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LONDON – The Taliban are committed to ending this habit in Afghanistan and ending its dependence on the illegal drug trade. But the success – assuming unscrupulous Islamists live up to their word – could be due to the nations now struggling to evacuate their citizens from a Taliban-ruled nightmare.
Ending the dependence of Afghans on drug revenues will not be easy. The opium trade is a vital part of the gross domestic product, with poppy cultivation providing livelihoods and livelihoods in most provinces.
For Britain and its Western allies, it is a challenge that balances the benefits of stopping a flood of illegal drugs entering their own countries against the problems of dealing with a potentially brutal de facto government with a horrendous record. in human rights. In addition, if we cannot effectively stem the flow of drugs, countries like China, Russia and Iran could intervene.
In 2020, Afghan farmers produced some 2,300 tonnes of opium, according to United Nations estimates. It represents over 90 percent of the world’s illicit supply and 95 percent of the UK market. Despite the Western presence which ended this month, and despite the drop in prices, the latest estimates show production at record levels. Meanwhile, the larger profit margins on crystal meth are also leading to an Afghan boom in the cultivation of its original plant, ephedra.
This is not the first time that the Taliban and Western governments have faced this conundrum. The Taliban succeeded in cracking down on drug production between 2000 and 2001, during their previous reign, reducing the opium harvest by more than 90 percent, according to a UN investigation. But this had serious consequences for the Islamist group’s grip on power.
For starters, hopes that the move would usher in diplomatic recognition of the nations of the world were turned down when the UN imposed new sanctions on the Taliban’s protection of Osama bin Laden after 9/11.
Even more problematic for the Taliban, the suppression of the livelihoods of countless farmers has reduced their national support. The militants faced a peasant revolt, and a subsequent lack of support when Western allies invaded in 2001, ousted them from control.
Some claim that the Taliban fell in 2001 because the drug crackdown hit their own tax revenues. But Jonathan Goodhand, a professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies, said it was misguided. “It was the policy around it,” he explained. “It was the increasing stress and pressure it created among the peasantry.”
This time, the Islamists seem to have learned the lesson. “Afghanistan will no longer be a country of opium cultivation,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said at his first press conference after the group took control of Kabul. But his promise came with a nudge: “The international community must help us. “
Translation: Foreign investment and a lot.
Damned if you dope
The Taliban themselves do not depend on opium revenues to function, although this does supplement their income. The extent of the Taliban’s involvement in the drug trade is disputed, but research shows the group relies more on legal trade taxes than black market taxes.
Instead, funds from Western governments will be needed to help impoverished Afghan communities wean off drugs as a reliable source of income.
The need might never have been more urgent. The current chaos in the country is the recipe for a new boom in the drug trade, as an unstable political situation is a privileged breeding ground for black markets to fester.
The crackdown on drug trafficking “will not be a priority for anyone” for the foreseeable future, argued Goodhand. “So it will grow.”
This possibility has raised fears that even more heroin will eventually rise across Europe, causing the dangerous drug prices to drop and further exacerbating the UK healthcare spending crisis.
“It would be the most unforeseen in a long list of unintended consequences stemming from this disastrous decision [to withdraw from Afghanistan]Said Jeremy Hunt, former cabinet minister and chair of the House of Commons health committee.
A possible increase in drug imports will be even more difficult to manage after Brexit, as the UK has given up direct access to EU crime data resources.
“The cultivation of opium in Afghanistan [has] has been on an upward trajectory and the likely destabilization of the country in the months and years to come after the withdrawal of Western forces is likely to have an impact on production levels, ”said a spokesperson for the National Crime Agency . “Through our international liaison network, we will continue to work with partners in the region to combat serious and organized threats of crime, including class A drug trafficking.”
Previous international attempts to control narcotics in Afghanistan have failed. Western countries have attempted to destroy opium crops and processing laboratories, but this has had little impact. Britain also tried to help recultivate land, but through a structure that helped the wealthier landowners rather than the farmers working for them, when the funds were never reliable enough.
Julia Buxton, professor of drug policy at the University of Manchester, said past efforts to curb drug production had been a “catastrophic failure”, adding: “We have a lot of experience in the development of the drug economy “.
Aid already accounts for a large chunk of Afghan revenue, with the UK among countries and organizations pledging to increase aid spending in Afghanistan since the Taliban takeover – although the Great -Brittany decreases overall after general aid cuts were last agreed. month.
The scale of the change needed to transform the Afghan economy away from narcotics and into other agriculture or industries is so vast that only a nationwide aid plan including land reform and massive infrastructure construction will suffice. , according to observers.
“The big lesson we have learned from British development projects in Afghanistan is that you cannot deal with the opium economy in isolation,” Buxton said. “It must be a national economic recovery strategy.” She said attempting to counter the opium trade through aid agencies without dealing with the Taliban as the de facto rulers of Afghanistan could “do more harm than good.”
Downing Street has so far said aid will be delivered through humanitarian organizations, not the Taliban, unless the group is willing to protect human rights and fight drugs and terrorism.
“If these huge funds are finally released for use by the Afghan government and people, then what we are saying is that Afghanistan cannot become fertile ground again,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson told the following a G7 Appeal last week. “Afghanistan cannot become a narco-state, girls have to go to school until the age of 18, and so on.
Aid-friendly conservatives admit that working with the Taliban will be inevitable, even if they remain cautious.
Andrew Mitchell, Conservative MP and former international development secretary, said dealing with the new “de facto government” was the only option to avoid losing 20 years of development gains. “The international community must approach the problem with the Taliban on a contractual basis,” he said. “It has to be a carrot and stick approach.”
And there could be simpler, and therefore cheaper, ways to reform. Crispin Blunt, another former Tory cabinet minister and current chairman of a Westminster committee on drug policy reform, said Afghan farmers should be allowed to produce legal opium – while maintaining infrastructure and precious know-how.
“These poor buggers from Helmand are not allowed to grow it for the legal market,” he said, noting that the UK has helped criminalize Afghan farmers and producers while growing its own legal opium for use. medical. But Buxton argued that legal poppy cultivation would not be financially viable for farmers under current land ownership structures.
Western countries are not the only ones weighing this dilemma.
The drug problem in Afghanistan is also of concern to China. Responding to the Taliban’s wish to suppress the drug trade, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said earlier this month: “Taliban spokesmen have mentioned … a good way forward.
“The main game changer will be China,” Goodhand said, noting that the economic giant wants to connect its “Belt and Road” business plan through the Afghan Wakhan Corridor. “You could see this was a level of investment that would overshadow anything the West could entertain.”
Stuart Lau contributed reporting.
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