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Illegal drug trade thrives under the Taliban, U.N. officials say

Violence challenges Taliban pledge of law and order
Violence challenges Taliban pledge of law and... 02:16

As the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan, the Biden administration must deal with a troubling new reality: the Taliban, which now controls the country, is deeply dependent on the illegal drug trade, U.N. officials tell CBS News. The militant group relies financially on the sale of opium, methamphetamine and hashish — and collects millions of dollars in taxes from farmers who grow the crops.

"The production and trafficking of poppy-based drugs and methamphetamine … remains the Taliban's largest single source of income," a U.N. report from June stated, adding that this "has a destabilizing and corrupting effect within Afghanistan and contributes significantly to the narcotics challenges facing the wider international community."

The numbers are staggering. The U.N.'s Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that the overall income generated by domestic consumption, production and exports of opiates in Afghanistan is worth billions of dollars.

Afghanistan is estimated by the U.N. drug agency to be responsible for around 80% of global opium and heroin supplies.

U.S. troops in Afghanistan poppy field
U.S. troops walk through opium poppy fields during a joint patrol with Afghanistan National Police in Habibullah village, Helmand province, Afghanistan, on April 24, 2011. BAY ISMOYO/AFP via Getty Images

Angela Me, the head of UNODC's Research and Trend Analysis Branch, told CBS News that in 2019 — the last year the office recorded the overall Afghanistan trade — taxes collected from the farmers alone equalled about $14.5 million. Another $46 million to $98 million was estimated to come in from heroin manufacturing and trafficking.

The amount in any given year varies, she said. "In 2019, the value of the opiate economy was between $1.2 billion and $2.1 billion, while in 2017, for example, it was much higher (between $4.1-6.6 billion) because that was a year of record production and higher prices."

The U.N.'s Afghanistan Opium Survey says that the area under opium poppy cultivation increased by 37% in 2020. Drug transit routes were not interrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, and the number of people using illicit drugs worldwide is expected to rise 11% by 2030, the agency said. 

Earlier reports from the U.N.'s drug monitoring office show opium production in Afghanistan grew during the previous period of Taliban rule, with the exception of 2001, when they banned poppy growing but quickly reversed that decision because of popular opposition by farmers. 

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The Taliban continued relying on drug money to fund its insurgency after the U.S. military ousted the group from power in 2001. The U.N. reported that the long years of producing and exporting drugs elevated Afghanistan in the "value chain" of the drug trafficking business, working with criminal gangs and corrupt officials to produce, process, stock and export opium.

But now Taliban leaders are promising otherwise. In their first press conference since taking power, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Tuesday that the new government has no intention of becoming a narco-state.

"We are assuring our countrymen and women and the international community, we will not have any narcotics produced," Mujahid told reporters in Kabul, AFP reported

"From now on, nobody's going to get involved (in the heroin trade), nobody can be involved in drug smuggling."

Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, left, at the first press conference in Kabul following their stunning takeover of Afghanistan, August 17, 2021. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Recent U.N. reports indicate the drug trade is just part of the Taliban's illicit portfolio: "The primary sources of Taliban financing remain criminal activities, including drug trafficking and opium poppy production, extortion, kidnapping for ransom, mineral exploitation and revenues from tax collection in areas under Taliban control or influence." 

Over the last two decades of U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, American officials spent billions trying — and failing — to curb Afghanistan's drug production. An inspector general's report released earlier this week found that the U.S. government spent nearly $9 billion on counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, while opium poppy cultivation kept increasing.

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