Middle East
The Taliban Drug State
By Raymundo Riva Palacio
With the fundamentalist group back in power, its illicit activities will cease to be clandestine, and the emergence of a large drug trafficking State in Asia will be inevitable. More about its comparison with Mexico.

Will the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan alter the world's drug market? The question being asked by experts has no clear answers, but it has potential to and they suspect that it will. With the restoration of the Emirate Empire of Afghanistan, the Taliban, who have turned the drug trade into a business that financed their 20-year war against the United States, have a real chance of expanding the business and subsidizing their terrorist activities. Perhaps the only doubt is when this will be materialized to the point in which it will move the illicit drug markets.

Afghanistan is the world's leading producer and exporter of opium and is responsible for about 90 per cent of the world's production of heroin, which is consumed mostly in Europe and Asia. Peasants and hundreds of rural communities have lived on this income for a long time, creating an intertwined social fabric that has been exploited by the Taliban, which caused the staggering 37% increase in opium crops last year, according to a recent report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, which highlighted the expansion of harvest fields from 163,000 hectares to 224,000, which are mostly located in the territories under its control.

The Taliban's dominance over this illicit business began to be rebuilt in 2006, when they abandoned the Pakistani safe heavens where they took refuge during the first six years of the U.S. war against them, and created a tax system throughout the opium production chain, and the distribution routes that connected to the major drug hubs in Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan.

Afghanistan is considered an opium economy, with a market at just over 11% of gross domestic product. The Rand Corporation, in Santa Monica California, recently estimated that it could reach 30% of the market where about three million people work, generating a value that exceeds that of any export of Afghan goods and services.

The Taliban control more than 95% of the domestic market, and obtained 50% of their income from exports in 2016, according to a report by the United Nations Security Council, gaining the remaining from mining, abductions and foreign donations. The Taliban's wealth from drug trafficking led Forbes magazine to rank them as the second "terrorist group," as the State Department defined it in 2010, in terms of annual revenues, only behind Hezbollah. Forbes estimated their 2018 revenue at U$ 800 million annually, double what it had estimated for them two years earlier, when they were not yet a dominant force in Afghanistan.

After their victory, few people doubt that it will boost its drug exports. "The Taliban has counted on the Afghan opium business as one of their main sources of income," Cesar Gudes, head of the U.S. office on drugs and crime in Kabul, told Reuters. "A larger production will lead to cheaper drugs, with a more attractive price and, therefore, with wider accessibility."

With the Taliban in power, the emergence of a large drug trafficking State in Asia is inevitable.

If the forecast is met, there will be more production of opiates flooding the markets. Currently, opium production per hectare in Afghanistan (28 kilograms) is five times higher than Myanmar and Mexico, and the heroin that leaves their laboratories generates an estimated 250 thousand dollars per kilo in Australia and Japan, two of its main Asian markets. The Taliban have also ventured into the production of low-cost methamphetamine, which is generating three times more revenue than heroin, thereby leading them to compete with the Mexican drug cartels, which are the main producers of these synthetic drugs.

With the Taliban in power, their illicit activities will no longer be clandestine, since they will have tools and resources as a government at their disposal, such as the central bank, land and air transport to move drugs, and money to further finance opium crops in the 22 of the 34 Afghan provinces. Although there will be extreme vigilance to prevent them from flooding markets with their drugs, the emergence of a large drug State in Asia is inevitable.

"The Taliban have achieved a milestone," James Durso, a supply chain consultant who worked with the Pentagon in Iraq and Afghanistan, wrote this week in The Hill newspaper, which has a strong presence on the Capitol, "instead of influencing and corrupting the state, such as the Mexican drug-dealers, the Taliban dealers are now the state." He is correct. 

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