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The Azadi Briefing: Taliban Appears To Sharply Reduce Opium Cultivation In Afghanistan

Taliban security personnel destroy a poppy plantation in Sher Surkh village of Kandahar Province in April.
Taliban security personnel destroy a poppy plantation in Sher Surkh village of Kandahar Province in April.

Welcome to The Azadi Briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan. To subscribe, click here.

I'm Abubakar Siddique, a senior correspondent at RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. Here's what I've been tracking and what I'm keeping an eye on in the days ahead.

The Key Issue

The Taliban appears to have sharply reduced opium cultivation in Afghanistan, the world's largest producer of the illicit drug.

In April 2022, the militant group banned the cultivation, production, and trafficking of all illicit narcotics.

Annual opium cultivation has dropped by as much as 80 percent compared to last year, according to new research by David Mansfield, a leading expert on Afghanistan's drugs trade who worked with Alcis, a British firm specializing in satellite analysis.

Mansfield said the Taliban had "exceeded expectations and reduced poppy cultivation to levels not seen since 2001," when the militant group was ousted from power by the U.S.-led invasion.

Around 80 percent of the opium produced in Afghanistan comes from the southern province of Helmand. Mansfield said satellite imagery appeared to show that in Helmand "poppy cultivation has fallen from more than 120,000 hectares in 2022 to less than 1,000 hectares in 2023."

Why It's Important: Ending Afghanistan's status as one of the world's biggest producers of narcotics has been a priority for neighboring countries and the international community for years.

After 2001, the United States spent some $8 billion in a bid to eradicate the opium trade in Afghanistan. Washington destroyed poppy fields, offered alternative crops to farmers, conducted air strikes, and raided suspected labs. But the strategy largely failed.

For years, the Taliban earned hundreds of millions of dollars from taxing poppy farmers and trafficking narcotics to neighboring countries, from where they ended up in Europe and North America, experts have said.

Since regaining power, the Taliban appears to be succeeding where foreign powers have failed. In 2000, during its first stint in power, the Taliban implemented a similar ban.

Tom West, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan, tweeted that reports documenting a significant decrease in poppy cultivation "are credible and important."

Michael McCaul, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a tweet criticized West for praising a group he said, "actively oppress Afghan women and girls, execute them in public, take Americans hostage, provide terrorist safe havens to Al-Qaeda, and are not recognized as a legitimate government by the United States." It appears that he later deleted the tweet.

What's Next: The complete eradication of the drug industry in Afghanistan still appears to be far off.

Even as opium production appears to have decreased, Afghanistan has become a major supplier of crystal meth in recent years.

The militant group is likely to face intense pushback from poppy farmers in southern Afghanistan if it fails to provide them with alternative livelihoods and crops. The Taliban's cash-strapped and isolated government could lose popularity in a region of Afghanistan that has historically provided most of its leaders and fighters.

The Week's Best Stories

International donors and aid agencies have suspended their operations in three provinces in Afghanistan after accusing the Taliban of attempting to divert or manipulate aid distribution. The move has deprived hundreds of thousands of people of crucial assistance as the country grapples with the world's largest humanitarian crisis.

China and Afghanistan's Taliban rulers appear keen on deepening their relationship, with the sides expanding trade links and pushing for deeper cooperation on security. But experts say the relationship is limited and largely transactional.

What To Keep An Eye On

In a new report, global rights watchdog Amnesty International accused the Taliban of committing the war crime of collective punishment against civilians in Afghanistan's northern province of Panjshir.

Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, Panjshir has been the scene of low-level resistance to the militant group.

Amnesty's June 8 report said that the Taliban had targeted civilians with torture and unlawful killings, while it subjected detained members of the National Resistance Front to extrajudicial executions.

Agnes Callamard, Amnesty's secretary-general, said the Taliban engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture, hostage-taking, unlawful detention, and torching of civilian homes. "This conduct in sum amounts to collective punishment -- in itself, a war crime," she said.

Why It's Important: Amnesty's report, which is based on interviews with victims and witnesses in Panjshir and an analysis of open-source material, is yet another example of the grave human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Taliban.

The Taliban is unlikely to act on the recommendations of the report, which called on the hard-line group to investigate the alleged abuses and prosecute and punish the perpetrators.

The Taliban is likely to continue using brute force to silence its opponents and critics, including members of the former government and security forces, activists, journalists, and those from religious minorities.

Until next time,

Abubakar Siddique

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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.

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Radio Azadi is RFE/RL's Dari- and Pashto-language public service news outlet for Afghanistan. Every Friday, in our newsletter, Azadi Briefing, one of our journalists will share their analysis of the week’s most important issues and explain why they matter.

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