Opium production increases 32% in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, U.N. report says

Opium cultivation in Afghanistan jumped 32% during 2022 despite the ruling Taliban regime’s ban on narcotics, according to an annual report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The Taliban regime rejected the findings, telling CBS News it was part of a “politically motivated” international pressure campaign.   

“The 2022 opium crop in Afghanistan is the most profitable in years, with cultivation up by one-third and prices soaring even as the country is gripped by cascading humanitarian and economic crises,” said the UNODC report released on Tuesday.

Opium capital of the world

This year has seen farmers cultivating opium on about 576,000 acres of land, compared to 437,000 acres estimated during 2021, making it the third largest cultivation year since 1994, when UNODC monitoring first began. Only 2017 and 2018 saw more Afghan soil used to cultivate opium poppies.

Afghanistan has a long history of cultivating opium, a drug in its own right that’s also the key ingredient in a variety of other highly addictive narcotics, from heroin to a range of opioid painkillers.

The country remained the leading producer of the lucrative drug even during the U.S.-led invasion, despite its own government and partnering nations spending millions of dollars in a bid to eradicate the crop. Southern Afghanistan, the birthplace of the Taliban where thousands of U.S. troops were based during the two-decade war with the Islamic extremist group, has been seen as the hub of opium cultivation since 2001.

“Cultivation continued to be concentrated in the south-western parts of the country, which accounted for 73 percent of the total area and saw the largest crop increase,” the U.N. report said, noting that an estimated 80% of the world’s total opium crop comes from Afghanistan.

A decree, and a denial

After the Taliban retook power in Afghanistan in August 2021, the group’s reclusive leader Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada issued a decree outlawing the cultivation of all drugs, including the opium poppy, across the country.

“If anyone violates the decree, the crop will be destroyed immediately, and the violator will be treated according to Sharia law,” warned Akhundzada.

But despite his decree, the Taliban has reportedly turned a blind eye and allowed farmers to continue cultivating their opium crops.

Afghanistan’s economy is still reeling from the sudden withdrawal of international funds, as most foreign governments refuse to work with the Taliban. Starvation is an imminent threat for millions of people in the country, and depriving farmers of their livelihood would be a difficult move for Afghanistan’s rulers.

“The opiate trafficking from Afghanistan has been ongoing without interruption since August 2021,” said the UNODC report. “This year’s harvest was largely exempted from the decree.”  

Suhail Shaheen, the head of the Taliban’s political office in Doha, Qatar and a designated ambassador to the United Nations, told CBS News the information contained in the U.N. report was “not true.”

“I reject the claim,” Shaheen told CBS News. “There is total ban on poppy cultivation in Afghanistan. Those who are making such baseless claims while sitting behind their desks 20,000 kilometres from Afghanistan should know they are being used as an instrument of pressure against IEA [Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan] and their report reflects a plethora of politically motivated claims.”

“Trapped in the illicit opiate economy”

Even before Afghanistan fell back into Taliban hands its economy was in free-fall, due to the rapid withdrawal of coalition forces, the COVID-19 pandemic and a severe drought. But as the group reasserted its power, international governments including the U.S. froze Afghan national reserve assets, international aid was cut off, unemployment soared, new economic sanctions were imposed, and a humanitarian crisis deepened precipitously.

“Afghan farmers are trapped in the illicit opiate economy,” said UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly in the report. “The international community must work to address the acute needs of the Afghan people.”

The UNODC report said Afghan farmers have made $1.4 billion from opium sales this year, more than triple the amount they made in 2021. But even with their huge windfall Afghan farmers won’t have been much better off, as inflation has also soared during the same period, sending food prices soaring up to 35%. 

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