With the Taliban having exceeded expectations and reduced poppy cultivation to levels not seen since 2001, there is now a real need to understand the potential effects of the drugs ban on Afghanistan, the region, and further downstream.
For many of us old enough to have seen a particular style of music, or clothes, come round a second or third time, the term “unprecedented” is often overused. Those who are from Afghanistan, or worked there for a sustained period, are likely to feel much the same. There are many incidents or events where we know the term unprecedented has been deployed too casually to gain attention, describing an incident or phenomena that has perhaps occurred before – albeit in a slightly different guise - or is likely to be surpassed in the not too distant future.
It is no more so than when it comes to drug production in Afghanistan. Reports of unprecedented levels of cultivation, eradication, and seizures became the mainstay of officials and the media for many years. “Peak” or “unprecedented” levels of opium cultivation were reported one year, only to have been topped one or two seasons later. Reductions in cultivation were often described in the same cavalier way and all too often ascribed to particular programs or interventions despite evidence to the contrary.
With all this in mind it is worth considering the truly unprecedented reductions in poppy cultivation that have occurred in Afghanistan in 2023. Many will have had the feeling of “ground hog day” when they heard the Taliban leader, Mullah Haibatullah imposed a ban on drugs in Afghanistan in April 2022, only seven months after the Taliban took power. Memories of past drug control efforts both under Taliban v1.0 and the former Afghan Republic will have come to mind and ongoing reports of crop destruction, and drug seizures, will have been viewed with a heavy dose of scepticism.
Yet the reality is, an effective ban on poppy cultivation has been imposed in Afghanistan in 2023 and opium production will be negligible compared to 2022. In fact, high resolution imagery shows that in the province of Helmand poppy cultivation has fallen from more than 120,000 hectares in 2022 to less than 1,000 hectares in 2023 – a reduction in this one province alone that surpasses any prior national poppy ban in Afghanistan, even the Taliban prohibition of 2000/01.
Wheat also dominates the landscape of other provinces in the south and southwest – an area that typically grows around 80% of Afghanistan’s total poppy crop- and by the end of the season there were only small pockets of poppy cultivation remaining in the eastern province of Nangarhar, another major opium producing province. While cultivation persists – and may have even increased - in parts of the northeast, such as Badakhshan, it is clear the stage is set for the lowest levels of poppy cultivation since the Taliban ban of 2000/01.
The widespread scepticism that accompanied the opium ban when it was announced in April 2022, and throughout the growing season, must now adjust to this new reality, and as this paper explains, while the results of this drugs ban are dramatic, the potential consequences for Afghanistan, the region, and Europe, are even more so.