The future of Afghanistan’s drug trade

17 May 2022

The uneven mountainous terrain of Afghanistan have not only seen decades of conflict, but also a busy stream of opium production. Today, Afghanistan remains the world’s biggest opium producer and supplier, but this might all change after the Taliban’s ban under Sharia law in early April.

So far the majority of opium production worldwide, hovering at 85 per cent, comes from Afghanistan. The pandemic initially increased the importance of poppies. The protracted economy due to COVID-19 caused an 37 per cent increase in opium production in 2020, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) noted.

After the Taliban takeover of Kabul last August, opium prices soured to “new highs” and opium production increased further. Under the Taliban regime, Afghanistan is under the clutches of extreme poverty and economic turmoil compelling people to produce opium for survival, Deutsche Welle notes.

The economy is severely affected by the Taliban takeover. The United States (U.S.) has frozen foreign reserves of US$ 9.5 billion, Germany suspended US$ 300 million in aid, and the International Monetary Fund its US$ 440 Special Drawing Rights allocation. For a country that is already isolated without an internationally recognized government, such conditions are disastrous for its public services which depended for 75 per cent on international grants. Furthermore, an unprecedented currency crisis and a massive hike in fuel and food prices have furthered the economic challenges.

Drug production and its notorious illicit trade is the second largest industry in the country equal to one-tenth of the Afghan economy. The UN agency UNODC concluded that the illicit opium economy in war-tarnished Afghanistan was between US$1.8 billion and US$2.7 billion for 2021.

Drugs emanated from Afghanistan are smuggled to the entire globe. Different routes are used by traffickers and smugglers to traffic opium outside of Afghanistan. The two most important routes used for drug trafficking pass through the neighbouring countries of Pakistan and Iran.

According to UNODC, 45 per cent of opium produced by Afghanistan is trafficked through the southern route bordering Pakistan. Seized Afghan opium in Pakistan shows that 37 per cent of seized drugs were destined for Europe; 34 per cent for the Middle-East; 14 per cent to East and Southeast Asia and 4 per cent to North America. The alternative Balkan route via Iran and Turkey, mainly leads to Europe.

The United States, spent US$ 8 billion from 2002 to 2017 to thwart drug production which was bringing in US$ 200 million annually for the Taliban, but opium production kept blooming despite operations like Iron Tempest and other measures.

Mohammed Ehsan Zia, a former Afghan cabinet minister, declared that there wasn’t a clear policy to eradicate drug production from Afghan soil and its international trafficking routes. The U.S. and U.K. bribed farmers, hired mercenaries, and sprayed defoliants from the sky to curb opium production but all in vain.

Drug traffickers mainly use financial service providers who are complicit or unaware of the drug trade. Between 50 to 90 per cent of all illicit financial transactions in Afghanistan are conducted via money or value transfer services in 2014. New payment methods like virtual currencies are also used these days.

Now, the Taliban has declared opium production un-Islamic and banned it outright as it has done in the past to gain favour with the international community. During the previous ban, global heroin supply dropped 75 per cent.

This time around, the ban might come at a cost if rural support for the Taliban is lost among a population indebted after the war. AFP spoke to farmers worrying they would be “forced to steal” due to the ban and if the Taliban does not offer compensation. Due to the developments, the UN warned that 97 per cent of the population might end up in poverty this year.

Article by Asad Ali and Anrike Visser.

Copyright © 2022, rights reserved as set forth in the copyright notice.

Taking you where others don't
Ready to make sense of foreign news?

By subscribing you agree that your information will be transferred to MailChimp for processing in accordance with their Privacy Policy ( and Terms (