Assessing Scenarios: Taliban Regime and Illicit Trafficking in Afghanistan

Course poster

Assessing Scenarios: Taliban Regime and Illicit Trafficking in Afghanistan

By Dr. Cueneyt Guerer, Dr. Gregory Gleason and Michael Kori
George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies

GARMISCH-PARTENKIRCHEN, Germany (Feb. 15, 2022) - The Marshall Center Countering Transnational Organized Crime program conducted an online Policy Exchange Platform on Feb. 8 to facilitate a discussion among experts examining the illicit market developments under Taliban regime in Afghanistan. 

CTOC Policy Exchange Platform allows exchange of experiences and expertise on emerging security challenges at the regional and global level. Policy makers, practitioners and researchers learn from each other and further develop a network to counter transnational threats. 

This event, with the participation of 56 experts from 30 countries, focused on the impact of Taliban government on the production of opiates in Afghanistan and its potential consequences in the region.

Michael Osman, UNODC Afghan Opium Trade Project Manager, Abubakar Siddique, Senior Correspondent for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and Andrew Hyde, a senior U.S. diplomat worked in Kabul in support of NATO mission in Afghanistan, examined the current situation in Afghanistan, analyzed drug production and trafficking in Afghanistan after Taliban’s take over and assessed the current situation its potential consequences at social, regional and global level.

Highlights from these non-attribution conversations emerge from group discussion and do not represent the views or positions of any individual panelist or participant; they do not represent the official policy of the United States, Germany, or any other government.

Key takeaways from their lectures and the ensuing non-attribution discussion include:

Current Situation and Possible Impacts of Opium Production in Afghanistan: 

•    Production and sale of opiates in Afghanistan still accounts for a significant portion of the country’s overall economic output. Increased level poverty and food security are major drivers for opium cultivation. As the licit economies shrank after the Taliban takeover drug trade became a significant part of the local economy. Economic collapse in Afghanistan pushes civilians and the Taliban government towards thriving drug trade. 

•    Seizure of opiates decreased as U.S.-led NATO forces withdrew from the country. This decrease is a part of the trend started in 2019 and less opiate seizures observed in the country for the last three years and this trends continues during the Taliban government.

•    A poly-drug cultivation and production exists in the country (opium, heroin, marijuana and methamphetamine) and among them methamphetamine production shows a significant trend in the recent years.

•    Drug use is a significant problem in the country and Taliban regime do not have the capacity and interest to provide adequate treatment to drugs users, rather apply non-scientific methods for withdrawal.

•    One of the major risk factor for the increasing level drug use in the country is the decades of conflict which lead the population suffer from wide range of mental health disorders, intensified by limited coping mechanisms.

•    Taliban receives popular support through its protection and facilitation of the Afghan drug trade (primarily the opiate trade). Even if Taliban decides to ban the production and cultivation of opium, because of various domestic reasons, it might not be possible to implement that decision.  
•    Afghan drug trade operates on the simple principle of; cultivation is carried out by local farmers and export (smuggling) is facilitated by warlords, local smuggling networks and their international connections. Highly localized links exist between Taliban and local opium producers. In this circulation, smugglers receive the majority of the illicit profit. 

•    Previous attempts of alternative livelihoods and introducing new corps to replace opium failed and no new discussion to that direction exists currently. Bringing this issue as an alternative to drug production could be challenging before addressing structural problems led to the failure of previous attempts. Poppy production replaces production of other crops due to limited agricultural land. 

•    Peace negotiations conducted between Taliban and international parties, prior to and after the Taliban seizure of power in Kabul in September 2021, refer to consent of the Taliban to reduce illicit drug trafficking.  Envoys of the EU, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, the UK and the US met with representatives of the Taliban in Oslo, Norway,  on 24 January 2022.  A joint statement of the envoys was released reaffirming the expectation the Taliban would uphold commitments on drug trafficking.  The will and capacity of the Taliban to uphold these commitments remains unclear at the present.  

•    Afghanistan is currently experiencing a slow-motion state collapse and it will have significant regional and global consequences if the major state functions cannot be maintained and as the country’s number one priority, humanitarian crises addressed.

•    Most of the assessments made using limited data based on the experts experiences related to Afghanistan, therefore a critical need for reliable data to make better assessments also highlighted in the event.

Potential Regional Impact of Illicit Markets in Afghanistan
•    Deterioration of the situation in the country leads increasing level of mass migration and most people leave the country use the same roads and networks that has been used for drug smuggling.

•    Increasing levels of drug production means greater risk for domestic drug consumption in the countries located traditional routes of smuggling.

•    Government failure in Afghanistan and a lack of effective counter drug production measure might cause re-location of drug production labs in the region which might affect the smuggling routes also. More attention and additional data are required to understand the potential gaps and possible attempts to fill these gaps in the illicit markets across the region.  

•    Countering drug production and smuggling is not a priority for Taliban at the moment but an alternative source for local members. However, policies against drugs might come up as the major determinant of the relations with the international community. 

Global Impact of Drug Production in Afghanistan 

•    As mentioned earlier, a lack of reliable data makes it difficult assess, nevertheless potential increase of opium (and increasing methamphetamine) production in Afghanistan is more likely to have an increase not only in the transit but also in the target countries.
•    Regional and destination countries should work closer than before to assess the new trends in production and smuggling to address the problem using a holistic approach. Most important issue at the moment is the lack of attention of the regional and global actors as well as not being able to collect data in Afghanistan to develop counter strategies.

Overall, the main analytic obstacle to make clear assessment of the situation in the country related to drug production is a lack of information and data. The impact that the Taliban’s takeover will have on the region and globally will primarily depend on the nature of its relationship with the international community. The nature of such a relationship will be dependent on whether the international community classifies the Taliban as an organization highly benefiting from the illicit markets or a legitimate government, thereby determining whether cooperation with and support for the Taliban in support of its governance of Afghanistan will be acceptable. Whether the Taliban will be classified as an illegitimate regime or a legitimate government primarily depends on its stance towards issues like women’s rights, human rights, the drug trade, and its relationship with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda. It appears as though the Taliban has not decided its stance on these issues yet, possibly due to internal divisions, which therefore makes it difficult to analyze the regional and global implications of a Taliban-led government in Afghanistan.

Policy experts and participants highlighted the need for continuing exchange of information on the issues and indicated high level interest for future events to update the security and illicit market developments in the country.