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New York Times Misleads on Taliban Role in Opium Trade

The New York Times reported this week that the Taliban have cut back on poppy cultivation and is stockpiling opium, grossly overstating the group’s role in the Afghanistan drug trade.

“Afghanistan has produced so much opium in recent years,” the Times reported Thursday, “that the Taliban are cutting poppy cultivation and stockpiling raw opium in an effort to support prices and preserve a major source of financing for the insurgency, Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the United Nations drug office, says.”

Mr. Costa’s remarks came last week as the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) prepared to release its Afghan Opium Survey 2008 report, the executive summary of which has already been available for some time. The now released report shows that poppy cultivation was reduced in much of Afghanistan and is even more highly concentrated in the south, with Helmand province being by far the biggest producer.

The Times states that the Taliban “have for several years ‘systematically encouraged’ opium cultivation as a way to finance their insurgency, the study said.” It notes that the UNODC has estimated that “the insurgents made as much as $300 million from the opium trade” last year.

“But after three years of bumper crops, including this one,” the Times continues, “the Taliban have succeeded almost too well, producing opium in amounts far in excess of world demand.”

Despite production far exceeding global demand, prices for the drug have not fallen as much as might be expected based solely on the supply and demand principle of the market. One explanation that has been put forward is that opium is being stockpiled.

According to the Times‘ summary of Mr. Costa’s remarks, “The fact that prices had not collapsed already, he said, was evidence that the Taliban, drug lords and even some farmers have stockpiled the opium, more and more of which is also being processed in Afghanistan. ‘Insurgents have been holding significant amounts of opium,’ Mr. Costa said.”

In addition, “This year, the Taliban are taking a ‘passive stance’ toward cultivation, apparently putting less pressure on Afghan farmers to plant opium poppy. ‘They have called a moratorium of sorts as a way of keeping the stocks stable and supporting the price,’ Mr. Costa said.”

The Times thus acknowledges the role of non-Taliban actors, the “drug lords and even some farmers”, but nevertheless downplays their role and characterizes the cultivation of poppies and production of opium as being predominantly controlled by the Taliban. But this is not an accurate representation of the facts on the ground, as the findings of the UNODC report itself makes clear.

While the Times suggests the amount of opium produced is under the direct influence of the Taliban, in fact the decision to cultivate or not is made by individual farmers.

While the Times suggests the Taliban have “systematically encouraged”, citing the UNODC study, those words in fact do not appear in the report. Nor does it make any similar claim.

As part of the survey, the UNODC asked farmers their reasons for growing or not growing the crop. Most farmers who have never chosen to cultivate poppies cited as their reasons that it was against Islam and otherwise illegal. Of those who did cultivate poppies this year, 92 percent cited poverty alleviation as the driving motivation. Importantly, of those who had grown in the past, but stopped, the government ban was cited as the predominate reason for doing so. The second most common answer was that the choice was based on decisions of the shura and elders.

The two main reasons given in the report for the reduction in the amount of land used for opium cultivation are “successful counter-narcotics efforts in the northern and eastern provinces of Afghanistan” and “unfavourable weather conditions that caused extreme drought and crop failures in some provinces”, mostly in northern Afghanistan, where the Taliban have little or no presence.

Still other factors were the reduction in farm-gate prices for opium, which, coupled with the drought in the north, led farmers to switch to alternative crops. One such alternative crop has increasingly become cannabis. “Farmers growing cannabis,” the UNODC report notes, “may earn the same net income per hectare as farmers who grow opium, or even more, because cultivating cannabis is less labour intensive than opium.”

Furthermore, poppies grown in the south have a higher opium yield than in the north, so another factor in the trend seen this year is simply the result of market conditions. With supply far exceeding demand, driving down farm-gate prices, coupled with drought and lucrative, lower-labor alternatives, it is only natural, whatever other factors are at work, that the cultivation has lessened in the north and east and increased in the south, where the crop produces a higher yield.

Instructively, while the amount of land used to cultivate opium decreased in 2008 by 19 percent, the estimated opium production was still only down 6 percent from last year due to the higher overall yield.

Contrary to what the New York Times suggests, the UNODC report gives no indication that the reason cultivation was cut back had anything whatsoever to do with any kind of direction or control over the crop by the Taliban.

The implications that the Taliban group itself grows the crop and is involved in trafficking are also misleading. According to the UNODC, the Taliban’s profits from the trade come principally from ushr, a 10 percent tax on all agricultural crops, and from offering protection for traffickers involved in moving the opium.

David Mansfield is an independent consultant who has advised governments and organizations such as the World Bank on policy and issues relating to the Afghan opium trade. Mr. Mansfield told Foreign Policy Journal, “Ushr is charged on all agricultural produce and traditionally goes to the mullah for his services to the community. There are reports that this is being absorbed by ‘the Taliban’ – which is not a monlith.” He added that another situation which occurs is half the tax going to the mullah and the other 5 percent to the Taliban.

Thomas Pietschmann, a research officer with the UNODC Statistics and Surveys Section who is credited in the 2008 report, told the Journal that an estimated $50-70 million is made by warlords and Taliban from the farmers. An additional $200-400 million is made from the traffickers. But, he explained, “We do not have any good idea of how this income is divided up between warlords and Taliban.”

Mr. Pietschmann also confirmed to the Journal that, while they did profit from ushr and from offering security, “We also have not seen strong indications of much direct exporting of opiates by the Taliban.”

In commentary attached to the UNODC report, Mr. Costa asks, “Who collects this money? Local strong men. In other words, by year end, war-lords, drug-lords and insurgents will have extracted almost half a billion dollars of tax revenue from drug farming, production and trafficking.”

Notably, Mr. Costa does not answer his question with “the Taliban”, but includes a much broader range of participants who profit from the trade that includes, but is in no way limited to, the Taliban. 


About the Author

Jeremy R. Hammond

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Jeremy R. Hammond
Jeremy R. Hammond is an independent political analyst and a recipient of the Project Censored Award for Outstanding Investigative Journalism. He is the founding editor of Foreign Policy Journal and the author of Ron Paul vs. Paul Krugman: Austrian vs. Keynesian economics in the financial crisis and The Rejection of Palestinian Self-Determination: The Struggle for Palestine and the Roots of the Israeli-Arab Conflict. His forthcoming book is on the contemporary U.S. role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.