Heroin is driving a sinister trend in Afghanistan

  • Afghanistan looks set for another year of record opium production in 2017, maintaining its role as the world's biggest producer.
  • As opium production has grown, the Taliban has assumed a bigger role in it, deriving much of its income from the drug trade.
  • As the Taliban relies more and more on drugs, many of its fighters are less likely to accept reconciliation with the US-backed government.


Afghanistan has long been one of the world's biggest producers of opium, which is used to make heroin, and the Taliban has made a lucrative business from taxing and providing security to producers and smugglers in the region.

But the militant group has expanded its role in that drug trade considerably, boosting its profits at a time when it is making decisive gains against the Afghan government and its US backers.

According to a New York Times report, the Taliban has gotten involved in every stage of the drug business. Afghan police and their US advisers find heroin-refining labs with increasingly frequency, but the labs are easy to replace.

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Opium production in Afghanistan
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Opium production in Afghanistan
Raw opium from a poppy head is seen at a poppy farmer's field on the outskirts of Jalalabad, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Parwiz
An Afghan girl gathers raw opium on a poppy field on the outskirts of Jalalabad April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Parwiz TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Raw opium from a poppy head is seen at a poppy farmer's field on the outskirts of Jalalabad, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Parwiz
Afghan children gather raw opium on a poppy field on the outskirts of Jalalabad, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/ Parwiz
Afghan men gather raw opium on a poppy field on the outskirts of Jalalabad April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Parwiz
Afghan children gather raw opium on a poppy field on outskirts of Jalalabad, April 28, 2015. REUTERS/Parwiz TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
An Afghan farmer works on his poppy field cultivation on the outskirts of Farah province February 4, 2015. Farah offers a prime example of Afghanistan's nexus between Islamist militancy, crime, opium and Kabul's feeble grip on power. Residents say problems escalated after foreign troops withdrew in early 2013 and locals in Farah's most lawless areas say the breakdown in order is complete. Picture taken February 4, 2015. To match Insight AFGHANISTAN-OPIUM/ REUTERS/Omar Sobhani (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: POLITICS DRUGS SOCIETY)
An Afghan man works on a poppy field in Jalalabad province, May 1, 2014. REUTERS/Parwiz (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: SOCIETY DRUGS)
Afghan men work on a poppy field in Jalalabad province, May 1, 2014. REUTERS/Parwiz (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: SOCIETY DRUGS)
An Afghan policeman destroys poppies during a campaign against narcotics in Kunar province, April 29, 2014. REUTERS/Parwiz (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CRIME LAW DRUGS SOCIETY)
An Afghan man works on a poppy field in Jalalabad province April 17, 2014. Afghanistan is the world's top cultivator of the poppy, from which opium and heroin are produced. Despite more than a decade of efforts to wean farmers off the crop, fight corruption and cut links between drugs and the Taliban insurgency, poppy expanded to 209,000 hectares (516,000 acres) in 2013, up 36 percent from the previous year. REUTERS/ Parwiz (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY AGRICULTURE ENVIRONMENT)
An Afghan man works on a poppy field in Jalalabad province April 17, 2014. Afghanistan is the world's top cultivator of the poppy, from which opium and heroin are produced. Despite more than a decade of efforts to wean farmers off the crop, fight corruption and cut links between drugs and the Taliban insurgency, poppy expanded to 209,000 hectares (516,000 acres) in 2013, up 36 percent from the previous year. REUTERS/ Parwiz (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY AGRICULTURE ENVIRONMENT)
An Afghan National Army soldier shows how workers score a poppy bulb to extract resin during a patrol through the village of Jelawar in the Arghandab Valley north of Kandahar April 18, 2011. REUTERS/Bob Strong (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: MILITARY POLITICS)
Raw opium from a poppy head is seen at a poppy farmer's field in Jalalabad province May 5, 2012. REUTERS/Parwiz (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: DRUGS SOCIETY)
Afghan policemen destroy poppy fields in Badakhshan province, one of Afghanistan's top opium producers, on August 9, 2017. In the heart of Afghanistan's opium-farming area, police used red tractors to churn up a small field of young green opium plants in a large sandy desert. (Photo by Mohammad Sharif Shayeq/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Afghan policemen destroy poppy fields in Badakhshan province, one of Afghanistan's top opium producers, on August 9, 2017. In the heart of Afghanistan's opium-farming area, police used red tractors to churn up a small field of young green opium plants in a large sandy desert. (Photo by Mohammad Sharif Shayeq/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
An Afghan security personnel destroys an illegal poppy crop on the outskirts of Badakhshan on May 17, 2017. Over the last 15 years, the US government has spent billions of dollars on a war to eliminate drugs from Afghanistan, but the country still remains the world's top opium producer. Opium production is a major source of income for the Taliban insurgents. / AFP PHOTO / SHARIF SHAYEQ (Photo credit should read SHARIF SHAYEQ/AFP/Getty Images)
Afghan man harvest opium sap from their poppy field in Badakhshan province on 13 July 2017. The US government has spent billions of dollars on a war to eliminate drugs from Afghanistan, but the country still remains the world's top opium producer. (Photo by Mohammad Sharif Shayeq/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Afghan women and a boy harvest opium sap from their poppy field in Badakhshan province on July 5, 2017. The US government has spent billions of dollars on a war to eliminate drugs from Afghanistan, but the country still remains the world's top opium producer. / AFP PHOTO / SHARIF SHAYEQ (Photo credit should read SHARIF SHAYEQ/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photograph taken on April 2, 2016, Afghan farmers sit near a poppy field in Zari District of Kandahar province. Opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan dropped 19 percent in 2015 compared to the previous year, according to figures from the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics and United Nations Oiffce on Drugs and Crime. / AFP / JAVED TANVEER (Photo credit should read JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photograph taken on April 27, 2015, an Afghan farmer harvests opium sap from a poppy field in Panjwai District, in Kandahar province. AFP PHOTO /Javed Tanveer (Photo credit should read JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)
In this photograph taken on April 27, 2015, an Afghan farmer harvests opium sap from a poppy field in Panjwai District, in Kandahar province. AFP PHOTO /Javed Tanveer (Photo credit should read JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images)
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The country has produced the majority of the world's opium for some time, despite billions of dollars spent by the US to fight it during the 16-year-long war there. Afghan and Western officials now say that rather than getting smuggled out of Afghanistan in the form of opium syrup, at least half of the crop is getting processed domestically, before leaving the country as morphine or heroin.

Those forms are easier to smuggle, and they are much more valuable for the Taliban, which reportedly draws at least 60% of its income from the drug trade. With its increasing focus on trafficking drugs, the Taliban has taken on more of the functions a drug cartel.

"They receive more revenues if they process it before it has left the country," William Brownfield, former US Assistant Secretary for Drugs and Law Enforcement, told reporters in the Afghan capital Kabul earlier this year. "Obviously we are dealing with very loose figures, but drug trafficking amounts to billions of dollars every year from which the Taliban is taking a substantial percentage."

An Afghan farmer can be paid about $163 for a kilo of raw opium, which is like a black sap. Once it is refined into heroin, it can be sold for $2,300 to $3,500 a kilo at regional markets. In Europe it has a wholesale value of about $45,000.

Opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan has been consistently high since the US invasion in 2001. In 2016, there was a 10% jump in the area under cultivation, making it one of the three highest years on record. Initial data indicated 2017 was another record year, according to The Times, with government eradication efforts continue to be stymied throughout the country.

Seizures of chemical precursors, which are needed to process opium, have spiked, and the amount of processed morphine and heroin seized has risen considerably, now outstripping that of opium.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said that without drugs, the war in Afghanistan "would have been long over," and a senior Afghan official told The Times that, "If an illiterate local Taliban commander in Helmand makes a million dollars a month now, what does he gain in time of peace?"

The Trump administration has said its new strategy in Afghanistan is aimed at convincing the group there is no way to win on the battlefield, but its growing role in the drug trade is likely to make some elements of the Taliban less disposed to negotiations with the Kabul.

"This trend has real consequences for peace and security in Afghanistan, as it encourages those within the Taliban movement who have the greatest economic incentives to oppose any meaningful process of reconciliation with the new government," the UN has said.

The Taliban's move into heroin processing comes as it gains ground against the government, particularly in areas where the drug is produced.

Opium heroin cultivation production map in AfghanistanUN Office on Drugs and Crime

At the end of 2016, the Taliban was thought to control more territory than at any time since 2001, and the Afghan government has reportedly lost control of 5% of its territory this year.

A unit of several hundred Afghan commandos, working with US special-forces advisers, is tasked with interdicting the flow of drugs. But their work is often undermined by Afghan officials (including ones from their own unit) complicit in the drug trade or hindered by insecurity that persists in much of the country.

"In Helmand, we were targeting to do more than 2,000 to 3,000 hectares of eradication," Javid Qaem, Afghanistan's deputy minister of narcotics, told The Times. "We couldn’t do anything there, none at all, because Helmand was almost an active battlefield, the entire province."

Helmand, home to an estimated 80% of Afghanistan's opium poppies, is a "big drug factory," a Western official told AFP earlier this year. "Helmand is all about drugs, poppy and Taliban," he said.

Global heroin mapUN World Drug Report 2016

While the US Drug Enforcement Administration has said that a minuscule portion of the heroin seized in the US is from Southwest Asia, heroin sourced to Afghanistan makes up a significant amount of what is found on the street in Europe.

The State Department has said 90% of the heroin found in Canada and 85% of that found in the UK can be tracked back to Afghanistan.

According to the 2017 European Drug Report, "most heroin found in Europe is thought to be manufactured [in Afghanistan] or in neighbouring Iran or Pakistan." (Drug addiction has exploded in Iran, with opium making up two-thirds of consumption.)

Heroin is Europe's most common opioid, with an estimated retail value between 6 billion and 7.8 billion euros, according to the report, produced by the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction.

NOW WATCH: America's heroin epidemic has produced a heartbreaking side effect

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