For two decades the West has seen Afghanistan’s vast opium production and trafficking industry as an enemy: a malicious trade that has supplied most of the world’s heroin, creating addiction and gangsterism, and turned Afghanistan into a corrupt narco-state. But now, as Taliban leaders ask for help in eliminating the vast opium economy, the West is realising that doing so could take it into far worse territory – and spark a global opioid death crisis.
Afghanistan’s poppy-growing industry – which produces at least 80 percent of the world’s heroin – has its seeds in the country’s war with the USSR. During the 1980s, the invading Soviet troops laid waste to the country’s agricultural system. As a result, one of the only crops farmers could grow and sell was opium poppies. By the 1990s Afghanistan had replaced countries such as Myanmar in the Golden Triangle as the world’s major supplier of heroin. The opium trade became a central part of the Afghan economy, from the peasant farmers who depended on the crop for survival to those running the country who received huge kickbacks from the trade. It is estimated the country’s opium economy is worth between £1.4 billion and £2.2 billion , amounts to 14 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP, and provides around 450,000 jobs.
As jobless poppy farming families start abandoning their fields to seek refuge in Europe, and the body count starts rising in regions opposed to the opium ban, experts tell VICE News that its a policy dilemma riddled with intrigue and political manoeuvring, where those at the sharp end – whatever transpires – are the global poor.
Behind closed doors, governments fear a shortage of the crop could prompt international traffickers to pump deadly fentanyl into the world’s heroin supplies. There are whispers the Taliban could be using the ban as a political stunt, or even colluding with drug gangs to raise the price of opium.
The West is in two minds. The UN warns of “severe and far-reaching” consequences of a heroin shortage, while providing millions of dollars in alternative livelihood funding to wean Afghan farmers off growing the plants that produce it.
How to respond to the Taliban’s opium ban is a multi-dimensional policy dilemma with many potential outcomes, and most of them are a different flavour of bad. A continued ban supported by the West could trigger civil war and a humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, another migration calamity, and a fresh wave of fatal drug overdoses that would dwarf the death toll in North America. Angle for an end to the ban and the world’s biggest heroin industry whirls back into action again, and it’s business as usual.
Oddly, that same year, the Taliban had actually banned opium production, dramatically reducing it from 3,276 metric tons in 2000 to 185 metric tons in 2001. By 2002, after the fall of the Taliban in December 2001 – which was hastened by the unpopularity of the ban – opium production had returned to levels in 2000.
“The biggest drugs hoard in the world is in Afghanistan, controlled by the Taliban. It is a regime founded on fear and funded by the drugs trade,” UK Prime Minister Tony Blair said in a speech to the Labour Party Conference at the time. “Ninety per cent of the heroin on British streets originates in Afghanistan. The arms the Taliban are buying today are paid for with the lives of young British people, buying their drugs on British streets. That is another part of their regime that we should seek to destroy.”
In 2001 the US launched the so-called War on Terror in response to the 9/11 attacks. Its first main thrust was the US-led invasion of Afghanistan to hunt down those behind the attack, Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaeda, and overthrow the country’s ruling Taliban government that was sheltering them. The West also turned its sights on Afghanistan’s opium trade, which it saw as an important financial resource for terrorism.
After the fall of the Taliban, while British troops were stationed in Afghanistan under a NATO mandate, it was the UK’s brief to oversee counter-narcotics work. Yet as opium production levels increased to record levels of 6,700 tons in 2006, the UK and US clashed on how this should be done. The White House wanted to speed up manual crop eradication with aerial crop spraying, a tactic it had used to combat the coca plantations in Colombia. But then Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the British, keen to win the battle for the “hearts and minds” of the Afghan people, preferred less antagonistic methods, including broader development programmes such as help to grow alternative crops and getting jobs in cities, and the US plans were dropped.
Between 2002 and 2017, the US government allocated $1.46 billion on alternative development aid projects designed to reduce poppy cultivation by increasing legal economic alternatives. In the last 2010s, the US army spent tens of millions of dollars blowing up heroin and meth labs in Afghanistan , although later it was revealed that many of the labs were just huts.
In his 2011 book, Cables from Kabul, former UK Ambassador to Afghanistan Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, derided the West’s attempts at dealing with the opium trade , including a secret crop spraying programme in Nangarhar, eastern Afghanistan, in 2002 ordered by the US Ambassador to Afghanistan, William “Chemical Bill” Wood, nicknamed due to his eagerness to spray coca plants when he was Ambassador in Colombia. Crop spraying was so hated by the Afghans that when the British army sent soldiers into Helmand in 2006 they were so worried about the reaction they dropped leaflets saying “We’re not here to destroy your crops.” At one stage, recalled Cowper-Coles, the British ran a secret, £25 million year-long programme to buy up and destroy opium crops, which he described as “ludicrous”.
In August 2021, the West’s 20-year mission in Afghanistan collapsed when the Taliban routed the armies of Afghanistan’s Western-backed government, seized Kabul and returned to power. The following April the Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada decreed a strict ban on growing poppies and the opium trade, because of its harmful effects and because it contradicts their Islamic beliefs.
Nevertheless, the West is still pinning its hopes on relatively small-scale programmes as a way of moving Afghans away from the poppy. One UN programme claims to have helped 8,000 families in Helmand and Kandahar provinces swap the opium trade for other livelihoods such as chicken farming.
In total, the US has spent around $9 billion on various projects such as crop substitution, poppy eradication and counter narcotics policing to try and stem the flood of opium coming out of Afghanistan since 2002. Over the same period the US spent $144.98 billion in funds for reconstruction and related activities in the country, with the UK spending £3.5 billion in aid. Yet a 2019 report to the US Congress admitted that despite all the money being spent on trying to move Afghanistan away from its reliance on opium, production had reached record levels and that “eradication efforts have had minimal impact on curbing opium-poppy cultivation”.
But by June this year it became apparent the ban for the new poppy season had been largely effective with an “unprecedented” reduction in opium production, falling 80 percent. In reining-in Afghanistan’s heroin trade, the Taliban had achieved – for the time being – what the West had failed to do in two decades of counter-narcotics programmes.
The ban came at a bad time for poppy farmers. Afghanistan’s economy has been on the brink of collapse since the Taliban returned, and the country faced extreme levels of hunger. According to the World Food Programme more than half the population face acute food insecurity. As an exclusive investigation in Afghanistan carried out for VICE News last year by Elise Blanchard found, farmers were slow to conform to the ban and trade continued despite the decree.
Some are convinced that with the Taliban’s AK-47-policed ban and Western money to support some farmers away from opium, Afghanistan's opium trade is under threat. European governments and law enforcement agencies have been dreaming of its end since heroin-related addiction and gangsterism hit hard in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet this old desire to root out and kill off the heroin trade is now tinged with a nagging fear that doing so could open the door to something far worse
So far, outside of North America, the presence of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in the heroin market has been relatively small scale. This has been put down to major suppliers concluding that there is such abundant supply of the real thing out of Afghanistan, it’s not worth the bother of switching it out for synthetics such as fentanyl.
Mexican cartels started replacing heroin with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger, in North America’s drug supplies in the mid 2010s because importing and making it was cheaper and easier to traffick than heroin. Fentanyl was also used to make fake opioid pills. The inclusion of fentanyl, first alongside and increasingly instead of heroin, created the most deadly fatal drug overdose crisis in history. Now in the US, around 70,000 of the 100,000 drug related deaths each year involve synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl. In Canada too, deaths from synthetic opioids have spiralled.
The "Faces of Fentanyl" wall, which displays photos of some of the 70,000 Americans who die each year from a fentanyl overdose, at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) headquarters in Arlington, Virginia in 2022. Photo: Agnes Bun/AFP via Getty Images
As Paul Griffiths, scientific director of the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction said earlier this year: “It seems strange to say this, but almost in terms of synthetics, the high availability of heroin at the moment is … arguably a protective factor.”
Even so, the spectre of a North American style opioid death crisis spreading worldwide, is a horrifying one. If heroin is switched out with synthetic opioids such as fentanyl at a global level, it could make the death toll in the US and Canada look small by comparison. There are around 1 million heroin users in the US, but an estimated 30 million globally, most of whom live in poverty.
The Taliban have experienced armed resistance to the ban in some poppy-growing regions. In the north eastern province of Badakhshan opium production has increased, while in the eastern province of Nangarhar local communities have been involved in fighting against the Taliban’s efforts to enforce the ban. Mansfield said a continuation of the ban could create “political instability and a fracturing of power” and a “push back against the ban in areas where the government has never had a historical presence”.
“There are three main dimensions to this dilemma. Were the Taliban to pursue the ban over consecutive years, the economic consequences within Afghanistan could cause a humanitarian disaster and a steep rise in migration out of the country,” said Mansfield. Those working in Afghanistan have told VICE News they have seen an uptick in people from poppy farming families affected by the ban turning up on the south west border seeking passage to Europe.
An extended opium ban could be bad news on a number of levels, David Mansfield, a leading expert on Afghanistan's drugs trade who worked alongside satellite imagery company Alcis to track the dramatic plunge in poppy cultivation in the last year, told VICE News.
In the past few years, synthetic opioids have been popping up with more frequency in Europe, albeit at a very low level compared to the US. A global heroin shortage is now a possibility due to the Taliban’s anti-opium stance. There are fears that as more poppy farms vanish in Afghanistan, the more likely a deadly global shift from heroin to fentanyl becomes. Rightly, European governments are on high alert in case heroin suppliers start to put synthetic opioids into the narcotic food chain.
This year in its World Drug Report the UN’s Office on Drugs and Crime recognised the “severe” and “far reaching” effects a serious disruption in the supply of poppy and heroin could have on the world’s heroin users. But at the same time it continues to fund a series of alternative development projects aimed at reducing poppy farming.
In an article for Alcis, Mansfield summed up the policy dilemma in Afghanistan: “As things currently stand, western governments may need to calibrate their response to the Taliban ban based on the outcomes they consider least undesirable. It is not possible to provide sufficient development assistance to stem the eventual return of poppy cultivation, but to press the Taliban to continue the ban could prompt a dramatic increase in outmigration and destabilise the regime in Kabul. Some may well decide that a continued flow of drugs from Afghanistan may be the least worst outcome.”
“The reality is we've got a relatively stable opiate drug using population, do we really want to have that genie come out of the box? Obviously were they not to continue the ban, then nothing changes, the opium trade continues as normal. It’s a really difficult scenario for policymakers because there are no good options here,” said Mansfield.
At the crux of this dilemma is how serious the Taliban is about maintaining the ban. Part of this is about why they did it in the first place. The Taliban’s supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada likely decided it was a good thing to do because he is a religious zealot. But Mansfield said despite its religious coating, it may have also been primarily a political move.
There is a chance the ban was always going to be a temporary measure, a move by the Taliban to gain favour with, and potentially get aid money moving from with the West, raise opium prices and then rescind the ban claiming the West did not offer enough help. Antonio Giustozzi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a defence and security think tank, said the Taliban may have even been in contact with heroin traffickers to collude in a ban. “There is a possibility the Taliban gathered the big producers, the big heroin gangs, around the table and warned them in advance of the ban so they can buy and stockpile more heroin, guaranteeing them the ban would end in two or three years, so basically negotiating some kind of deal with them.”
This strategy would be no surprise. It was the Taliban’s way of thinking during the last ban in 2001. Mullah Mohammed Hassan Rahmani, the Regional Governor for the South Western Region, said at the time: “The Taliban has done its bit and the international community should not mix politics with drugs – this is a humanitarian issue. If the international community wants drug control in Afghanistan it needs to separate the issues of politics and drugs. Neither short term nor long term assistance [in response to the ban] should be related to politics.”
“There will be other elements of the Taliban who are a bit more politically savvy, who may have argued well, ‘this is a good thing to do, because we're shutting girls schools, so this is a great distraction for the international community and while they think we're bad on women, they think we're good on drugs’. They see a ban on opium being a favour to the world, ‘the world needs to pay and provide assistance with no strings attached, without discussing their record on women and human rights’.”
But Mansfield does not believe the ban, even if it's sincere, is sustainable. He thinks the financial impact on Afghanistan's farmers, and the armed resistance, will be felt long before the West’s alternative livelihood programmes have any meaningful impact.
Giustozzi said that for the Taliban, the ban could be a “win-win” situation. “It could make significant progress towards obtaining recognition from the West, plus some financial aid, while the ban also serves the purpose of pushing heroin prices up.”
He also speculated that the ban could be used by the Taliban to try and deprive regional leaders of their revenue and thus gain more power, especially if the Taliban themselves can come up with alternative income streams.
“Some farmers have more than 500 kilos stored up, buried in holes in the ground or in their homes,” said Mansfield. “When the ban was announced last year and the news spread to all the farmers on WhatsApp, the chatter was all about storing up your opium. Some farmers sold their motorbike because their wife was ill, or they sold other household assets, rather than sell their opium stocks. Because the motorbike is only going to lose value while the opium would acquire value.”
Mansfield said the ban will not immediately impact global heroin supplies, because of opium stockpiles. For years Afghan opium farmers have been producing a surplus of opium and burying it on their farms because they know it will likely only increase in value, especially if there is ever a shortage and opium prices go up.
“You can't fix the problem [of the country’s reliance on the opium trade] in the timeframe required to make a difference to the farmers who are suffering from this ban,” he said. “The ban cannot be sustained without significant levels of either violence or out-migration.”
It was the Mexican cartels who made the decision to do the unthinkable in the drug selling world, to start mixing fentanyl into heroin supplies, something they knew was going to kill off a sizable chunk of their US market. Now in some parts of the US and Canada, heroin has been totally replaced by fentanyl. Up until then the drug dealing 101 had been “don’t kill your customer.” But it seems the cartel accountants had figured out they could still make a good profit from selling cheap and highly potent fentanyl even if they were killing off 70,000 of America’s 1 million heroin users every year – especially if they branched out by putting fentanyl into more socially acceptable opioid pills.
No Western government official would dare say it out loud, but Afghanistan’s opium trade, the source of most of the world’s heroin, a drug which has for decades been viewed as the narcotic public enemy number one, the scourge of Western society, is something of a necessary evil, a malignant friend. Even though the opium ban will be hard for the Taliban to sustain, and may need to go on for consecutive years to create a heroin shortage, the sheer scale of the disaster if synthetic opioids did end up being laced into the world’s heroin supply means it's a scenario that cannot be ignored.
Mansfield said because of these stockpiles the ban on opium production could take at least a year or two to have any impact on Europe’s heroin supplies. He said that recent rises in prices of heroin in the UK were not necessarily linked to the ban, and that a shift in the market towards synthetic opioids may come about regardless of any genuine shortages.
“Opium stores well. Maybe longer than 10 years. I know people who have stored opium for longer than that, if dried and stored properly. Traders will be sitting on some of this opium as well. If the second year of a ban comes in, you know, these guys are the ones rubbing their hands, because the price will shoot up even further.”
“Synthetic opioids are clearly already in the system in Europe and in the UK. Not to any huge extent. But I'm not sure if that's got anything to do necessarily, with what's going on in Afghanistan,” said Harry Shapiro, director of drug information charity DrugWise and author of Fierce Chemistry: a History of UK Drug Wars.
Or drug organisations could decide to entirely swap out heroin for synthetic opioids, which can be done anywhere. Mexican cartel cooks, who honed their fentanyl making skills during the COVID pandemic, are already working with Dutch-based drug gangs to produce meth in the Netherlands, and there is the potential they could also start pumping out a new brand of “European heroin” that would contain no actual heroin, but just caffeine and other fillers dotted with tiny amounts of super strong synthetic opioids. This could happen regardless of any heroin shortage, but a rise in heroin prices, and price gouging due to an ongoing opium ban, could prompt the cartels to join with European organised crime groups to produce such a product.
The global heroin supply outside of North America could be adulterated by drug gangs at multiple points along supply routes. Synthetic opioids could be added into the mix in Afghanistan itself, where labs are capable of processing opium into street ready heroin hydrochloride. It could be added further down the trafficking line in Turkey, before it is shifted into Europe.
“I think it's probably more the case of traffickers and chemists having a look at what's going on in the US and thinking ‘hang on a minute, we can make a heck of a lot more money if we use synthetic opioids for a lot less hassle than 5,000 miles of tracking heroin across from Afghanistan to Europe. We can cook this stuff up in Bulgaria, in Holland, anywhere you like’.
“I think that there may be a connection between the opium ban and a rise in synthetic opioids in Europe, but I'm more likely to think that it’s what's been going on in the States that might dictate our future opioid market.
“In terms of public health, it takes quite a long time to get addicted to heroin. It's not something that happens overnight. The trouble with fentanyl and all its various analogues is, and this sounds like a headline from The Sun, it’s not ‘one hit, and you're hooked’, for first time users it’s more, one hit and you're dead’. Which is why you're seeing these huge spike in drug overdoses in the States because this stuff is fucking powerful.”
The UK government is keeping a close eye on the threat posed by synthetic opioids to its estimated 300,000 heroin users, although it is hobbled by the fact its forensic drug testing services have been whittled down to the bare bones by cost cutting over the last two decades. Policy makers or governments, who’ve witnessed the deadly impact of fentanyl replacing heroin in North America, should be doing everything they can to avert this situation, experts say.
Mansfield, who spent more than two decades conducting fieldwork in Afghanistan and has produced much of the primary research on the subject, including a review of the US government efforts on counternarcotics in Afghanistan, said that responses to the opium dilemma have often been short term and poorly considered.
“Policy makers rarely understood how elemental drugs were to the political economy of Afghanistan, and therefore failed to properly integrate efforts to address it in the overall reconstruction effort,” he said. “Instead, a counter narcotics strand was established, a menu of limited activities, like so called ‘alternative livelihoods’, that were often poorly designed and could not address the underlying causes of opium production.
Is there a prospect thatWestern diplomats, fearful of the spectre of fentanyl in Europe, could be briefing in secret against the continuation of the opium ban?
Giustozzi, the research fellow for RUSI, said it was unlikely, but not impossible.
“It doesn't take much for somebody's behind the scenes to encourage a certain type of argument. So for example, suddenly there could be a lot of funding for detailed studies showing the negative economic impact of the ban on Afghanistan.”
Behind the drug war rhetoric, the UK government knows the illegal drug trade and its artificially inflated profits have assisted some poor communities not just in making a living, but escaping poverty. Research funded by the UK involving field work in Afghanistan, Colombia and Myanmar, concluded that while destructive and dangerous, the drug trade can help poor communities survive and prosper in some of the world’s most unstable and war-torn countries. “Simplistic narratives of drugs as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for poverty alleviation are to be cautioned against,” Jonathan Goodhand, Professor of Conflict Studies at SOAS University of London, told VICE News in 2020. He described the assumption that the drug trade is always counter to peace, social advancement and survival in these regions as “deeply flawed”.