to allow for drug smuggling. It was good that the Taliban took power. Now we can transport as much as we want to Iran more easily. The reason for the increase in opium prices, of course, is that the Taliban are not an obstacle to this matter."
Since the former government in Kabul fell, the price of opium has increased across the board in Afghanistan. A kilogram of opium now sells in the markets of the southern and western provinces for US$100, double the cost of just a few months ago.
A video of a recent criminal trial in the southern Afghan city of Baba Haji, Helmand Province, has been leaked to IranWire, showed a Taliban-aligned judge handling a case of fraud in the opium trade. Three farmers were being prosecuted for having been selling halva instead of herion to drug dealers. Rather than going after the dealers, the judge ordered the farmers to return the payments they had received to the drug gang.
Another IranWire source in Herat province confirmed that to their knowledge, the Taliban had not imposed any restrictions on drug trafficking so far. In fact, they said, drug shipments were receiving Taliban escorts on the highways. They added that their contacts were preparing larger shipments to be sent to Iran.
In the past, drug transportation ran through the border provinces of Farah and Nimrouz, as well as Herat, to get to Iran. According to Iranian officials, about 80 of narcotics are smuggled into Iran through these provinces. Human traffickers also operate in these areas and their activities pass even further under the radar, and often also bring drugs with them.
There are also reports that local residents are being press-ganged into abandoning their own occupations to join the trade. Golmohammad, a resident of Pashtun Zarghun in eastern Herat, told IranWire that the Taliban had been forcing him to grow opium poppies instead of saffron for the past five years: "The Taliban have made us grow opium. But the former government destroyed our fields and we paid a heavy price for it. Now that there’s not a good market for saffron, we’ll be growing opium again this year.”
Many other farmers have reported cultivating opium under pressure from the Taliban, paying part of the crop yield as a form of tax to the militant group. But it was always them, not the Taliban, that faced legal reprisal under the former government. Now the situation appears to be on the turn, with more farmers expected to stick to opium cultivation in the coming year.
Poverty and unemployment were rampant in parts of Afghanistan even before the Taliban came to power. Many residents of the border regions are now at risk of starvation. Growing opium is not a choice for many farmers; their survival and that of their families may depend on it. The poppy-growing season is approaching and in less than a month, the fields will be ready for planting.
Mohammad Zarif, a farmer in Helmand province, the original stronghold of the Taliban in Afghanistan, told IranWire that this year he would be growing “ten times” more poppies than he did last year. “The Taliban now rule Afghanistan and has put no obstacles on growing opium. This year, more fields are growing opium without fear. There is no money for Afghanistan except in opium. Now we all grow poppies."
Another farmer, 50-year-old Haji Karim, has come to Herat specifically to buy solar panels in order to better irrigate his fields ahead of an anticipated poppy-growing boom. Solar energy can be used to power the pumps to draw water from deep wells, greatly reducing the cost of cultivation. “In the past we used to spend a lot of money buying diesel fuel,” he said. “But now we use solar panels to extract water from the wells for free.”
With the rise of the Taliban, the market for opium cultivation and drug trafficking appears to be growing at a startling rate. But whatever the situation internally, Afghans who transport drugs to other states still run the risk of harsh punishments, even death, if caught. Meanwhile, the surge in production could worsen addiction in Afghan society.
IranWire contacted Molavi Shirahmad Ammar, the Taliban's new deputy governor in Herat province. He said that a "document" that would ban the transit and trafficking of drugs in Afghanistan would be issued in the next few days, but did not elaborate further.
This article was written by a citizen journalist under a pseudonym.