Opium poppy plantations have been destroyed as part of the Taliban’s war on drugs.
Abdul strikes the heads of poppies as hard as he can while holding an AK-47 assault rifle on his left shoulder and a long stick in his right hand. The stalks and sap from the poppy bulb both flutter in the air, emitting the characteristic, strong aroma of opium in its unprocessed state.
Abdul and a dozen other guys quickly destroy the poppy crop that had overtaken the little field. The armed men then board a pickup truck and proceed to the following farm while donning shalwar kameez (a traditional Afghan tunic with loose-fitting trousers), the majority of whom have long beards.
We were given a rare opportunity to accompany the guys on one of their patrols to destroy poppy farming. The men are members of a Taliban anti-narcotics unit in the eastern Nangarhar region of Afghanistan. The men were insurgency combatants who were engaged in a conflict to grab control of the nation less than two years ago. Now that they have prevailed, they are dominating and carrying out their leader’s commands.
Haibatullah Akhundzada, the supreme leader of the Taliban, issued a directive in April 2022 outlawing the growing of the poppy, which is used to make opium, a crucial component of the narcotic heroin. Anyone breaking the law would have their field destroyed and face Sharia-compliant penalties.
A Taliban spokesman told the BBC that the prohibition was put in place because it violates their religious convictions and is necessary to prevent the spread of opium, which is obtained from poppy seed capsules. More than 80% of the opium in the world used to be produced in Afghanistan. In Europe, opium from Afghanistan accounts for 95% of the heroin sold.
The BBC has now been to Afghanistan and utilized satellite analysis to investigate the impact of direct intervention on the cultivation of opium poppies. The Taliban leaders seem to have had more success than anyone else in eradicating farming.
We discovered a sharp decline in poppy growth in the main opium-producing areas; according to one expert, annual cultivation may be 80% lower than previous year. Poppies have been replaced with less lucrative wheat crops, and many farmers report experiencing financial hardship.
In order to view the situation firsthand, we traveled to the provinces of Nangarhar, Kandahar, and Helmand. We rode on muddy, winding roads and walked miles across agriculture and rocky terrain.
Taliban destroy an opium poppy field in the video.
The 2022 opium harvest, which climbed by a third over 2021, was exempt from the Taliban directive, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
But this year is a lot different. The data we observed on the ground is supported by aerial photography.
David Mansfield, a recognized authority on the drug trade in Afghanistan, collaborates with Alcis, a UK company that specializes in satellite analysis.
“Cultivation is probably going to be less than 20% of what it was in 2022. According to him, the scale of the reduction will be unparalleled.
Despite the fact that most farmers have cooperated with the restriction, Taliban insurgents have been damaging their crops.
Toor Khan, the commander of the Taliban patrol unit we are with in Nangarhar, informs us that he and his men have been clearing tens of thousands of hectares of poppy fields for close to five months.
As the Taliban unit burns her poppy field, one woman yells passionately, “You’re destroying my field, God destroy your home.”
“I ordered you to destroy it yourself this morning. Toor Khan responds in a yell, “You didn’t, so now I have to. She withdraws within.
The Taliban kidnap her son, who is eventually released after receiving a warning.
Taliban members with Toor Khan (on the right) destroying a field of poppies
Toor Khan (right) and other Taliban members raze a poppy field in the photo’s caption.
Because there have been incidents of resistance from irate people in this area, the Taliban travel in large numbers and with weapons. During the eradication campaign, at least one civilian was murdered in a shooting, and there have been allegations of other violent conflicts.
Farmer Ali Mohammad Mia is watching the unit damage his land with a shocked expression on his face. When the poppies are finished, the ground is covered with pink flowers, green bulbs, and broken stems.
We wonder why he continued to grow poppies despite the law.
What else would you do, he asks, “if you don’t have food at home and your kids are starving?” “Our land doesn’t have a lot of space. We could only earn a small portion of what we could from opium if we planted wheat on them.
Ali Mohammed Mia, a farmer
Farmers like Ali Mohammed Mia are forced to grow less expensive crops like wheat because the cultivation of poppies is illegal.
The speed with which the Taliban do the task using only sticks is impressive. In a little more than 30 minutes, six fields, each measuring 200 to 300 square meters, are cleared.
We enquire of Toor Khan how they feel about eliminating a means of subsistence for their own starving population.
“Our captain gave the order. We are so devoted to him that if he told my friend to hang me, I would do what he says and give myself over to him, he claims.
Afghanistan’s opium heartland, where more than half of the nation’s opium was produced, used to be Helmand province in the southwest. To see for ourselves how it currently seems, we travel there independently of the Taliban’s anti-narcotics team.
When we visited the province last year, we observed vast areas of land covered in poppy farms. This time, not a single crop field is visible.
Helmand poppy cultivation has plummeted, as evidenced by the graphic, which displays two satellite images of the region from 2022 and 2023.
According to Alcis’ study, Helmand’s poppy cultivation has decreased by more than 99%. According to David Mansfield, poppy cultivation in the Helmand province has decreased from 129,000 hectares the year before to fewer than 1,000 hectares currently.
We come across farmer Niamatullah Dilsoz while he is harvesting wheat in the Marjah district, which is south of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand. He grew poppies in the same field last year. He claims that farmers in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, have largely abided by the prohibition.
The Taliban learned about some farmers’ attempts to plant poppies in their courtyards while they were concealed by walls, according to Niamatullah.
The only sounds coming from the farm are the birds chirping and the sound of the wheat stalks being cut. The field served as a front line during the conflict. UK troops had a base in Helmand, where they engaged in some of their bloodiest combat.
Graph showing the decline in poppy cultivation in Helmand (from 51.9% of crops in 2022 to 0.4% in 2023)
He is in his early twenties, Niamatullah. For the first time in his life, he ventures outside without worrying about being hit by a bomb. The opium ban, however, has dealt a devastating blow to a population already traumatized by a protracted conflict, coming at a time when Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing and nearly everyone is living in poverty. The source of their next meal is unknown to two thirds of the population.
“We are furious. We now make less money from wheat than we did from opium,” he claims. “I am unable to provide for my family. I was forced to take out a loan. There is a severe food shortage, and the government is doing nothing to help.
Niamatullah the farmer gathers wheat from his fields
Niamatullah harvests the wheat he now farms in place of poppies in the picture
We inquire about the Taliban government’s efforts to assist citizens from Zabiullah Mujahid, its principal spokesperson.
“We are aware of how destitute and distressed individuals are. But opium caused more harm than good. Out of a total population of 37 million, 4 million of our people were addicted to drugs. That’s a significant sum, he remarks. “We want the international community to help Afghans who are experiencing losses by providing them with alternative sources of livelihood.”
He disputes claims made by the US, the UN, and other nations that the Taliban relied heavily on opium sales to finance their campaigns of violence against Western soldiers and the previous Afghan government.
How can they expect aid from international organizations when the Taliban government has put their money and operations at risk by forbidding women from working for any NGOs, is the question we pose.
Mujahid responds, “The international community should not equate political and humanitarian issues.” Opium has an adverse effect on the entire world, not just Afghanistan. It is only right that Afghans get assistance in return if the world is protected from this terrible evil.
The effect of the restriction on opium pricing is already seen at the source. We encounter a farmer in Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban and historically another significant poppy-growing region, who is holding onto a little quantity of his harvest from the previous year. The farmer is clutching onto two plastic bags, each approximately the size of a football and full with dark, pungent opium resin. To keep him safe, we’re keeping his identify a secret.
“I sold a bag like this last year just before the ban for a quarter of what I could get now. I’m anticipating a further price increase so that my family will be able to survive. Our predicament is dire. I previously borrowed money to purchase food and clothing. I am aware that opium is dangerous, but what are my options? He queries.
Two bags of resin from opium
A farmer we spoke to planned to sell his opium crop despite the crackdown.
The pricing impact may take some time to reach the street price of heroin through the illicit drug trade’s supply chain.
Despite such low levels of poppy cultivation this year, “opium and heroin prices have been falling over the last six months, while they remain at a 20-year high,” claims Mansfield. This implies that there are substantial stockpiles in the system and that heroin manufacture and trading are ongoing. Additionally, seizures in nearby states and elsewhere show that there won’t soon be a heroin shortage.
In 2000, a year before the US-led war of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s first government outlawed the production of opium. At the time, Mike Trace, a former UNODC official, was a senior consultant on narcotics policy for the UK government.
Because of the actors along the drug-trafficking route’s extensive hoarding, he claims, there was no immediate and significant impact on Western prices and markets. “That’s the nature of the market, and it hasn’t changed fundamentally in the past 20 years,” the speaker said.
Taking a close-up photo of a field of poppies
The US spent enormous sums of money in Afghanistan to combat opium production and trafficking in the hopes of reducing the Taliban’s income.
They conducted raids on drug manufacturing facilities, burned opium supplies, and carried out airstrikes on opium fields in Taliban-controlled areas.
However, the BBC observed opium growing openly in regions under the administration of the US-backed former Afghan regime prior to the Taliban takeover in 2021.
For the time being, the Taliban seem to have succeeded in Afghanistan where the West failed. However, it is uncertain how long they can maintain it.
According to Mike Trace, a sharp decline in opium cultivation in Afghanistan is likely to change the sort of narcotics used, which could have an impact on the prevalence of heroin addiction in the UK and the rest of Europe. People will probably turn to synthetic narcotics, which can be far worse than opium.