Abdul carefully balanced an AK-47 assault rifle on his left shoulder while wielding a large stick in his right hand. With swift and forceful strikes, he hammered the heads of poppies, causing the stalks to scatter in the air. The sap from the poppy bulb oozed out, releasing the distinct and pungent scent of raw opium.
Abdul was part of a Taliban anti-narcotics unit in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province. Alongside a dozen other armed men, all dressed in traditional Afghan attire called shalwar kameez, they swiftly razed the poppy crop in a small field. These men, once insurgent fighters, were now enforcing the orders of their leader as part of the ruling side.
In April 2022, the Taliban’s supreme leader, Haibatullah Akhundzada, issued a decree strictly prohibiting the cultivation of poppy, the plant from which opium, the key ingredient for heroin, is derived. Those who violated the ban would face the destruction of their fields and penalties according to Sharia law.
A spokesperson for the Taliban stated that the ban was implemented due to the harmful effects of opium and its contradiction with their religious beliefs. Afghanistan had previously been responsible for over 80% of the world’s opium production, with Afghan heroin accounting for 95% of the European market.
The BBC embarked on a journey through Afghanistan, utilising satellite analysis, to assess the impact of the Taliban’s actions on opium poppy cultivation. It became evident that the Taliban’s crackdown on cultivation had been more successful than any previous attempts.
Major opium-growing provinces experienced a significant decrease in poppy growth, with experts suggesting that annual cultivation could be reduced by as much as 80% compared to the previous year. Many farmers reported financial hardships as less-profitable wheat crops replaced poppies in the fields.
During our travels to provinces such as Nangarhar, Kandahar, and Helmand, we traversed bumpy mud roads, trekked through remote mountainous regions, and leaped across gurgling streams to witness the situation on the ground.
Although the Taliban decree did not apply to the 2022 opium harvest, which saw a one-third increase according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the current year painted a different picture. The evidence observed on the ground was corroborated by satellite imagery.
David Mansfield, an Afghanistan drug trade expert working with the UK firm Alcis, specialising in satellite analysis, expressed, “It is likely that cultivation will be less than 20% of what it was in 2022. The scale of the reduction will be unprecedented.”
A significant number of farmers complied with the ban, while the Taliban destroyed the crops of those who did not. Toor Khan, the commander of the Taliban patrol unit we accompanied in Nangarhar, mentioned that his men had been demolishing poppy fields for nearly five months, clearing tens of thousands of hectares in the process.
In response to the destruction of her poppy field, a woman shouted angrily at the Taliban unit, “You’re destroying my field, God destroy your home.” Toor Khan responded with frustration, “I had told you this morning to destroy it yourself. You didn’t, so now I have to.” The woman retreated indoors, while her son was temporarily detained by the Taliban and later released with a warning.
Given instances of resistance from locals, the Taliban conducted their eradication campaigns with large armed contingents. Reports of violent clashes and even casualties emerged during these operations.
Watching his field being destroyed, farmer Ali Mohammad Mia wore a stricken expression. Pink poppy flowers, green bulbs, and broken stems now covered the ground. When asked why he cultivated poppy despite the ban, Mia responded, “If you have no food at home, and your children are going hungry, what else would you do? We don’t have large pieces of land. If we grew wheat on them, we would make a fraction of what we could from opium.”
The speed at which the Taliban carried out the destruction was remarkable. Armed with only sticks, they cleared six fields, each measuring between 200-300 square meters, in just over half an hour.
When questioned about their feelings toward destroying a source of income for their people, who were already facing hunger, Toor Khan expressed loyalty to their leader, stating, “It is the order of our leader. Our allegiance to him is such that if he told my friend to hang me, I would accept it and surrender myself to my friend.”
Helmand province, once the heartland of opium production in Afghanistan, witnessed a significant transformation. Previously responsible for over half of the country’s opium, the province no longer showcased a single poppy field. Alcis’s analysis revealed a reduction of over 99% in poppy cultivation in Helmand, with David Mansfield stating, “The high-resolution imagery of Helmand province shows that poppy cultivation is down to less than 1,000 hectares when it was 129,000 hectares the previous year.”
We met farmer Niamatullah Dilsoz in the Marjah district of Helmand while he was harvesting wheat. Last year, he had cultivated poppy in the same field. Dilsoz mentioned that farmers in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, had mostly complied with the ban. Although a few attempted to grow poppy hidden within their courtyards, the Taliban uncovered and destroyed those fields.
The farm, now quiet except for the sounds of wheat stalks being cut and bird calls, was previously a frontline during the war. Helmand was where UK troops were stationed, and fierce battles were fought. Niamatullah, in his early twenties, expressed relief that for the first time in his life, he no longer feared bombings when venturing out. However, the opium ban had dealt a devastating blow, exacerbating the economic collapse and widespread poverty in Afghanistan. Two-thirds of the population did not know where their next meal would come from.
Niamatullah voiced his distress, saying, “We are very upset. Wheat earns us less than a quarter of what we used to make from opium. I can’t meet my family’s needs. I’ve had to take a loan. Hunger is at its peak, and we haven’t received any help from the government.”
When asked about the Taliban government’s efforts to assist the people, Zabiullah Mujahid, the main spokesperson, acknowledged the population’s poverty and suffering but emphasised the harm caused by opium. He called for international assistance to aid Afghans facing losses and rejected the notion of linking humanitarian issues with political matters.
While the ban’s impact on opium prices was already noticeable at the source, it might take time for these changes to reach the street price of heroin. Although opium and heroin prices remained high, they had started declining in the past six months, despite the reduced poppy cultivation. This indicated that significant stocks were still in circulation, and the production and trade of heroin continued. Seizures in neighbouring countries and beyond further suggested that a heroin shortage was not imminent.
The US had spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan attempting to eradicate opium production and trafficking, aiming to cut off the Taliban’s funding source. Previous efforts involved airstrikes on poppy fields in Taliban-controlled areas, burning opium stocks, and conducting drug laboratory raids. However, opium had also been freely grown in areas controlled by the US-backed Afghan regime, as witnessed by the BBC before the Taliban takeover in 2021.
For now, the Taliban seemed to have achieved what the West could not in Afghanistan. However, questions remained regarding the sustainability of their efforts. As opium cultivation dramatically reduced, there were concerns about the shift toward synthetic drugs, which could be even more harmful than opium, and their potential impact on heroin addiction in the UK and the rest of Europe.