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The Taliban’s opium poppy ban in 2000/2001 – lessons from history

May 23, 2015

Summary: The Taliban decision in 2000 to eradicate poppy was framed internally as a simple issue of religion. The real drivers probably owed more to a complex relationship with the international community, specifically the need for recognition and revenue.  An unhelpful mix of superficially bold pronouncements, behind-the-scenes pragmatism, poor strategic planning and confusion in roughly equal doses made this is a difficult process for the international community to follow.  At best they were treating a short-term symptom and not the long-term cause. The Taliban were able to communicate and coordinate an effective enforcement of their ban. But there were no indications that the Taliban had any understanding of the humanitarian problems being created by their actions or of any medium- to long-term planning for alternatives to the destruction of the livelihoods of thousands of Afghans.

Taliban poppy ban messageThis a short paper that I wrote at the end of 2013 about the Taliban’s approach to poppy eradication.  I had forgotten about it until I found myself discussing Afghanistan’s poppy cultivation in the Wikistrat community in some way a couple of weeks ago and it came back to me.  When discussing the issue of counter-narcotics, people still throw in comments to the effect that “well, the Taliban managed to ban it, so why can’t we?”.  Like most conflicted related issues, I found that it was not quite as simple as that…

During the end of their 1990s “reign” and when they wanted to, the Taliban could show impressive ability to make decisions and enforce them through harsh, blunt but effective measures. They had – and still have – an ability to frame issues in ways that resonate with key parts of the population.  Their use of Islam can be a flexible tool. But their approach to a poppy ban was highly spontaneous, leaving related issues unaddressed and other interlocutors wrong-footed.

In terms of “governance”, the Taliban demonstrated a very poor ability to plan for the medium- and the long-term or anticipate problems. They either missed the point of poppy eradication, were indifferent to (or uncomprehending of) any potential hardships or were not expecting the ban to last long – perhaps seeing it as a “tap” for turning on and off dependent on progress on other issues, particularly in relation to the international community.

From the Taliban`s perspective their engagement with the international community had not been rewarded: they saw a lack of bona fides and a failure to deliver on promises.

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poppy production

Background

In November 2013, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced that poppy cultivation across Afghanistan had increased for the third year running and that 2013’s increase of 49% in potential opium production compared to 2012 took Afghanistan’s production of poppy to yet another record level. Cultivation reportedly increased by 34% in Helmand province and 16% in Kandahar.

In all charts tracking opium cultivation in Afghanistan, amidst the broadly upward trend from the early 1990s to the present, one year is an anomaly – the plummeting production of 2001. This is attributed to a ban on opium poppy that Taliban leader Mullah Omar announced in 2000 and that the Taliban began to enforce later in that year.

The Taliban will still be a significant (and perhaps increasingly) political presence in the country, even if scale and scope remains unclear. However, we still struggle fully to understand the political, military, social and religious drivers underpinning the Taliban leadership. This paper offers some analysis on the issue of the Taliban and narcotics in order to see how this might inform our understanding of the Taliban’s future approach to local and national governance and engagement at the international level. The paper will look at the Taliban’s policy on narcotics in 2000, the context shaping the decision to ban cultivation, the manner and effectiveness of implementation and any potential lessons.

The Taliban in 2000: foreign and narcotics policy intertwined…

In the late 1990s, the Taliban were precariously in control of most of Afghanistan, including the capital, Kabul, but still in the midst of a swirling civil war. William Maley noted that the Taliban’s domestic policy and internal actions determined many of the foreign policy problems they would have (e.g. women’s rights, drugs, relationship with Bin Laden). He summarised the two main foreign policy goals of the Taliban at this time as the quest for international recognition and securing international funding, suggesting that the search for funding had three main components: engagement with international energy companies; developing transit trade (and smuggling) across Afghanistan and raising revenue from opium.

The narcotics issue created a tension between the Taliban’s foreign policy objectives of international recognition and fund-raising. During the mid- and late- 1990s, the Taliban had turned a blind eye – if not tacitly encouraged – the cultivation of poppy for the purposes of narcotics production. Although officially opposed to it, opium provided a valuable source of revenue – as it did for their military opponents in the Northern Alliance. The United Nations had been engaging with the Taliban, seeking limitations and reductions to opium production. Millions of dollars were offered for a range of development projects inside Afghanistan as an inducement but with limited results. Although the Taliban were superficially showing willing – announcing a ban on cultivation, use or trading of opium on 10 September 1997 and undertaking eradication in some districts under the gaze of the international community – the UNODC noted in 1999 commented that:

“…Taliban authorities have continued to make the actual enforcement of the ban on opium cultivation contingent on the provision of sufficient funds from the international development community to assist households in the transition from livelihoods dependent on opium poppy cultivation, to those based on legal sources of on-farm, off-farm and non-farm income.”

Omar announces the ban

However, on 27 February 2000, a Taliban fatwa announced a ban on the cultivation of poppy. Enforcement commenced in July of that year. Taliban leader Mullah Omar gave a firm re-statement of the Taliban’s position, declaring the use, cultivation and trafficking of poppy as “haram” – forbidden by the Koran. The reality was almost certainly more complex: many saw the rapid about-face by the Taliban as an attempt to gain recognition or funding from the international community or even a ploy to push up opium prices while trading off stockpiles. Furthermore, previous Taliban efforts to reduce cultivation reportedly being rebuffed, there appeared to be an element of credibility at stake for the Taliban leadership.

Implementation

The fatwa was disseminated through announcements on Radio Sharia. Reports describe a Taliban chain of command for this process based upon district-level monitoring shuras comprising the chief of police, the chief of the Vice and Virtue Department and local religious ulemas and tribal elders. The UNDCP noted that:

“The ban was implemented using a combination of persuasion, negotiation and enforcement, as required. The ban has been enforced in a relatively structured way with regional governors holding a series of meetings with tribal elder, provincial governors and district administrators to inform them of the ban. Religious scholars have also been enlisted to ensure the ban had the necessary religious sanction.”

The shuras were made directly responsible for ensuring local farmers complied with the fatwa and suffered identical punishment to those who transgressed. “Motivated by this threat, shuras complied with their mandate with swift, and often brutal, efficiency”.

Impact

poppyWith enforcement of the ban beginning from June 2000 and the next planting season meant for October/November 2000, it meant that the extent of the ban’s impact was only noticed in and around the Spring of 2001, when the next crop was due for harvesting. The Taliban’s dual approach, linking the ban to Islamic values while holding local enforcers to account appeared very successful, with broad compliance across all Taliban-held territory (parts of country held by the Northern Alliance continued production and trading). A UNDCP mission to Taliban-held Afghanistan in early 2001 concluded:

“Opium poppy is effectively eliminated in those parts of Taliban-controlled Afghanistan where it has been cultivated in recent years. The cause of the dramatic reduction in cultivation this year is the Taliban prohibition.”

Farrell and Thorne suggest that this ban

“…may have been the most effective drug control action of modern times”.

But this is only half of the story. The long-term sustainability of the ban will remain unknown, given that the US-led coalition brought the regime down later that year. Key indicators of problems with the ban – protest, armed resistance, migration of cultivation, increasing poverty and debt – that would have emerged in due course were mainly avoided or else were only just starting to emerge. Existing stockpiles likely postponed the impact of the ban. But reporting suggests that the enforcement of the ban was beginning, directly and indirectly, to create conditions of extreme hardship for the farmers (and many other participants in this narcotics industry), in particular a rural cycle of indebtedness. Afghanistan narcotics expert, David Mansfield, observed, in mid-2001:

“…without considerable development inputs and a framework of governance in Afghanistan the current low level of opium poppy cultivation cannot be sustained…the conditions that have made opium poppy such an attractive crop to households across Afghanistan remain intact.”

In essence, the poverty and uncertainty created by the rapid implementation of the ban without alternatives and coping mechanisms in place was recreating the factors that caused poppy cultivation in the first place, arguably making a return to poppy cultivation inevitable. This showed weaknesses within the Taliban’s approaches to planning, understanding and implementation. Consideration of the consequences of their actions was limited to the short-term: medium- and longer-term issues were either not addressed (through ignorance or disinterest) or left with the expectation that the international community would alleviate any adverse impact. From the Taliban`s perspective, they maintained that a deal had been struck with UN for $250 million of aid once the ban had been implemented, which was subsequently reneged upon by the UN:

“The Taliban were understandably angry: ‘We have fulfilled our obligations…We have done what needed to be done, putting our people and our farmers through immense difficulties. We expected to be rewarded for our actions’…”.

Mansfield suggested that the Taliban`s actions were little more than “…a more comprehensive and organised attempt to obtain assistance from the international community”. Overall, the criticism regularly levelled at the international community regarding their inability to fully comprehend the need for a longer-term strategy based on alternative livelihoods seems equally valid when applied to the Taliban in 2000:

“There is certainly little sense that the Taliban have considered the full implications of the ban and what is required to address the resource gap that the population is currently enduring due to the loss of opium”.

Conclusions

Some observations can be made regarding the Taliban behaviour at international, national and local levels. The forceful and impetuous nature of the ban`s enforcement took the international community by surprise twice – by doing it in the first place and by doing it speedily and effectively. The use of Islam to frame the message for Afghan farmers showed an understanding of effective ways to frame an issue to given audiences, while also showing indifference to (or ignorance of) medium and long-term implications and the needs of their countrymen. The Taliban showed levels of pragmatism and opportunism in the decision-making – in late September 2001, the regime threatened to lift the ban if the US were to attack Afghanistan. But they also demonstrated lack of bureaucratic capacity, analytical ability and strategic planning. No alternatives or assistance were made available to the population. Interestingly, in a small scale reprise in May 2012, the Taliban repeated the destruction of some poppy fields in eastern Afghanistan, citing Islam as the justification. No mention of alternative livelihoods or wider enforcement was made by the Taliban spokesman and this might as easily have been an incidence of a dispute between rival cultivators or some other, local, tactical reason.

The popularity of the Taliban is much lower now and an uncertain future is pushing Afghans again towards the cultivation of opium as an “insurance policy” – as demonstrated by the most recent UNODC cultivation figures. With poppy growing more entrenched than ever before and under the control of warlords across the country, it seems unlikely that a similar attempt at enforcing a ban at anything beyond the very local level would receive the same uniform levels of initial compliance.

In 2000 and 2001, the Taliban were able to enact coordinated, swift, blunt, but effective, measures of enforcement nationwide. They may struggle to reach this level of capability in relation to an unpopular measure now – even if they were again the dominant force in government. But the instinct to compel the population through edicts and harsh enforcement likely remains: the Taliban have shown no patterns of leniency in the intervening years. The ability to plan beyond the short-term looks similarly questionable, but the Taliban may now recognise such an approach to poppy to be risky, difficult, unpopular and unsustainable, particularly without significant compensations from the international community – something that the Taliban currently have little faith in.

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